Unto another unfair death.
Unto The End by 2 Ton Studios is likely going to be a love it or hate it type of game. It isn’t the story that causes this, which is benign in a bland way. You play as a lost father trying to find his way home. What would cause Unto The End to be divisive is the gameplay. It’s a 2D weapon combat game. Enemies either attack high or low while you need to block those incoming attacks and respond with a high attack or low attack of your own. The tuning of the combat such as enemy damage numbers or how quickly the player can react to attacks along with a complete lack of any explanation of mechanics is what really makes the game difficult.
I didn't enjoy Unto The End, but before getting into the reasons why, there are a few highlights worth mentioning. Unto The End is a beautiful game. It is a 2D flat art style depicting frozen tundras and Nordic imagery. The developers even did something very clever with the lighting settings: increasing the brightness in the settings menu only brightens the areas that are supposed to be lit. The contrast between the bright areas and the deep shadows is preserved, and I’m honestly surprised other games don’t use the same system.
The daunting part of reviewing Unto The End is that it’s designed to be hard. It’s made to push back against the player. So when I say that I haven’t had a lot of fun with Unto The End, I don’t want people to think that it was too hard; I actually enjoy a challenge in games. I beat The Radiance in Hollow Knight, and I beat Demon’s Souls without summoning help. What I don’t like in Unto The End is that it doesn’t play fair. The player has a strict set of rules for combat that enemies don’t, so they aren’t constricted like the player is. Actions taken by the main character are slow with long ending lag, so making the correct button presses in combat is key. Recovering from enemy weapon strikes also takes a long time. It’s not the same for enemies. Opponents can be hit square in the face with a sword then immediately hit back. You’re not allowed to do anything close to the same thing.
The heaviness of your character’s movements is almost a strength of Unto The End. There might not be a weightier sword strike in a video game than this one. For a small amount of time it’s exhilarating. After that brief window, the inconsistencies start to come forward. Putting up your guard to block incoming blows is slow, but dropping your guard is immediate. It’s hard to wrap my head around the difference in speed of certain actions. I either needed my character to be slow constantly or fast constantly, but they switch between the two. It’s hard to get a feel for how combat should work because of this.
The inconsistency in character speed is exacerbated by the way damage affects the main character. Combat is traumatizing, with battle taking a physical toll that affects you long after that fight. Scraping through by the skin of your teeth will exhaust then eventually kill the player character via bleeding out if they don’t have a healing tonic or find a bonfire quickly. An exhausted adventurer will stumble around, act slower, or fall to the ground. My character has fallen off a ladder from exhaustion once after a particularly close fight. It’s honestly a system that I would love if it didn’t mean that not healing before another fight meant almost certain death. Even successfully clearing a fight while blocking all the attacks affects your character. I’m pretty sure there is a type of stamina system, but I can’t be sure since the game doesn’t give the player any information about it. The chances to heal are incredibly rare. From the beginning of the game to the end I found about five bonfires with some of those being hidden. The last stretch of the game has four fights in a row without a chance to heal or craft more healing tonics.
The rules of combat that govern how the player fights are flexible in a bad way. Everything works until it doesn’t. For instance, the game says that blocking an attack would prevent damage, and while this is true for the most part, sometimes blocking low when an enemy attacked low would still damage my character. There is one enemy that has an unblockable attack—it’s the final boss and is some nonsense that comes out of nowhere—but this wasn’t that enemy. The game says that some enemies will string together attacks that if all of them are blocked, the player would get a chance to do damage. This is true until it isn’t. I’ve had encounters where I’ve blocked a string of attacks that usually let me attack in that manner, but the enemy would block my strike anyway. I know these encounters are acting weird because I’ve done them dozens of times; Unto The End is a highly repetitive game. The player character often dies in one hit and enemies have large health pools, so I’ve had plenty of time to master certain fights.
My biggest problem is that 2 Ton Studios painted themselves into a corner. What is equivalent to a starting tutorial area features platforming deaths that can only be prevented by having died there once. The only saving grace of those is that they have lessons tied to them. One death was about jumping at the last possible second and another was to reinforce not panic rolling. Fight difficulty escalates very quickly in this area, too. The second combat encounter of the game is a fight against two enemies. When the earliest area in the game features gank fights and trial-and-error deaths, where does a development team go to make their game harder?
2 Ton Studios decided on more surprising trial-and-error deaths to make the platforming sections more difficult. Unto The End is a gorgeous game that wastes that style on massive amounts of blank space on the screen and foreground clutter. So many things are hidden by foreground objects, including traversal critical ones. Dungeons devolve into walking around small corridors while the Switch screen is 80% unused space.
To make the fights more difficult, 2 Ton Studios started obfuscating whether an enemy would attack high or low. Several enemies have attacks that look the exact same whether they will hit high or low, especially in handheld mode. The fight that I spent the longest on is a sequence of two fights between a one-armed lantern carrier and then an older fighter with a long staff. I could beat the lantern carrier fairly consistently, but it was impossible to tell whether the older fighter would attack high or low. Instead of the fight centering around the “read-react combat” the developers intended for the game, it was a fight about guessing where the enemy would hit you. The only way I was able to pass that fight was by rolling around like mad, a strategy the game expressly tried to teach me not to do earlier.
I understand why someone would enjoy Unto The End. I’m sure that some players out there like being kicked in the teeth with their hands tied behind their back. That, personally, sounds like a bad time, much like Unto The End wasn’t a good time. If I wanted to play a game that didn’t function as described, I would at least play a game that kind of wanted me to like it.