Unto the End is like a side-scrolling Souls game, but bleaker
"Set aside any expectations or assumptions."
Until the End begins with a wonderfully intriguing splash screen. It's there for a long moment, as if it's very important what you're reading. And it reads:
"Until the End is different. Set aside any expectations or assumptions. Combat is deliberate. You can lose your sword, run out of supplies, and bleed to death. Reading, reacting, and staying calm are vital."
All those things sounded quite exciting to me. And it's no lie. Unto the End certainly isn't the platformer it looks like in the screenshots. It's slow, it's bleak, and it's bloody hard. It's more like a Souls game, side-on.
Let's break it down a bit. Unto the End is a game about being some kind of viking, or Norse warrior, or maybe a Celtic warrior - someone hairy and burly in a fairly frozen land - and venturing off into, well, it's not clear, and for some goal that's not clear either. The game begins with your wife and child stoically waving you farewell. There are no words. You just turn and go.
You run along sideways until you come upon a cave, fall into the cave, and then, I think, try and find your way back out of it. You never really know why. You move left and right, you jump, you climb a little - up to a slightly higher ledge - and you fight. The fighting's really interesting, and I know now what it reminds me of: Nidhogg, that raucous but precise two-player sword fighting game.
Like Nidhogg, you attack and block high and low, and there's a brief animation-tell before the strike for you to react to. And if you're skilled enough to chain a few blocks together, you'll throw your opponent off balance and open them for a counter-attack. But it's hard, as I hope you'll see in the video I've included, especially when enemy attack-speed increases.
It's doubly-hard when there's a lot going on. It's not uncommon for Unto the End to throw more than one enemy at you, and they persistently try to flank you, one on either side of you, which is a nightmare to deal with.
You do have a couple of other tricks up your sleeve though. You can shoulder-barge, which can knock an opponent over; you can dodge-roll, which can be used to roll through an enemy to their other side; and you can fling a dagger.
But even with those moves, you can never make Unto the End behave in a way it doesn't want to. And it doesn't want you to hack and slash. There's a bit of it when you're thinning weaker enemies from a group fight, but when you face the tougher enemies, they will punish wild attacking mercilessly.
The accuracy in movement is one of the things I love and hate about the game. The sword fighting looks simplistic but it's actually very convincing in a realism sense. I love the lifelike guards (hey, I briefly learnt to swordfight for a few months). You'll even drop your sword, normally by rolling into a block or a wall. And if you're attacking while holding a torch, you'll drop the torch when you need to perform a two-handed strike.
It might not sound like much but they're the touches of realism that make Unto the End feel different. Getting around the caves, and fighting, feels like an effort, as it would in real-life. You are not some perpetually-pumped action hero who can leap around tirelessly. Everything pulls into this idea. Take bleeding: it doesn't just magically clear up. If you take damage and you see blood trickling down your bushy beard, onto your top, you know you're in trouble. If you don't find a way to staunch it, you could slump to your knees and even die. And any momentary halt can leave you open to a fatal blow.
It can be really annoying. Even dodge-rolling has its downside, leaving you facing the other way for a beat before you turn to face your opponent. And Unto the End never goes easy on you. Even from the beginning, it's a bastard. I have died so many times I've lost count, both in combat and out.
The darkness, and the zoomed out view, don't help. I get that the game wants me to feel the weight of the dark in the caves, and to give a sense of perspective and how small I am. But when all of the action seems to take place at the bottom of my television, and I have to squint to see what's going on, it doesn't make much sense.
Fortunately, it's not a Roguelike. There's no penalty to dying that I've seen. The game fades out and in, and you're nearby ready to try again. Also, there are bonfires where you can rest and explore a thin crafting system, using the herbs and sticks and leather you've collected to brew health tonics and repair - or craft - armour for better protection.
Bonfires have another, more intriguing feature, too, whereby you can drift off into a kind of memory, either to practise your sparring skills, outside your idyllic rural home, or to return to a gentle campfire memory, with both wife and child. Again, there are no words, but it's the game's way of backfilling and slowly explaining what you're actually doing out there, I believe.
It's in these little moments I feel some hope for Unto the End, and that the bleak, impenetrable exterior can be thawed. I just have to get farther in. But, god, that's a daunting task. I'm not sure if I want to.