Until Then Review — A Brilliant Tale, When it Stays in the Right Dimension

7.8/10

Though the game gets lost from its core story and themes at times, that core story and those themes are so powerful that it is more than made up for. In combination with stellar art, music, and writing, Until Then is a must-play for patient gamers in the mood for something emotionally gutting. Though, you will have to put up with some boring distractions.

I don’t tend to have much trouble generating reviews for this site. I’m an analytical person by nature, and “media analysis” would have to make it into my personal “top 5 things I’m into that my friends and family wish I wasn’t.” I know how to talk about something, how to compare it, how to investigate it, in a way that allows me to critique it. We don’t have many dedicated followers of our reviews here on EIP, but I like to think that those who do read my reviews think of them as insightful. Like I, at the very least, know what I’m doing.

All that said: I have no idea how to review Phillipines-based Polychroma Games’ Until Then.

I’ve reviewed weird projects before. Esoteric games with difficult-to-describe mechanics, off-beat stories, and critical aspects that relate only to some nebulous “vibe” that I’ve had to try to wrangle into something coherent enough to make sense in 2,000 words. By comparison, Until Then is downright simple: it features a concrete plotline with clear characters, text-based interactions with occasional minigames, and a relatively simple subversion of game design that I could describe in a few words (if I wanted to spoil the game).

Let me be a bit clearer, then: my trouble with Until Then is that I don’t know how to critique it. It goes off in wild directions, changes form at the drop of a hat, and oscillates as rapidly between “one of the best moments I’ve ever seen in media” and “waiting for this to be over like I’m a 6-year-old at a wedding.” The story and mechanics presented moments that blasted me with awe, broke my heart, and then also had me groaning because I forgot to save and so I have to redo that 10-minute dialogue scene that almost put me to sleep (to be fair, that wasn’t the only time I went through that dialogue scene).

But, in the spirit of the game, let’s try, shall we:

Until Then is a fabulous game, and features one of the best stories I’ve ever seen put to screen. It also has some of the most striking pixel art I’ve seen put to screen, has immaculate music (both freshly-composed and classical) that sets the scenes for its emotionally gut-punching, head-scratching narrative, and is a joy to play, mostly due to its stellar cast of characters that ensure that any player with a heart and a bit of patience will absolutely fall in love with them.

It is a game about love and loss, about tragedy and the ennui of being young with simultaneously infinite directions to go and no velocity to get there. It features the most emotionally devastating scene in a game I’ve seen in years, and then gives you the power to do something with that devastation. A power you can only be given if you stick around, as the developers know you’ll want to, because how could you not?

until then nicole and mark
Nicole and Mark’s relationship is fantastic, and would be the best thing in the game if not for Mark’s best friend, Cathy

It is also a game where the majority of it is spent walking from one side of the screen to the other, mashing the “interact” button until something happens. A game with, essentially, one set path (despite one of the game’s main themes being choice), that tells a linear story that could’ve been told in half the time. A game that is intentionally repetitive, even with its slowest scenes, and where its emotional climax is in the center of the game, leaving the back half trailing off in a haze of attempted emotionality that — for all its strengths — never again hits that same high.

Perhaps now you see why Until Then is a difficult game to review. The positives are so positive, I want to give it a 10/10 and be done with it. Its high points are just that good. This story is art, and it transcends even most other “art games” by being actually really damn effective at it, and utilizing the strengths of an interactive medium to their full potential.

The negatives are also so encompassing, and so undermine those strengths, that I want to give it a low score. After all, all the pretentious faffing about that the game does (and, oh boy, there is pretentious faffing), with all its deep themes and good writing, can’t entirely offset just how dull many segments of this 20-hour game are. The repitition, the sluggish pacing, the obsession with a sci-fi twist that I really could care less about because I just want to try to help Mark save his best friend and instead I’m doing science experiments!

until then double slit
Some writer for this game must’ve had science videos about the Double-Slit Experiment going on while they were writing.

Maybe that’s the crux of it. The story frustrated me. Because there is a lot going on. You play as Mark Borja, a high-school kid in the Phillipines whose parents are abroad so that they can provide the money he needs to live a good life and go to a good school. At said school, things take a strange turn when Mark has a chance encounter with a new student, who eventually puts aside their abrupt and unceremonious meeting and begins to form a friendship with Mark, and then more. All the while, Mark’s best friend, the extremely lovable Cathy, ends up —

Wait. Hold on. I just have to pause. Because I can’t just say Cathy and then not go into detail about how phenomenal of a character she is. From the start, her tomboy-esque attitude, almost-naive flair, and penchant for pajamas and sweaters won me over. I truly think she might be one of my favorite characters in any game, and is my favorite game character from 2024 so far. She’s wonderful, in all the best ways. Written authentically and with a breadth of emotionality that we rarely see in games, while still coming across as a sweet, fun-loving teenager.

until then rain scene
Cathy’s character is shown off very early on, and remains as fantastic throughout

I interrupted myself while talking about story, but I didn’t need to. Because Cathy is the centerpiece of the story. While Mark and new student Nicole’s relationship across its time-bending plot is given the most screen-time, and is written nearly as well (both of them being stand-out characters in their own right), Cathy’s arc is the most fascinating. And also, the most frustrating.

Because the game knows you’ll love Cathy. It relies on it. If you don’t, then Until Then won’t work, but I think you’d have to be pretty closed off to not. She’s iconic. And the ending, featuring her prominently, is one of the most powerful endings I’ve ever seen, as I already alluded to.

Now, the next bit is very difficult to talk about without getting into spoilers, so forgive me for vagueness: but the game does not utilize that power and that connection well. Even as the narrative spins around her, it seems to forget that the reason we are doing all this is, mostly, because of her. She is the driving motivation, she is the key, and so we want to see more of her. Instead, what we end up with is a lot of sci-fi nonsense and time-bending “past-lives” nonsense that seems ripped straight out of my partner’s favorite Asian tele-drama.

And, listen. I’m there for bombast and melodrama. I’m there for weird plot McGuffins and strange sci-fi surrealism. I’m definitely there to explore the game’s entire roster of amazing characters, and I’m even there for having the fifth conversation where Mark forgot to make a presentation for class. But, at some point, we’ve gotta get back to the main attraction.

until then angy granny
Sure it is, granny. Now, can I get back to my friends?

Especially after a certain major event in the game, the story rarely seems to remember its emotional crux. It gets lost in philosophizing about life, and about using its confusing plot device to make grand metaphors about the world. It sinks into a maze of thought-provoking-but-extremely-tiring monologues that take too long to get through to be enjoyable. In a way, it succumbs to the ennui that also endears me to it.

Because, at the same time, those thought-provoking monologues and deep philosophizing are what got me to care about Cathy. And all the other characters, for that matter. The real issue, then, isn’t their presence, its their over-abundance and decreased relevance as the plot goes on. At some point, the game shifts from centering Mark’s present relationships, to instead centering his and Nicole’s lost relationships to characters that we never met, a shift emblematic of a game that forgot what it was trying to say (something powerful and moving) and instead started a new thought entirely.

until then cathy
To those reading this review after playing the game… Sorry

I get what Polychroma is going for. I really do. They want to weave all these different connections in Mark (and, to a lesser extent, Nicole’s) life into a big grand lesson at the end of the game about choices and futility and friendships. But, in doing so, they forget the lesson they taught players much, much earlier: to value what you have, and to cherish those around you.

When the game evokes those lessons, whether it is when Mark finally gets to try out for the piano club after being tutored by Nicole, when Mark and Cathy (and later Nicole) spend hours together at the local fair, or when the entire cast show up at their Greek-themed Prom, that’s when it is at its strongest. Even when Mark is scrolling though his social media feeds or texts, and I — the player — get that ping of excitement when Cathy or Nicole’s name pops up. In short, the game is strongest when it is its most sincere.

until then social media
Social media and phones are intergrated naturally into the narrative, and are powerful

And the more the game deviates, the more it flounders. I don’t care about alternate dimensions (as cool or thematic at they might be). I don’t care about random Christmastime carollers. I don’t care about this big, confusing narrative involving black butterflies and reality distortions. The game’s main theme is made clear by around a third of the way in, and it is powerful, so then why is there another 2/3rds of game introducing all these other elements and toying with themes unrelated?

And, the thing is, you still will want to play that 2/3rds because of just how good of a hook that beginning is, and for those brief moments in the latter sections wherein you do get those heart-to-heart, sincere moments again. Which come frequently enough to be worth playing, despite their lack of focus. Hence my frustration, otherwise I could just say “the ending sucks” and be done with this.

Ultimately, there is only so much prattling I can do about this one. Until Then is truly one of the best stories I’ve ever seen in a game, whose second half is surrounded by a bunch of arcane and needlessly-convuluted nonsense that get in the way of the story that you actually will need a resolution for. That story (in combination with the art, music, and general direction) really cements Until Then as a game that will stick with me, and is honestly strong enough that I can’t not say that it’s a great game. But it would be even better if it wasn’t for the half of the game that distracted from that.

Despite my misgivings, the story of Until Then is so touching that I’d still recommend it heartily to anyone who is in the mood for a slightly-angsty, very earnest drama, who can also tolerate some sci-fi shenanigans thrown in for good measure. You can pick up Until Then on Steam here.

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Graves
Graves

Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he'll try. When he isn't working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.

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