I have just emerged from a pitch-black cave into a maelstrom of wind and snow. My character pants heavily, and I direct his trudging middle-aged body towards a settlement under attack. Barely thinking, I lunge at what looks like the aggressor, trading a series of tense, clanging blows, before inflicting a desperate and final life-sapping slash. Just ahead, an inhabitant comforts somebody close to death; another, in a shelter, mourns the passing of a friend. I hesitantly present a peace offering, unsure how they’ll react, and they graciously hold out a hand in return. I enjoy the scene’s stillness; this connection feels like it offers greater respite than the fire which burns next to us.
All told, the sequence barely lasts five minutes but it epitomizes the best of Unto The End, released last week on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Google Stadia, and PC. Set in a bleak wilderness, its broad-shouldered protagonist must traverse a series of lovingly rendered but unforgiving two-dimensional caves and mountains in order to be reunited with his wife and child. The journey, however, involves not only familiar video game verbs—hack, slash, jump, and run—but rarer interactions of offer and show. This means that some (but not all) meetings with non-playable characters can be navigated with items such as a bundle of medicinal herbs rather than the tip of a sword; the approach is just as thrilling and arguably more rewarding.
This makes Unto The End something of a “first contact” game, not entirely dissimilar to Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 movie Arrival. A lot of my time is spent figuring out how best to communicate with those whom I don’t share a language. The resulting encounters are often tentative, a matter of sussing one another out before engaging in whatever non-verbal action each of us deems appropriate (or perhaps most conducive to our own survival). Not knowing how these engagements will ensue imbues them with a fizzing, high-stakes energy, and goes a long way to making the game feel alive. It helps that those who populate Unto The End are often engaging in ritualistic behavior; their existence feels like it stretches beyond my chance meeting with them.
But the design of the non-playable characters coupled with the “first contact” element of the game comes with colonial baggage. They’re depicted as shaggy, horn-headed non-humans who live in abodes reminiscent of indigenous arctic communities. It’s worth stressing that I’m unequivocally on their turf—an invader—in what the game reveals to be a mythological but realistically contested landscape. As I cut through them, bone-crunching audio and all, I wonder how it might feel if these creatures were, in fact, the people they seem to be modelled on. I suspect Unto The End would feel more uncomfortable than it ultimately does.
When I secure non-violent passage through their territory, I’m filled with a sudden and intense relief because the alternative is such a slog. Combat pivots around what Unto The End’s makers describe as a “read-react” system, which sounds simple and fair, but is often maddeningly difficult. Whoever I’m facing foreshadows their hit with a subtle backlift, either high or low. As this happens, I press up or down on the analogue stick to meet and hopefully block their strike; if I block a combo successfully, I’ll break their guard which allows me to take a free swing. These basics are rounded out by flourishes including a shoulder charge (useful) and feint (superfluous).
Even throughout early portions of the game, the combat is challenging. Despite a preliminary hint from the game that “staying calm” is crucial, my skirmishes turn out to be a blur of rolls, last-second parries, and opportunistic stabs. This works to a point (albeit still accompanied by frequent death) but as I progress, enemies quicken and become better armored; my panicked approach is quickly insufficient. I understand what Unto The End is aiming for; the protagonist might appear big and strong but he’s a farmer, not a warrior; these cut-throat fights are intended to emphasize his vulnerability, struggle, and the ultimate harshness of this world. Yes, the combat amplifies these aspects of the story but it ends up frustrating the broader telling; battles, unfortunately, become a bottleneck for progression.
An obvious point of comparison is the notoriously difficult Dark Souls series. These games present fights which feel close to insurmountable but, crucially, provide opportunities within twisting multi-pathed worlds for the player to hone their skills (while also conveniently earning souls to upgrade their character). The linearity of Unto The End offers no such flexibility; there are mercilessly few low-level grunts with whom to gain a foothold in the combat system. Training actually takes place at the souls-like bonfires peppered throughout the wintry environment. I can instruct my burly protagonist to slip into a convenient sepia-hued memory of a sparring session with his wife. But aside from the first novel occurrence, I feel little reason to return, instead throwing myself back into the immediate and unforgiving action.
This is partly because the Unto The End puts so much weight on the forward momentum of its narrative, relayed in austere style without any dialogue, HUD, and very little text. But the more I play, the more I think the best of the game doesn’t resonate harmoniously with its single-track method of storytelling. It’s not just that the punishing combat impedes the actual thrust; it’s that the game gives you wonderfully distinct opportunities to interact with the world differently, but these don’t have enough room to breathe. Alongside the chance to offer gifts and trade, I can also frantically run away. On the one hand, I enjoy that experimentation usually hangs on a knife edge of survival; on the other, I wish there was more opportunity to be playful with these systems in this overwhelmingly stoic and serious-minded world; the balance is just a touch off.
What I will say is that the game’s uncompromising sensibility shines brightly at its conclusion. I won’t spoil the exact details but it’s a masterclass in unceremonious restraint which lands harder than any grandstanding finish. Unto The End understands that terrible things happen and the world often just keeps moving. This doesn’t necessarily undermine the tribulations of its bearded character—his body will carry the violence of this passage for a long time to come—nor does it diminish my own frustrations. After everything, I’m left with the sound of his heavy exhales in the fading light of this harsh and snowy setting; foregoing any kind of traditional pay-off feels like the perfect way to end this story, almost making the gruelling journey worth it.