What is it? Like the rolling boulder levels from Crash Bandicoot, but you're steering a herd of mutant Q*berts.
Expect to pay $30/£24
Developer ACE Team
Publisher Good Shepherd Entertainment
Reviewed on Intel i7-6700 HQ, NVIDIA Geforce GTX 960M, 8GB RAM
Link Official site
It's tricky telling stories about the apocalypse when you're in the middle of one. Where videogames about the End Times once dealt in nuclear wastelands, the slow onset of the climate crisis has given rise to games that are more about living with disaster than exploring its aftermath. As regards The Eternal Cylinder, that means thriving in the shadow of a steamroller the width of the horizon, guiding a troupe of elephant-nosed creatures called Trebhum through a wonderful alien ecosystem that is being steadily reduced to paste.
The Trebhum, which you'll control individually with the rest of the herd tumbling behind, are neither lovers nor fighters. All they can do to begin with is hoover up and store objects for later consumption, spray water from their trunks and roll around like Sonic the Hedgehog. But they do have one critical advantage, and that is their capacity for change. By eating the right things, from grasshopper dung to fish, they can acquire mutations such as third eyes and furry skins that (mostly) equip them to weather the trials ahead.
A vivid but slightly unfulfilling getaway story from the punchdrunk creators of Zeno Clash, The Eternal Cylinder mixes moments of frenzy with indefinite periods of contemplation. The game's colossal antagonist doesn't chase you relentlessly. Its approach is sometimes blocked by towers that dome their surroundings in shimmering blue energy, creating an oasis where you can forage, toy with mutations and delve into ruins that house basic platforming challenges, together with lore and rarer consumables.
You're free, here, to savour the eccentricity and splendour of the creature designs, which riff on the paintings of Dali, Picasso and Bosch, and range from Jörmungandr-esque astral serpents to massive sauropods that conjure sandstorms when they feed. There are other Trebhum, too, either revived or rescued or persuaded to join your herd with the right items. In among the indigenous lifeforms are the mysterious servants of the Cylinder, cyborg sentinels whose searchlights strip the mutations from any Trebhums caught in their path.
These enchanted reprieves are the game's highlight, an opportunity to pore over the world like an avaricious Attenborough—working out that one beast is another's offspring, for instance, or how to pit certain creatures against each other. Everything flows into a compendium where item descriptions double as "Just So" stories about the Trebhum themselves, who aren't as new to this realm as they appear.
The landscapes are no less mesmerising: pink and purple icefields, curious coral lattices and sky-scraping seedpods. The second you breach the dome, however, all that specificity and colour is forgotten in a panicked stampede for the next tower. Other creatures cease to be miracles of nature and become obstacles, to be spooked away with trumpet blasts or simply outrun. Once you've escaped, there's the chilly feeling of looking back to watch the Cylinder complete its work. Then, you roam and experiment anew.
At least, when you're not battling for control. The game's partly procedural terrain is uneven, and Trebhums are not built for precision manoeuvres. Their survival relies mostly on strength of numbers, as you'll learn when you ricochet off the wrong boulder and become something's lunch. Micromanaging the growing herd and redistributing the contents of their stomachs is just as fiddly as moving around. You can press a shoulder button to switch to a Trebhum you're looking at, or hold the other shoulder button to leap around the group in freeze-time, but it's simpler to drag and drop resources in the menus.
If The Eternal Cylinder is unwieldy, it can also be over-forgiving. The narrator—a student of the Bastion and Stanley Parable school of fait accompli storytelling—is extremely generous with hints and guidance, making this a fine choice for younger players. The survival elements are unobtrusive to the point of superfluous: hunger and thirst are easy to sate, even before you eat things that turn Trebhum into water filters and larders, though later desert and tundra environments raise the stakes.
While the game's story obliges you to track down certain mutations at intervals, it's often possible and therefore tempting to just make a beeline for the next tower. In theory, you'll struggle more with a larger herd, but this doesn't prove the case in practice. If all else fails, you can cheese the hazards by running away from any Trebhums at risk, giving the game an opportunity to teleport them to your side.
A larger issue is that The Eternal Cylinder is on some level a basic upgrade-a-thon pretending to be something weirder. Once you acclimatise to the aesthetic, the mutations are surprisingly dull. Some are one-shot-wonders—you can cubify your Trebhum to serve as door keys, or plug in sucker feet to stop them being blown off windy platforms during shrine puzzles. Others are exotic rehashes of staple moves from other games: recurved knees for a higher jump, balloon stomachs for gliding, incremental boosts to water absorption or stamina. Least inspiring of all is the one that lets you manufacture a crystal currency with which to buy generic stamina and health upgrades from shrines. Cosmic bulldozers be damned: there's always time for shopping.
While occasional losses and devolutionary encounters with the Cylinder's servants encourage you to mix things up, you're eventually able to make certain mutations permanent. As such, the whimsy and playfulness of the early game gives way to a steady process of optimisation, your herd solidifying into a business-like apparatus of walking bomb-factories and Far Cry-style resource detectors. Less useful or actively hindersome mutations such as disco skin or eye stalks that impair vision are left by the wayside.
You could regard the growing emphasis on efficiency as a provocation. How much of this world's diversity, even the less immediately helpful elements, can you preserve in the bodies of the Trebhum as you hurry to survive? But it feels more like the game is succumbing to genre conventions than posing such a challenge. While an often-visionary piece of work, The Eternal Cylinder is a few mutations short of brilliance.