What we have here today is a game that is purposely difficult. One that straight up tells you that it’s difficult when you select a new game. Combat is methodical, relying on reading your enemy. Healing is done by resting at bonfires found throughout the world.
This game is inviting an obvious comparison. You know it, I know it. But much like this game is an intentional challenge for the player, I’m going to make this review an intentional challenge for my writing skills.
So lets discuss this game without stating the obvious. Without once mentioning the title this game is riffing on. A game that, when using synonyms, comes out something like Dim Spirits.
Developed by 2 Ton Studios and published by Big Sugar, Unto the End was released on December 9th, 2020, for PC, Stadia, PS4, and Xbox One, with a Switch release coming December 17th. The PC version was played for this review.
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Die Enough
Unto the End puts the player in the shoes of a viking, leaving his presumed family to adventure through mountains and caves for…reasons. It’s never explicitly stated; the viking just kind of falls into a cave system and starts killing monsters.
Really, there isn’t a story here. You won’t be finding much in the way of environmental clues or hidden manuscripts to infer any kind of plot. You’re a viking, you’re in a cave…go kill things.
2 Ton seemingly forewent writing any kind of story to focus entirely on the gameplay here, specifically the combat system. Combat is slow and methodical, requiring reading the opponent and waiting for an opening to strike.
…and I dreaded every time combat made an appearance.
To start off, you have a decent loadout of attacks and blocks at your disposal. The viking can attack high or low in a three-hit chain, while also being able to block high or low at a press of the D-Pad. He can dodge roll or simply duck, throw a singular knife from a distance (which must be picked back up to use again), or shoulder-check an enemy to knock them off their feet. Hell, he can feint an attack to make an enemy flinch, opening them up to a strike.
Enemy encounters sound easy enough on paper: watch your opponents for tells, block incoming attacks, and strike back when an opening appears. Openings are typically the opposite of their last attack: if they attacked high, you strike back low. In practice, however, nearly every fight in Unto the End is a frustrating experience.
While enemies do telegraph their attacks, they only do so for a split second, requiring quick reflexes to perform a successful block. They can also chain together as many attacks as they damn well wish before an opening appears, often requiring long sequences of perfect reads to survive and strike back.
None of this would be too tough if it wasn’t for the fact that the viking’s armor wasn’t seemingly made from wet paper. Enemies can often kill you in a single hit, and if they don’t they’ll often leave you bleeding – a status that causes the viking to just stop fighting at random and will kill him if not healed. If you miss blocking a single attack in a fight, you may as well just give up and try again.
The other skills in your arsenal seem like they may give you an advantage, but the game just won’t let you have that either. Shoulder-checking? Enemies will magically dodge it 90% of the time. Feinting? Never worked for me once, and usually just opened me up to taking a spear to the gut. Rolling out of the way? Hope you don’t hit a wall or get touched by an enemy, otherwise you’ll drop your sword, leaving you well and truly screwed.
The only realiable way to beat an enemy is to sit there, perfectly block every attack they send at you, strike back during a small opening, and repeat. And even that’s not actually reliable, as some enemies have attacks that are unblockable. If you’re lucky, these attacks will just kill you and let you start over. If not, they’ll knock your sword out of your hands, letting you suffer a bit before you inevitably die.
The only consolation here is that checkpoints are relatively lenient. There’s typically one right before every single fight, so you can repeatedly throw yourself at the enemy until you finally figure out how to beat them. And whenever I finally did beat an enemy, there was no sense of relief, just dread at the thought of the next encounter, the next ten minutes of dying over and over.
Breaking up the fights is some platforming, but even here you’re not safe. Platforming screens often contain instant death traps, some of which aren’t even telegraphed. For those that are, there’s no real way to predict what kind of trap will be activated, so you’ll probably die to it the first time anyways.
I’m completely convinced that Unto the End is not a game-that-shall-not-be-named-in-this-article-like. Rather, it’s a kaizo game.
I became convinced of this during one platforming screen requiring me to jump over a couple pits. After the first jump, a boulder dropped in from the top of the screen, killing me. Cool then, next attempt I jump and then immediately roll forward…directly into the path of another falling boulder. Dead. Third time: jump, roll, immediately move back a bit, and I dodge both boulders…only to be killed by a piece of one of the boulders that broke off after hitting the ground.
This isn’t “challenging skill-based gameplay.” This is a slower-paced kaizo game, solely built to make the player suffer. A game that requires you to just die, over and over and over, until you figure out the exact inputs the developers are expecting of you in order to survive.
Who Needs To See Anyways
I’ll give the game this: most of the time, Unto the End looks attractive, in a minimalistic way. That is, when you’re able to actually see the game.
The environments you find yourself treking through look great, despite mostly being snow mountains or dark caves. The usage of lighting effects really brings some of these areas to life. The characters also animate incredibly well – something practically necessary, since the gameplay revolves completely around reading enemy animations.
However, there’s way too many times where it’s impossible to see anything. Journeying through cave systems, you’ll often find yourself in areas with nothing but a handheld torch to light up what’s around you…and that ain’t much. Staring at a mostly black screen with a small point of light around the character isn’t my definition of fun…and god forbid a fight takes place in these areas.
Also, despite being the furthest thing from a graphically intensive game, Unto the End appears to be locked at a low framerate on PC. Despite Steam’s frame counter registering enough FPS to melt my eyes, the game always looked like it was running at 30FPS.
There isn’t much to say about the sound work here. It’s mostly atmospheric effects – sounds of the viking’s breathing, the crunch of snow under his feet, the shrieks of approaching enemies. It all fits the mood here, but I wouldn’t call any of it memorable.
Feel the Rage in your Veins
Look, I’m fine with difficult games. The early Ys titles are some of my favorites, I love the Fire Emblem franchise, and I enjoyed the time I put into titles like Code Vein. In those games, though, at least it feels like you have a fighting chance, that if you screw up and die, it was completely your fault.
Unto the End just wants to punish the player. It feels like it went too far off the deep end of “purposefully difficult game” and ended up in kaizo territory. The challenge here isn’t fun, it’s just annoying.
There’s bound to be some gamers who will get a kick out of this, though. The more masochistic types, the ones who likely read through all of the above and are ready to type “Just get good, bro” down in the comments.
I “got good” for Ys. I did so for Fire Emblem games. Hell, I spent time “getting good” to finally beat Through the Fire in Flames on Expert in Guitar Hero III, back when that was something to be proud of. The thing is, all of those games felt rewarding to “get good” at. Unto the End is just an exercise in frustration, where the only thing “getting good” gets you is an even more infuriating fight ahead of you.
Review copy provided by 2 Ton Studios for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.