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I don't know what's going on in The Eternal Cylinder but I like it

Two aliens, one round and one cubic, share a look of concern
(Image credit: Ace Team)

Ace Team is responsible for aggressively odd videogames like  Zeno Clash, a punch-em-up where one of your enemies wears a crab for a mask and uses parachute squirrels with bombs on their backs as weapons, and Rock of Ages, where you smash a cheerful boulder through levels themed around different eras of art. It's a portfolio of unadulterated WTF-ery that The Eternal Cylinder adds even more WTF to.

You begin as a freshly hatched 'trebhum', a waddling elephant-nosed Q*bert thing. Your trunk nose can suck up food and water, which is fitting because in the words of Wayne from Wayne's World, you certainly do suck. Your initial defense mechanism is the ability to spray water back out your nose—a defense entirely useless against the threat facing you and your entire alien world.

(Image credit: Ace Team)

That threat is a cylinder of impossible size and determination. This malevolent rolling pin stretches from horizon to horizon and periodically spins up, glowing like lava as it crushes all before it. When this happens all you can do is run away, rolling up into a ball for an extra burst of speed as you race to activate one of the towers dotting the landscape before the cylinder crushes it. These towers can halt the cylinder's endless churning. For a time.

The one thing you've got up your metaphorical alien sleeve is the ability to mutate by gobbling up the right foodstuffs. You can evolve a hairy nose filter to breathe poison gas, webbed feet to swim faster, a big round body to store more food and objects in, and other more outlandish mutations. You also gather a tribe, hatching or freeing other trebhums you can switch between, building up a little family of weirdos with the skills you need to survive each habitat you're chased into. 

It's kind of like the second stage of Spore, but it also reminds me of when shops would be full of games that cast you as an ugly bug-eyed alien thing named "Zarp Fleeble" that some developer was convinced would be the hot new mascot (the '90s, like The Eternal Cylinder, were bizarre). They don't make many games like that any more, except I guess for Outer Wilds, because most of them were garbage. The Eternal Cylinder, however, is definitely not garbage.  

It's full of surreal imagination, with a warped ecology full of creatures like the 'omnogrom'—a downwards-pointing mouth on four legs that looms over you with teeth like stones. And then there are the servants of the cylinder, totally at odds with a world that looks like something from the further limits of No Man's Sky's procedural generation. These giants mix human limbs and torsos with machinery—one looks like the front end of an old car strapped with tusk protrusions to a headless, legless, masculine body that propels itself on loping hands. 

(Image credit: Ace Team)

I haven't got a clue what's happening in The Eternal Cylinder, but it's a pleasant confusion. And while that's true of the bigger picture of what the cylinder wants and why it even has servants, moment to moment I'm rarely confused for long. There's usually an objective right in front of me, whether it's a door that will only open for a certain number of trebhums or a darkened maze to explore by finding a mutation that makes one of my trebhums glow like a waddling lava lamp. When I'm stuck the solution is always found by exploring a little further afield.

Though there's a rudimentary survival system in The Eternal Cylinder, it's not the kind of game to punish you with attrition. After a point you get a stomach meter, and there's thirst to keep track of as well, but the savannah biome I've explored is full of mushrooms and flies and other things to eat. Only once did I run low enough on water to get a red-flash warning, so I ate some water-filled egg-like fruit nearby and that was that.

The real reason to keep full stomachs is so you'll have enough stamina for the next frenzied dash ahead of the cylinder, risking the occasional glance back to see it munch over the huge predators who'd been chasing you not five minutes before. The towers that halt the cylinder project a force field around them, a blue warning that can be crossed at the cost of toppling the tower and reawakening the cylinder. I settled into a pattern of exploring each new habitat, learning what threats and possibilities it contained, then getting ready to push on once I felt my intrepid band of wobbling goofs was ready.

(Image credit: Ace Team)

Funny thing is, I never felt attached to those trebhums for long. My starting trebhum got crushed by some weird creature early on and I switched to a different survivor. Then they gained and lost mutations so frequently—the servants of the cylinder can yank the evolution right out of you, forcing you to revert to a more basic state—that I started to see the trebhums in totally utilitarian terms. 

It doesn't help that they never stopped looking ugly as sin. By the time one had a third eye and a body made of pipes to process minerals into upgrade currency, they were truly hideous. The storage system, which lets you store extra trebhums in clouds (get it, ha ha), and even resurrect dead ones, made them seem even more disposable.

Even though I see the trebhums as a means to an end, I'm invested in that end. I keep unearthing fragments of ancient trebhum civilization and surviving elders, gaining memories from a time before the cylinder, as well as planning a journey to see what's behind it. That's where this preview build ends, however, and I guess I'll just have to wait for the full version of Zarp Fleeble and Dork Trebhum's Adventures Beyond the Weird Round Thing to find out what happens next.

Jody is that guy who will try to convince you to play some indie game you've never heard of with a name like Extreme Meatpunks Forever. He is also on a doomed quest to play every Warhammer game.