Until I Have You

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Wormwood Studios for PC and Linux, originally released in 2016.
Until I Have You is a gritty neo-noir action platformer that tells the tale of The Artist, an accomplished assassin at the height of his career. Despite his success, he decides it’s time to hang up his instruments of death and make time for his wife. But his employers aren’t so willing to let him go…

Deciding that The Artist is indispensable, they kidnap his wife to force him back into the business. The Artist vows to rescue his wife and procures a special exoskeleton that grants him tremendous new powers, potentially at the cost of his sanity.

The Artist must seek out and kill 12 of his former clients in order to rescue his wife and escape the assassin life forever. His missions play out across the city, with each city block representing a set of themed levels, followed by a boss encounter against one of his clients.

The story is told through cutscenes that bookend each of the areas, dialogue from each of the clients leading into battle, and by return visits to The Artist’s apartment where the player is able to learn more about his life and the world around him.

A projector shows images hovering in the air each time The Artist returns home, and these slowly lend context to his situation, focusing on a strained relationship with his wife. The player is able to walk freely around the apartment, checking out low rez pictures of the clients that await The Artist’s retribution – complete with red X’s each time one is taken down – and he can also walk out onto the balcony to look out over the sprawling city.

A television in the apartment helps to provide more perspective on this cyberpunk world, with advertisements for high-technology comfort products and reports from a completely corrupt news agency which misrepresents facts and fabricates news stories. These fabrications become evident as the player watches news stories about his own actions when defeating the preceding bosses, only to have these actions attributed to some other faction, or used as propaganda and credited to the police as a measure for cleaning up the streets.

The ongoing narrative is occasionally problematic – particularly with some misused words – but it does offer a compelling reason for the player to move forward and see what awaits the protagonist, particularly given his deteriorating mental state (more on this in a bit).

While the game has plenty to offer in terms of story and atmosphere, there is one unfortunate issue that makes the minute-to-minute experience cumbersome; namely, the movement controls.

At the start of the game, the player enters a tutorial area where the functions of the exoskeleton are explained, along with basic movement and attacking. Here, the player encounters an overly complex representation of his movement speed, represented by 10 diamonds across the bottom of the screen, as well as an indicator in the center showing whether or not the player is jumping at any given time.

This representation of relatively standard actions borders on the appearance of being a debug toolbar, but an NPC explains that this is what The Artist is seeing inside his visor. By moving to the right, the diamonds to the right of center begin to light up in blue, and the opposite is true when the player moves to the left, with diamonds lighting red. Acceleration speed is slow by default, although the player can adjust this in the Options menu.

In addition to running left or right, the player can also sprint, which maxes out the diamonds and causes him to move extremely quickly. However, the player can’t simply break into a sprint; rather, he must build up to a 3-diamond running speed before the sprint kicks in and takes him to a 5-diamond speed.

In practice, this means that it is difficult for the player to regulate his movement speed, as he moves from a stopped position to a slow accelerating curve, to a full-out run over the course of a couple of seconds. The player’s regular running speed is too slow to clear many gaps, but the high speed of his sprint makes it difficult to react to what is being scrolled onto the screen. Additionally, there’s a period of deceleration when letting off the button, meaning that players are likely to overshoot their targets and run off the side of a ledge or headlong into an enemy.

Given the fact that he must contend with narrow platforms, disappearing platforms, moving platforms, occasional time-based challenges, and 1-hit kills from enemies, the player will often find his own movement to be the cause of his deaths, and that memorization of enemy and platform placement is sometimes the only way to make a successful run.

With all of that said, the game has much on offer in terms of its core design and gameplay variety to engage players who are willing to come to terms with the unorthodox controls.

To assist players in stringing together precisely timed jumps and attacks, the exoskeleton comes equipped with a time dilation device which allows The Artist to process information more quickly, essentially causing the world around him to move in slow motion. The effect is temporary and takes a long time to recharge between uses, and it is explained that extended use of this ability will take a toll on The Artist’s sanity. Originally, this is just a verbal warning, but it comes into play later in the game.

The game is brutal and violent. The player begins the game with a baseball bat and a pistol with which he blasts and bashes his way through numerous enemy types. While many enemies take the form of sentry robots, there are a number of human characters as well, which emit copious amounts of blood as they are shot or beaten to death by the protagonist.

Eventually, The Artist reaches a point where witnessing all of this violence and using the exoskeleton’s time dilation effect begin to take a toll on his mind. Starting in Chapter 4, a second meter is added to the HUD representing The Artist’s sanity. Killing any non-robotic enemies reduces the meter by a small amount, while using time dilation reduces it much more. The meter does recharge on its own, but this is a very slow process.

As the sanity effects begin to kick in – when the meter drops below 60% – the world begins to change. Normal citizens take on the appearance of giant bipedal bugs, while enemies begin to look like alien creatures, zombies, and demons. The world also begins to drain of color, and a static effect appears over the screen, becoming more prominent as the meter drops, eventually leading to death if the meter reaches zero.

Sanity effects aside, there is occasionally some grotesque imagery that exists in the world around you, with bodies hanging from chains or sacrificed on tables, and objects covered in blood and viscera… or so they appear. As the game goes on, it becomes less and less clear if what you are seeing truly exists or if it is a product of The Artist’s mind.

Sanity and a sense of self are the game’s primary themes, and they are handled in a way that few other games have attempted, outside of the Max Payne series. At the start of the game, the player is given control of a badass assassin on a mission of rescue and revenge… a very familiar video game trope. The protagonist has taken extreme measures, and promises to get his wife back no matter what the cost.

In most games, the player would simply murder his way through a bevy of baddies until he defeats the final boss and gets a kiss on the cheek from the rescued damsel. But here, the protagonist’s actions have consequences, and the cost for these actions is not just some bothersome hallucinations, but his long-term sanity and his sense of who he is as a person.

Pushing forward on his mission means blurring the line between reality and insanity, and diminishing his humanity until he gets to the point where he questions whether he fully understands what he is doing. Eventually, he must face the very real possibility that his actions will leave him so damaged that he will never be able to return to his true self, and therefore never be truly reunited with his wife.

As such, the protagonist’s primary motivator is also the thing that is killing him. Every step he takes toward his goal is simultaneously a step away from it, until it becomes unclear if he should continue, or even if he can trust his own mind or his actions.

Each set of levels is themed around a different gameplay aspect or piece of technology, allowing for a great deal of variety from one stage to the next. The first set of levels is centered on fast movement speed – which is an unfortunate early highlight of the problematic controls – requiring that the player move through the level as quickly as possible, with enemies placed in his path.

Speed comes into play again in a later set of levels where the player must run across the rooftops of moving subway cars and make precision jumps to avoid falling and being killed, while dealing with enemies in between.

Throughout much of the game, it’s possible for the player to run right past enemies without engaging them, but many enemies attack quickly and the player is killed instantly if he is hit, so a more methodical stop-and-kill approach often increases survivability.

The player begins the game equipped with a baseball bat and a gun. Bullets automatically hit enemies regardless of their height in relation to the player, and the same is true of enemy weapons, giving the player no chance to dodge enemy fire (though you do have an energy shield). Unfortunately, there are many occasions where the player is given very little time to react to the presence of enemies, which results in quick deaths, and requires foreknowledge in order to successfully navigate certain areas.

Another set of levels sees the player chasing a woman through city streets and eventually leaping from building to building. The woman has a device that allows her to teleport short distances, so she zaps through windows and brick walls while you run behind her, smashing through them with your trusty bat and trying to avoid falling. Your margin for error is very narrow, and if the woman gets away from you for even a couple of seconds, you fail the mission and must start again, further emphasizing memorization as the path to success.

Once this woman is defeated, you get to use her teleportation device in the next set of levels (after which it stops working) to complete a number of tough teleportation-based challenges. You can only teleport twice before the device enters a cooldown period, so you need to determine when a double-teleport is needed to cross a wide gap filled with electrified fences. In this circus-themed area, there are several places where walls slide together to smash you and where spiked bumper cars drive quickly toward you, both of which will kill you if you don’t teleport through them.

In another level, you defeat a boss who carries a flamethrower, and you are able to use it from that point forward. The next stage is centered entirely around its use as the player crawls through a sprawling junkyard with huge sentry robots marching in the background.

The player must duck behind metal panels to avoid being spotted by the huge robots and other smaller sentries along the way, and use the flamethrower to melt through piles of used tires in order to move forward. Since melting tires takes a fair amount of time, and the flamethrower is prone to overheating, this creates tense slower-paced segments where the player must seek out a safe place to hide, and then move forward quickly to avoid detection.

If the player gets overzealous and overheats the flamethrower, he must wait a few seconds for it to cool down. In some areas, he can simply run back and hide for a moment, but other areas feature huge metal claws descending from the top of the screen. These claws will kill the player if they touch him, but they also weaken the structure beneath his feet, eventually destroying it with enough hits, so the player doesn’t have much time to waste. Things are made more difficult by the fact that the RUN button and the FIRE button are mapped to the same control, meaning that running with the flamethrower equipped will activate it as well.

The final encounter in this level is pretty interesting because the boss has giant metallic spider legs that the player must melt off with the flamethrower in order to bring him down to the ground where he can unleash damage on his head and torso.

Boss battles in general require the exploitation of a single technique again and again, so these typically boil down to dodging while the boss attacks and then dealing as much damage as possible during his short vulnerability period, and then repeating the process again and again while the boss speeds up after taking damage.

Cutscenes play at the end of boss encounters, some of which involve apparent hallucinations on the part of The Artist, including an early one where he dreams of his wife standing on the beach. When he speaks to her, she responds in unintelligible sounds, and then pulls out a gun and shoots him.

Then he transitions back to reality where he is lying on the ground, apparently hurt despite the fact that he was shot in a dream, leading to questions of what he was doing in the real world while his mind was otherwise occupied.

You begin the next level in police custody, riding in the back of a paddy wagon… until the walls of the van begin bleeding, and the protagonist comments on the long-term effects of using the exoskeleton and taking large amounts of painkillers. If you don’t attempt to escape, he eventually vomits up blood and dies.

Late in the game, The Artist eventually experiences a mental break and hallucinations spill over into his consciousness even when he is not using the powers of the exoskeleton. Here, the player runs through a city that has been transformed into bone and sinew, and he must sit in rickety chairs to have his blood drained into an hourglass in order make grisly platforms appear… and things just go further off the rails from there. In these levels, enemies don’t kill you when they attack, but rather drain your sanity a little bit at a time, meaning that you need to deal with them quickly – or get away from them – and make sparing use of time dilation, which further eats away at your sanity.

Completing levels reveals a completion percentage and shows your accuracy, sanity level, completion time, number of deaths, and the ways in which you dispatched enemies, along with some other details, but there is no gameplay effect for achieving a high rank.

There are also a few interface issues, such as level select screens and having “back” be the default option instead of the next level, and there’s no way to exit back to this screen from within a level. Also, the button for running, shooting, teleporting, and sitting in chairs is all mapped to one button, occasionally leading to instances where the player accidentally performs the incorrect action.

Until I Have You was developed by Wormwood Studios, the studio behind the point-and-click adventure Primordia. The studio was founded in 2009 and is comprised of James Spanos, who is credited with programming, music, sound, and design; and Andrea Ferrara, who is credited with graphics and design. James previously worked on The Cat Lady and Downfall, and Andrea previously developed adventure titles, including Donald Dowell and the Ghost of Barker Manor.

The game was published by Digital Tribe, which also published TinyKeep, Bad Bots, Terrian Saga: KR-17, and numerous other games.