Much like the year 2020, Unto The End seemed easy enough from the start but quickly and violently turned into a veritable death march that provided no shortage of frustration. Unlike this plague-ridden year, however, I began to fall in love with the nearly absent interface, pared down upgrades and inventory, and surprisingly complex combat. What started as a chore ended as one of the more gratifying gaming experiences of the year for me, and I would/will do it all again.
2 Ton Studios’ 2D adventure Unto The End has players take up the mantle of a simple Scottish(?) father who for all intents and purposes just wants to make it home in time for the holidays. Having fallen through a thin patch of ice and down into a sprawling cavern, our fur-cloaked hero must gather scant supplies, maneuver treacherous terrain, and either battle or barter with the ghoulish denizens that stalk the depths. Given the complete absence of dialogue save for a few grunts and snarls, Unto The End masterfully wove a decently intricate (if not unique) plot through NPC interactions and player decisions. Sure, you could attack any beast on sight, but why not try to reason with it first since you’re shit at combat and low on health? Through this feature the game tries to promote critical thinking and peaceful problem solving when possible, but never spoils the fun by telling you how. Unto The End also features more than one ending, and I somehow managed to stumble upon the most depressing outcome possible.
If pacifism isn’t an option, and it oftentimes isn’t, players must navigate the astonishingly complex combat system to slaughter those who would not accept meager gifts in exchange for safe passage. In addition to a high and low attack, players can directionally block, duck, roll, and jump over incoming attacks, and also counter-attack, feint, and shoulder check enemies to break through their defenses. Your ranged attack is limited to a single bone dagger that can stagger enemies and provide a melee window, but you may also be lucky enough to occasionally find a single-use spear that deals quite a bit of damage. Timing and mastery of the controls are key to survival (button mashing will get you nowhere), and it was not uncommon for me to die half a dozen times over the same encounter before finding the perfect combination for a particular combatant. It’s also possible to permanently lose your sword if you happen to drop it and forget to pick it back up. Given the complexity of the combat mechanics, running through the tutorial at any fireplace is an absolute must for new players.
In addition to combat, players must platform with caution as they leap across chasms, climb steep ledges, and dodge roll through numerous traps. The latter proved a bit of a nuisance and I’m comfortable faulting the developers for several boobytraps that felt a bit cheap given the lack of experience and glaring visual indicators. I understand they may have been trying to reinforce a cautious headspace, but I’m never one to take my time and stroll through a dungeon.
As I mentioned previously, Unto The End emphasizes a pared down interface with few tips and even fewer indicators. The only way to measure your health is to gauge how much blood is pouring down the front of your character, and the lack of any map or progression bar leaves you in the dark (both metaphorically and literally) for the entire journey. If you’re lucky enough to gather the requisite amount of materials, you can upgrade your armor to a limited degree and craft one health refill while resting at fireplaces, but I stress luck because gathering crafting materials is literally akin to groping blindly at the ground until you happen upon something. Nothing lights up to indicate it can or should be collected, and many of the items are tucked away in the dark recesses of the map. Having come from a rather long binge with Cyberpunk 2077, I found the lack of on-screen stats horribly frustrating at first, but as with the rest of the game it truly was the right design choice for the atmosphere Unto The End cultivated.
This game’s genius truly lies in just how unassuming it is. At first glance you could look at this and see a walking simulator mixed with hack and slash combat, and little to nothing else. But scratch that snowy surface and you’ll find a plethora of tiny details that are only laid bare through personal exploration (and no, I’m not talking about your changing bodies). You never see their face in any detail, yet the main character’s pain, strife, and sorrow were all telegraphed in an artfully subtle way. He can vomit if he uses too many healing herbs, he gasps and falls down momentarily if he bleeds too much, and he honors the dead with a solemn demeanor befitting a simple father-turned-adventurer. It was nuanced storytelling at its finest.
The visual and audio effects were the heavy-hitting finishing touches that Unto The End needed to wrap up the whole experience. While most of the game is spent wandering through dark caves, the fore- and background set pieces and camera panning worked together in unison and never felt disjointed. The visual design is also worth taking note of, and progression could be matched to the ever-changing environment as I trekked through snow, burnt villages, and crystal caverns. The sound effects mimic the simplified graphics in that they weren’t entirely numerous but were of high quality and executed with precision, and the soundtrack is similarly situated with a seamless mix that reflects the player’s current location.
Unto The End crashed on me twice at random intervals throughout the journey, but the only other issues I noticed were slight delays in some NPC animations. Otherwise, the game ran extremely smooth and never left me trapped in a scenario where I couldn’t progress or at least commit seppuku and start over from the last checkpoint.
From start to finish, Unto The End was a bleak and unforgiving affair that I could not put down for the life of me. It was frustrating, grueling, and above all absolutely depressing, but I will run through it again at least a few more times because it was entirely captivating. A couple of crashes and a handful of cheap deaths (alongside my crippling fear to call anything perfect) are the only downsides to an otherwise phenomenal adventure.