Developed by 2 Ton Studios, Unto the End proved to be an engaging, beautiful, and brutal experience from beginning to end. It places players in the shoes of a sword-wielding hunter in his frantic effort to return to his family after a hunt gone wrong. In this journey, he must overcome all odds with the use of his sword, bone dagger, and the art of trade. The game features clean, methodical combat along with light platforming elements. Fittingly, it does not hold your hand, expecting players to figure everything out on their own.
Story: The Rough Way Home
For a game with no dialogue whatsoever, Unto the End effectively communicates everything it needs to: your hunt went wrong, and you now have to find a new way home. However, there are many a creature along the new path with different ideas. And… that’s it; short and to the point. Needless to say, storytelling isn’t the main focus of the game. It does place a toll on its replayability, though, since you get to experience almost everything within a single playthrough.
Of course, that’s not to disregard the subtle world-building and storytelling done through clever environmental design. As I played the game, my understanding of each of the species’ general motives slowly grew. Differentiating between those who were hell-bent on conquest versus those who were just territorial could be done intuitively. This hand-crafted “show, don’t tell” approach really helped in building the game’s atmosphere; it highlighted the absurdly overwhelming odds the hunter faced for a chance at seeing his family again. All in all, the game’s world is very simple, yet it manages to be captivating.
Gameplay: Souls Who?
If there’s one guarantee about anyone’s experience with this game, it’s that you will fail. At least once, but probably a lot more. Unto the End is extremely difficult, enemies can kill you in just a few hits, armor wears out, and the environments are hosts to deadly traps. Importantly, the difficulty was never unfair; every situation was manageable despite its steep learning curve. Nonetheless, I can easily see this becoming a source of frustration for some, especially since there’s no effective way to alter the difficulty. (There was an option to change combat speed from “default” to “assist,” but I saw no noticeable difference between the two.) Conversely, this game is perfect for those who enjoy pain, like fans of Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy. Thus, this aspect of the game will undoubtedly be the deciding factor in many people’s experiences.
The combat system is simple and deliberate: attacks and parries can be low or high, and you can dodge-roll, throw your dagger, and shoulder check to get the best of your enemies. Knowing this, it is up to players to figure out the best way to implement these against the various enemies, and that’s where it gets tough. Unto the End’s combat punishes button mashing and rewards patience and careful observation. Here, quick reflexes and learning enemy attack patterns are key to success. Notably, enemy AI was smart. Melee attackers always attempted to surround me, and ranged enemies stopped attacking when an ally was in the way.
The unique, handcrafted nature of every encounter forced me to approach each one strategically. I realized that some enemy attacks could disarm me if I blocked them and that standing back up after a dodge-roll didn’t allow for quick retaliation. Additionally, torches are dropped for combat, so underground sections requiring them for visibility brought another layer of depth to combat. If enemies pushed me too far from the dropped torch, I was completely blind. Controls were nicely responsive too, so every time I died, I knew exactly where I messed up. Although the difficulty could be frustrating at times, finally defeating “that one boss” proved extremely rewarding.
The potential problem was that the game never really teaches combat mechanics. That is unless you go looking for them. If you don’t find and complete the “sparring practice” tutorial at the first campfire you find, you may go into combat with no clue of what you’re getting into. Presumably, most players will run across the combat tutorial while exploring the options at the campfire. However, the chance of missing it is still there. It is also possible to pick up the most basic inputs in the pause menu.
Items and Other Mechanics
Unto the End has a simple yet effective loot system. Scavenging in busy-looking environments and looting dead bodies often yielded leather, sticks, bones, or herbs. All of these can be traded for useful items on certain occasions, though only if players can successfully identify them. Here, the game’s lack of communication is also a problem since it never tells you that trading is even possible. Discovering the trading system comes down to catching certain visual cues, such as a motionless NPC holding out their hand. It can be argued that this is a good system that rewards the keen observer. However, the fact that some of the items are vital for progression means that it’s possible to get stuck in an area that shouldn’t really be difficult.
Leather, sticks, and bones were primarily used for armor upgrades, which resulted in slight though satisfying visual changes in the character model. The armor tends to break, forcing the usage of precious resources to repair it before upgrading it. I also noticed that I had to repeatedly have to craft the first armor upgrade, though it was never clear whether this was a bug or a feature.
The herbs were used for crafting tonics at campfires and to slow bleeding; an effect sometimes contracted after being hit by an enemy. It made combat feel more desperate and sluggish, caused a periodic animation where the hunter kneeled in near-defeat and eventually death. Personally, I found it both immersive and annoying. On the one hand, it made sense that the hunter wasn’t happily skipping away after taking a spear to the gut. On the other, it diminished the sense of accomplishment after defeating a tough foe, instead of giving urgency to find the next campfire to heal.
Graphics and Audio: Beautiful and Efficient
Like so many other things in the game, visuals and sound were very simple. Nonetheless, I felt that they did an amazing job in setting a grim, hopeless mood. Simultaneously, they made the world feel alive: things happened off-screen, and their feedback allowed me to deduct what happened. The art is very minimalistic, layering simple but beautiful 2D images to give a 3D-esque effect. Its color pallet allows important components to stand out while allowing traps and secrets to hide in plain sight. Additionally, there was a great implementation of monochromatic spectrums to give a sense of depth. While traversing the game’s environments, I happily took in the blood vividly contrasting with snow in the ground, flickering torchlight in caves, and stunning backdrops.
Unto the End is almost completely lacking in music. Instead, its audio mostly consists of situational sound effects, like grunts and sword clangs during combat and echoey “cave sounds” underground. Surprisingly, the world didn’t feel dead or dull as a result of this. In fact, this choice did wonders for the game’s atmosphere and gave auditory information that helped me decide my next move. I distinctly remember walking through a cave and hearing a deep, powerful roar in the distance. I was consequently on the edge of my seat, knowing that I wasn’t alone within that dark, mysterious cave.
Unto the End was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a review code provided by Big Sugar.