The last thing I expected from The End is Nigh, Super Meat Boy creator Edmund McMillen’s latest game in the controller-busting platformer genre, was for it to suddenly open up into an exploration adventure with forking paths and curious characters.
You play as Ash, a sentient ball of guess-what and one of the only survivors of a nondescript apocalyptic event. Ash gets lonely and decides to find a friend, but needs the body parts to build one first, which can only be obtained by jumping through dangerous obstacle courses.
At first, it feels like business as usual, moving from screen to screen dodging spikes, making precise leaps, finding secrets, and grabbing collectibles (tumors, this time). Air control and momentum are still emphasized and feel similar to Super Meat Boy’s floaty but precise controls. The most apparent difference is that wall-jumping is out and ledge-grabbing—a mechanic that allows you to latch onto any edge or outcropping to gain extra horizontal distance when leaping off—is in.
Looking and leaping
Each challenge takes place on a single screen, but unlike Super Meat Boy, every screen is directly connected to the next. You can go back and forth between screens at will in a single world, and for good reason. Secrets areas are everywhere and you’ll definitely want to revisit specific screens to unlock doors or revisit certain characters. I’m not far enough to know exactly what all those locked doors and hidden passages hold, I just hope they’re harboring some of McMillen’s special brand of strangeness. Super Meat Boy’s hidden areas felt like you were breaking into an abandoned, forbidden part of the code, so if they’re just optional challenges with silly collectibles, I’ll be bummed.
Whether or not you want to turn the game inside out, the critical path is challenging enough. The End is Nigh introduces new concepts at a leisurely pace. After you get the hang of the jumping around, you’ll learn to gain distance and momentum by jumping out of ledge grabs. And then you’ll learn you can chain jumps off of enemies. And then you’ll learn that you can press a button to dive while in water and jump to shoot out of it, magically preserving the momentum from the dive.
And then, not until several worlds in, you’re told that you can ‘dive’ anywhere to boost your falls, gain momentum, and bust through specific material types or fly past moving obstacles. It’s like gaining a new ability, even if it was there all along.
Then the world branches into several paths, and down each you’re asked to use every skill in a single screen. A floating demon might give chase while the world collapses all around. You’ll need to dive in and out of poisonous water to gain momentum to reach a handhold just out of range, and execute narrow jumps up and around spiky architecture to make it to the exit. If the respawn for each screen wasn’t instant, I’d uninstall The End is Nigh immediately.
But it never feels as challenging as Super Meat Boy, at least when comparing their first few hours. The ledge-grabbing mechanic makes levels feel like a navigation puzzle to be discovered through observation (and dying over and over), rather than a freeform platforming jungle gym, which means button mashing improv and instinct likely won’t get you far. It feels like the opposite of N++, whose floaty, quickly accelerating movement let me improvise and scramble through more than a few challenges I’m not sure I deserved to complete.
In combination with a host of clever level design gimmicks (deadly sentient thomping blocks, chain-chomp watch dog baddies, bouncy puff balls that spew poisonous gas, morphing/collapsing levels, and so on) the primary challenge in The End is Nigh is in decoding the new rules it introduces in the form of enemies and obstacles, and then moving through them on a clearly intended path.
Most new screens look impossible to complete at first, but a few deaths in and you’ll know which ledges to grab and platforms to jump between. You’ll learn to feign a leap to distract the chain-chomp watch dogs before flying by, or to exploit triggers that collapse skyscrapers to skip a platforming gauntlet entirely. Such a quick cycle of trial and error essentially guarantees you’ll come to know most screens better than your bedroom. In the end (which is nigh) you’re meant to feel as smart as you are skilled, and as someone that doesn’t get into games that are hard for the sake of it, I’m happy The End is Nigh gives curious players something to chew on besides a gamepad.
In being so diverse and experimental, some of The End is Nigh’s levels inevitably don’t land, but at least they’re over quick (if you have the patience to best them). Ledge-grabbing can be weird too. Sometimes you’ll have to land a grab in an awkward position, and Ash’s air control is extremely sensitive, so inching the mushy ball into a tiny, invisible trigger zone to grab a ledge is more trouble than I’d like. It doesn’t help that Ash leaves a residual trail behind, which can easily cloud up your vision when trying to move in a fast and precise way.
The collectibles don’t carry any obvious incentive either. So far, I’ve gathered about 25 tumors and I already don’t care anymore. They’re poised in a seemingly impossible to reach corner in every level, and they serve as the challenging platformer’s toughest tests. And, unless I’m reading into it, they’re also a crude commentary on arbitrary trinkets scattered around similar games.
Maybe after finishing the main path I’ll happen upon enough of them to unlock something interesting, but I wish there was a better breadcrumb trail leading me there. Particularly tragic is the lack of competitive leaderboards for each screen. Who will I bully when I come into work? The only metrics I could find were a timer and percentage listed for overall game completion. They’re great tools for speedrunners, I just want to chastise my peers over smaller, pettier victories.
But most of The End is Nigh’s problems are easily blotted out by its strange, branching world and mysteries waiting to be unraveled. I stumbled into a secret area early on and found a floppy white figure standing behind a wall in the corner of the screen. I want to know the significance of the floppy white person. I need to know the significance of the floppy white person. Together, we will find out the significance of the floppy white person, and The End is Nigh’s excellent platforming challenges are a most welcome medium for finding the truth.