One of this year’s most eagerly anticipated indie titles, at least for us, was 2 Ton Studios’ Unto the End. Published by Big Sugar, it’s now out for PC and consoles, and we played it on a PlayStation 4 Pro.
Playing Unto the End felt like an amalgamation of three 2D classics I’m quite fond of: the swordplay from Barbarian, the art and lighting from Limbo and the visual storytelling from Another World. It’s an experience that doesn’t quite knock it all the way out of the park, but leaves a memorable impression nonetheless.
A lot of that is the immaculate audiovisual storytelling of the game. Sure, there’s a story in which “the Father” leaves home for a quest full of danger, but it’s all told visually rather than through voiceovers – even as he leaves his family. It took me back almost 30 years to Another World, where forming a friendship with an alien was also told visually without a need for anything to be explained textually.
The visuals in Unto the End also help tell the story, as even though they clearly scream “indie” with their minimalist look everything it wonderfully atmospheric, with plenty of changes in lighting and scenery for dramatic effect. On top of that, the music and sound effect tell a story all of their own as well, with music surging ever so slightly ahead of tense situations, characters producing sounds that either ease you or unnerve you and your auditory interactions with the terrain also adding to the overall experience.
While you’ll initially consider every character you encounter as hostile, it doesn’t take long before you realize this isn’t the case. Some can help you out, so even though many of them will want to hurt you it creates a sense of suspense and anticipation whenever you encounter someone or something. In some cases, you’ll learn, it can even be better to just run away completely – as battle is unforgiving characters upgrades are non-existent since you have all of your skills right from the start.
Combine that with a checkpoint system that’s not exactly generous and you’ve got a game that’s not as welcoming as its narrative approach would initially suggest. There’s a steep learning curve to the combat which at the end will no doubt make a second playthrough feel truly amazing, but it’s an uphill battle to get to that point and not everyone will have the patience and perseverance to get there.
Without an extensive system for character and weapon upgrades, much of the combat is skill-based, but ultimately the system isn’t as deep as the high difficulty level would suggest, which left me a bit unsatisfied as it felt I had mostly just learned a timing routine rather than a range of combat strategies for different enemy types. In many cases it’s a matter of blocking or evading and then striking – and rinse and repeat.
For the first two hours, combat detracts from the satisfying and almost magical moments where you solve puzzles to evade traps, bond with non-player characters and grow your own relationship with your protagonist against the backdrop of the family he left behind. The audiovisual delivery of the game adds to this as well, with interplay between light and dark adding even more charm to your interactions with the world and its characters.
I even encountered two scenarios where I had no choice but to restart the game completely from scratch – which was terribly frustrating. At first I thought that losing my weapon was part of the narrative and drama, but when it started feeling like a dead end it became a little disheartening. I had to go into the subsequent playthrough with a different mindset and be even more careful, but that did distract me from just enjoying the strong audiovisual narrative and the set pieces that feature some excellent platform-based puzzles as well.
At the end of the day I thought that Unto the End was great, but I wish that part of the experience didn’t feel like something I had to persevere through. That’s a rough edge I hope they’ll smooth over with an update, because this is a brilliant game people should want to play rather than be deterred from.