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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Until Then's beautiful recreation of the Philippines is only matched by its emotional metaphysical journey

Updated: Jun 26

As a Filipino American raised by a mother who taught me to identify any famous person with even an inkling of Filipino roots, I certainly understand the importance of representation. I jump out of my seat at even a whisper of Filipino culture in mass media and hold things that bring my culture to the mainstream near and dear to my heart.


When Ned's lola threw pandesal at Spider-Man in No Way Home, I nearly cried. When a restaurant chain in Cyberpunk 2077's Night City was called Kabayan Foods, I stopped and took several screenshots. When Olivia Rodrigo blew up in pop, it was like I was watching my family vote for Jessica Sanchez during Season 11 of American Idol all over again.


It's not often I get to see my culture represented in these ways, and I cherish the moments I get.


So when Until Then promised a full narrative set in and heavily inspired by the Philippines and Filipino culture, I set out my proverbial camping chair and started the long wait until launch. I knew I wanted to play this game, but I didn't realize how much I needed to play this game.


An in-game screenshot of Until Then. A close up of a confrontation between two friends. A young man with shaggy brown hair and bags under his eyes is being grabbed by the collar of his shirt by a young woman with long brown hair. She's extremely angry, as noted by a red mark on her cheek and white lines radiating out from her face. Action lines are meant to stylize this confrontation behind them and she says to him: "YOU DICKHEAD!"

​Just the Facts

Developer: Polychroma Games

Publisher: Maximum Entertainment

Platform(s): PC* and PlayStation 5 *denotes platform reviewed on

Price: $19.99

Release Date: June 25, 2024

Review key provided by publisher.


A Filipino setting, a universal experience


Until Then comes from Polychroma Games, a small studio based in the Philippines that's bursting down the doors with this game, their second title after a much smaller free project released in 2018 called Let's Go There and Wander Nowhere. Gathering talent from across the islands, Until Then serves as a coming out party for the country's potential in game dev and for Filipino culture's impact in gaming.


The story of Until Then unfolds its many, many layers slowly, choosing to start simple and relatable, with a look into the life of the teen slacker Mark Borja. You start this journey with him rushing to school, trying to cram in a project before class starts, scrolling through social media and blush-faced texts to his crush. There are hints at bigger storylines, like the horrendous series of natural disasters that have rocked the world known as The Ruling, or the fact that Mark's parents are working abroad and he lives alone. But as is expected of a teenager in 2014, Mark's focus is elsewhere.


His focus is on clowning on Cath and Ridel, his two best friends whose lives seem to be at a crossroads. His focus is on keeping the class president Louise happy by finishing schoolwork as fast as he can. It's on Nicole Lacsamana, the new girl that he spends a detention session with during which sparks fly. It's on practicing piano so he can make the cut for his school's piano club.


This first layer is a simple slice-of-life adventure. A coming-of-age story taken straight from the pages of a YA novel or a '90s movie that gives us a glimpse at life in the Philippines. And for me, that genuinely might have been enough. I've seen a thousand stories of folks struggling through their lives in America, so to see that kind of story told in the Philippines is refreshing enough on its own. Especially because of my complicated relationship with the country as a mixed-race kid who is extremely white and grew up my entire life in America.


Through Until Then, I was able to see so much I've known (and not known) reflected in this game. It felt like home, even if that home was a place I'd never been. I got to experience the things my family would reminisce about in their lives back home, like jeepney rides, taho street vendors yelling through the windows, Christmas carolers going door to door. I saw things I'd experienced in growing up amidst my Filipino family showcased in a medium I've loved my whole life, like the classic giant wooden spoons and forks hung up on the walls at Mark's school, a proper karaoke machine with all the pomp and circumstance of the Magic Sing my family broke out at every party (complete with a full-on rhythm minigame), and in-game news articles detailing my favorite Filipino dishes like sisig and halo-halo.


As a kid who grew up to be made very aware of my whiteness, I've always had a complicated relationship with Filipino culture. It's where I felt most comfortable, it's what I wish I knew more about, but whether intentional or not, I was always made to feel on the outside of it all. Through a game like Until Then, I finally felt capable of connecting to that part of me through a medium I know like the back of my hand. It filled my heart.


And beyond any culture-specific settings or references, this first layer is so full of deeply relatable experiences, of navigating the awkward stages of teendom while the world literally crumbles around you, of hanging out with your friends outside of a convenience store while you obsessively pore over the social media accounts of new classmates. You certainly don't require a deep innate knowledge of Filipino culture to enjoy this overarching experience of Until Then's story — and even less so the deeper it goes.


An in-game screenshot of Until Then. On a train, a variety of people can be seen on their daily commute. Some are on phones, some look around the train, some are asleep standing up. The main character, a boy with shaggy brown hair and a white shirt and green pant uniform set, stares at his phone. On the left side of the screen, the phone's display can be seen showing an article titled "Timeline: The Ruling in the Philippines" that details a series of natural disasters that hit the world in 2014.

I'd stop the world and melt with you


You see, Mark's journey starts as a simple coming-of-age story, but it quickly evolves into something else entirely throughout the course of your first playthrough. Throughout Mark's day to day, he'll experience a strange feeling of deja vu focused on particular people and events. A fuzziness takes over him and results in strange hallucinations and mini-breakdowns. There are some people and things that trigger it, and others that calm it down. There's this prevailing feeling that it has something to do with the strange natural disasters the game sets up in The Ruling, but you're never quite sure why or what that means.


This second layer truly manifests in Until Then's ambitious second half, a story that continues after you finish what you think is the game's full story and feel ready to move on. A story that feels like unraveling an old sweater one loose thread at a time and has you questioning concepts like fate, the structure of time, and most importantly, grief and loss. Things get heavier and more emotional as the game goes on, and I needed more than my fair share of tissues to get through its 15 to 20 hour story.


I dare not say much more about it outside of these vague terms, but Until Then really almost exists as two separate games: one that shows you, through a grounded slice-of-life adventure, a key part of Mark's life that forever changes him; and another that shows you just how deep the rabbit hole goes after that. It goes places I could have never expected, and that second half takes your understanding of all that you've experienced up to that point and wrings it out until there's nothing left.


I knew I wanted to play this game, but I didn't realize how much I needed to play this game.

Until Then is a cinematic narrative adventure in every way possible. You're reading dialogue and making small choices that don't seem to have a greater impact on where your story takes you but allow you to shape the kind of Mark you're experiencing this journey with. There are small minigames that latch onto Mark's obsession with gaming to make mundane events in his life that much more exciting, like skewering fish balls with a friend at a vendor's stall or playing games at the local fair. But most of the game is about watching this story unfold. And reading. Lots of reading.


There's tons of writing hidden within this game, both in the long, natural-feeling conversations Mark has with friends and family and the writing you can find in Mark's phone.


We're talking a Facebook-like social media platform full of nested comments, shared posts each with their own comment chains, and an entire news website full of articles that fill out Polychroma's version of the Philippines in fascinating ways. There are some especially scathing pieces of satire found in those articles about ineffectual governments and their misplaced priorities (relevant to today's Philippines and, you know... gestures everywhere), about the rise of conspiracy theorists on social media, and about the nation's obsession with celebrity that I found especially enjoyable.


Sometimes the writing is messy, sometimes the flow of conversation feels a little stilted, and sometimes what's really going on takes quite a while to reveal itself, but Until Then always felt driven by personal experience. By heart. By people. Even when the metaphysical journey begins in earnest and things feel muddled by scientific explanations of the goings-on in Mark's life, it's hard to call it a wrong choice for the story when it still rings so true.


In the end, Until Then's narrative can be defined simply as a story about the innocence and ignorance of youth. A story that implores you to explore human connection and to lean on those around you — because in the end, what else do we have but the people around us who love us? And it's the resonant kind of work we need more of in today's isolated world.


An in-game screenshot of Until Then. Two friends sit outside of a convenience store, looking down at a phone's screen. The scene is a little blurry, meant to showcase the main character's mental confusion. The main character is a young man with brown hair wearing a blue sweater with yellow stripes across the chest. He stares intently at the phone while his friend, a young girl with a white pajama blouse on and a yellow bandaid over her nose, stares up at him in concern. She says: "Mark?"

An incredible, evocative sense of place


Until Then's final layer is found in the fine details — in the ways it establishes a sense of place so beautifully that it transports you there, regardless of your prior connection to it or lack thereof. The developers once said in an interview that they wanted to make people nostalgic for this place, for the Philippines, even if they'd never been there. And in my humble opinion, they knock it out of the park.


In Until Then, there's a sense that the world is so genuinely alive. When you walk down the street and hear the cacophony of street noise, birds chirping, and random chatter of passersby. When the trees sway, characters bounce with detailed pixel art animation, and scenes are filled with lived-in litter and graffiti. When light dynamically streams in through Mark's bedroom window as cars drive past, eventually giving way to the dim glow of his phone held up to his face.


Every scene in Mark's life is displayed with this much care and detail, and it helps you feel right at home alongside him. Even in the quiet moments at home alone, you'll hear far off sirens, dogs barking, and the occasional car veer past. It grounds you in a way that helps sell its slice of life so effectively, and helps make its discordant moments of confusion when Mark's mystery begins to unfold all the more powerful and disorienting.


A story that implores you to explore human connection and to lean on those around you... it's the resonant kind of work we need more of in today's isolated world.

Polychroma also has some incredibly talented pixel artists in place at their studio, because it's through their incredibly detailed work that Until Then's truly cinematic qualities begin to shine. Through some of the more impactful moments in Mark's life, the game will use close-ups and unique camera angles to guide the viewer's eye. In these full-screen pixel art animated illustrations, you'll catch subtle quirks in a person's face right before they deliver a line. You'll get stylized anime-inspired sequences that showcase the silliness of the interactions between Mark and pals. You'll get jarring looks at how devastating natural disasters can be in this part of the world, particularly in the face of an uncaring government.


It all feeds into the greater attempt of Until Then to take you to this place, using the best bits of games and cinema to embrace its extremely personal and human story. The story can feel slow at times, its pace even in its most climactic moments feeling like it inches along, but through these presentation decisions, you never feel truly removed from the moment.


An in-game screenshot of Until Then showing a dialogue choice sequence. In a classroom, two teenaged boys are in conversation. They both wear a white button-up uniform shirt and green pants. To their left, another student can be seen sleeping at his desk. To their right, a teenaged girl sits nervously with her hands in her lap. She's got on a similar uniform but with a green skirt on instead. She's got an orange head wrap of some sort on as well too. A fan is mounted on the wall behind them blowing air on the classroom and on a skeleton model dressed up to look like Beethoven. A chalkboard to their right lists out types of piano notes. The player has the choice between two dialogue choices: "You just came here to flirt?" and "I support you."

I'm tempted to say your mileage may vary with a game like Until Then. As a Filipino American, its cultural impact certainly made everything hit that much harder for me. As a narrative gamer who's gotten a lot out of visual novels and the like, its dialogue-driven adventure was easy for me to digest. And as a fan of pixel art, I loved the work Polychroma did here to bring its recreation of the Philippines to life.


But even if none of those boxes are checked for you, I'm still tempted to recommend Until Then regardless. Its deeply human story, told with emotionally sincere dialogue, its ability to showcase the beauty of Filipino culture, its mind-breaking second half are all worth experiencing for gamers from all walks of life.


Go play this game and let's go meet at the Jollibee to decompress after. Salamat, Polychroma.


Video Games Are Good and Until Then is . . . GREAT. (9/10)


+ one of the most genuine representations of Filipino culture in gaming, an emotionally resonant story about human connection, stunning pixel art to bring it all to life


- despite minigames to break it up, it is a reading-heavy narrative game, the pace can be a bit slow at times, a few rough patches technically


The key art for Until Then. A teenage boy and girl sit on a bench in the rain. The boy wears a blue sweater with yellow stripes across the chest and holds an umbrella as he looks up at the rain. He has shaggy mid-length brown hair. The girl reaches out into the rain with her hand and wears blue overalls and a long-sleeved red shirt. She has longer brown hair and wears yellow headphones on. City ambiance fills out the scene behind them, street signs, buses, and jeepneys can be seen. Butterflies float through the rain ahead of them. The game's logo can be seen at the bottom.

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2 Comments


Guest
Jun 26

Omg Nate, that made me tear up ;-;

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Joel Bacon
Joel Bacon
Jun 26

Your writing makes me feel like I will fall in love with this game. Adding to my list. Can't wait.

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