Preview: Until Then

5 Feb 2024

Sometimes being a video game reviewer is pretty fun. I mean, no matter what the situation is, it’s a job; you are primarily judged by the quality of your work and your dedication to your craft. But sometimes you’re playing new games well before other people get to, and sometimes those games are just really good. It’s a reason to be excited. Sometimes you stumble into a game that you never would have realized existed but is just an awesome example of the form, something everyone should play and try out.

And sometimes… sometimes it is very, very not fun. Sometimes you’re handed a game that you just play and the whole time you feel something churning in your insides about “oh, this is not landing” and you really, really don’t want that to be your takeaway. But as mentioned before, your obligation is to do your job well no matter what, and at the end of the day sometimes that’s the hardest part of the whole operation. Whether you want things to be like that or not.

So with that in mind… let’s talk about Until Then. Because I have things to say.

Until Whatever

It’s always hard to post about a demo to a longer narrative adventure, simply because it is eminently possible for a game that’s primarily about the story to take a while to get going. I even reviewed a visual novel where I explicitly said that if I had reviewed the game based on the first half, I would have had nothing nice to say… but it redeemed itself in the back half. Sadly, what I have to judge the game on is what the preview was about, and… yeah.

The simple version of this demo is that high school student Mark does nothing of interest and whines his way through high school in a Phillipines-inspired slice of nothingness.

Obviously, that sounds harsh, but the problem here is that it really is one of the most tedious introductory sections I have played in a video game. Mark wakes up and he finds out that he was rejected from a piano program, which… I guess is supposed to be a big deal for him? I say that I guess because he literally never brings it up in any conversation, he doesn’t seem depressed about it, he doesn’t seem depressed about anything. The story goes to pains to tell us that he’s kind of a slacker with a decent head, but it’s also not about that, because… Mark’s life, as far as we can see, is fine.

Like, Mark isn’t apparently struggling in school. The biggest arc we see him go through is kind of finding a girl a little attractive, finding that she has a boyfriend, and being mildly disappointed in a way that doesn’t really shake him out of his stride. His life is going fine. He’s got plenty of friends, and while they seem to be kind of standard jackass teenagers they’re not awful or abusive. He’s fine. There is nothing compelling or engaging about him. Nothing indicates that he’s ashamed about playing the piano or hiding it from his friends, it’s just… a completely banal hobby in a life of completely banal hobbies.

And it feels really bad dinging it, because this is very evidently the work of people who find this very emotional.

It’s clear through playing that this is coming from people who see themselves in this life, who want to express their experience, a sense of ennui and longing for a simpler time of just texting people about high school drama that seemed important at the time but really never meant anything. On some level, I get that. While I am far too old to really put much thought into high school, I do vaguely remember what it felt like to navigate the dramas and that sense of a world on the cusp of things happening.

But Mark’s life is… normal. Not interesting. It’s not just that this wasn’t my personal experience, which was far more isolated and lonely and emotional; it’s that Mark doesn’t want anything in the way that lots of teenagers don’t really want anything. Everything in the demo shows Mark having a life that is basically fine, a life where nothing requires his attention or emotional vigilance so he can pour all of it into frivolity. It’s clear that there’s the background of tragedies and bad things happening around him, but all of that feels like lore. Background elements, not really informing more than momentary interest from Mark’s own viewpoint.

My theory here is that this is, very specifically, a preamble meant to focus on the mundane daily existence before Something Changes, and there are hints about inconsistent memories and weird flashes of recollections that can’t be real. But to be generous, that hinting at a deeper mystery and conflict takes up… maybe five percent of this demo’s runtime. I have to imagine that this is a more-or-less unedited early portion of the game, but this demo does not make me curious about the mystery or the characters. More than anything, it feels like a bunch of actual high schoolers trying to convince me that something utterly immaterial is actually really important while I fail to feign interest.

Until However

One thing that I frequently say is that while good gameplay cannot make up for an awful narrative, it can sometimes overshadow it. Perhaps unfortunately, Until Then is very explicitly a narrative adventure, which means that it has minimal actual gameplay. Even more unfortunately, the gameplay on display here is… not very good within that framework.

Like, you get a sense of what’s coming when you first click start. It sets off Mark’s alarm clock to wake him up. That’s cute. And nothing happens. So you press it a few more times, and the alarm goes off more times. And you have to keep pressing it, and keep pressing it, and while there is some art and progression it is painfully slow. Like, this sequence to start the game feels like it took about a minute of clicking “start” over and over, and there is no reason – none whatsoever – that the same meaning and experience could not be compressed down to a quarter of the time. It crosses the line from “making a point with repetition” to “all right, now I’m actively annoyed.”

The whole game is like this. You have a number of lengthy text conversations in which you select one of two responses for Mark. Then you have to hold spacebar to have him type out the message, and sometimes he will delete the message and rewrite it. Then you have to wait for the next message to come up. And the next message. And then you’ll have to hold spacebar to type another message, and the whole thing takes way more time than is necessary.

Chunks of the game are about scrolling through Mark’s social media feed, liking things, and commenting on them. Except you can only comment on some of them. Which ones? How do you know? Doesn’t matter. Will it have an impact? I don’t know, dude, probably, but I feel like I play video games to not be scrolling on Twitter? This doesn’t make me engaged, it makes me annoyed. You are slowing the game down and your game is already slow. I don’t feel like I’m getting inside your character’s shoes, I feel like I’m being forced to read the Facebook feed of someone I neither know nor care about.

Occasionally you do actually have some minigames. These are… also rough, sadly. Like, there’s one the preview guide specifically called out as being tricky, but it’s tricky because you didn’t give me a tutorial, you threw me into it and I don’t know what I’m doing or what the mechanics are supposed to be. It’s a rare narrative game where the mechanics actually feel like they hold the game back, but here we are.

Until Which

I’ve been kind of harsh up to this point, but I want to make it clear that the game looks gorgeous. The sprite work is marvelously detailed, animations are elaborate, the 3D backgrounds work really well, smooth scrolling, every scene is bursting with visual character. This also extends to the sound; the music is sparse but well-used, the sound effects are on-point and atmospheric, and so on.

Unfortunately, as mentioned several times, this is a game based around its narrative, and several parts of the writing are… rough. Some things feel like they’re the result of inexpert localization (like people repeatedly saying “bestfriend” instead of parsing it out as two separate words) and other things just feel like very weird conversational tics.

But other times it just feels like we’re constantly getting half of the story. Like, several characters repeat inside jokes to one another. This convinces me that these are inside jokes, but… I barely understand what the joke is supposed to be. And sure, high school friends would not explain their jokes for an audience, but this is one of those places where breaking the fourth wall would pretty much glide effortlessly off their back. “That’s Cathy, she dated a guy she’s ashamed of back in the day, we still tease her about it, she likes girls now” would do much more than the game’s current state of feeling like I am constantly missing a reference.

There was also at least one bug wherein I got stuck inside of a little interactive scene at the school bulletin board with no clear way to get out of it. I had to restart for that one. Maybe I just missed something.

Until Never

I really went into Until Then wanting to like it. There’s no part of this game that feels cynical, to be fair; I am certain that the people who made this game did so because they genuinely want it to be good. And maybe the game really blossoms in the back half. Maybe this is an introduction to the game that is actually just slow and not terribly indicative of the overall product.

But… why would you make this your demo, in that case? Why would you choose to put this forward as indicative of the game and why people should play it. This did not make me want to play the full game and learn about these characters and this world. This at most made me feel bad that I was playing something clearly heartfelt but just not good.

I appreciate that the designers here were working on sharing a personal story, and I commend them for that. The artistic direction is top-notch. But as a preview experience this left me bored and unengaged, not eager to see what more was coming around the bend. I hope the full game makes some changes to deliver something more interesting faster… but based on this preview, it’s hard to really give it a recommendation.

Preview code provided by Maximum Entertainment for purposes of evaluation. All screenshots courtesy of Maximum Entertainment.