Back in the heady days of 2008, a little game titled Spore launched to pretty loud fanfare, with the prospect of playing God over some wacky and weird looking species appealing to the masses. It turned out pretty good, but I didn’t personally enjoy the time I spent playing it from the (admittedly limited) memory I have of it.
The Eternal Cylinder arrives with a much different focus from the life simulation God-complex predecessor but felt like I was transported all the way back to the 2008 version of myself given the adorable blobby species you willfully mutate. With more emphasis on survival-lite mechanics and story-centric exploration, Cylinder delivers with the intrigue and wondrous emotion of charting through an unknown world. Just like Spore though, I can’t say I had as much fun actually playing it as I imagine many others will.
Welcome The Trebhum
Let’s start with the pudgy balls of transforming wonders first: the Trebhum. These little balls of cuteness are your protagonist species throughout your time in Cylinder. Sporting 2 teeny legs, rounded bodies and a miniature elephant trunk snout, they appear simultaneously unsuspecting and rather unsuited to the hazards they’re about to embark upon overcoming during your journey.
One of Cylinder’s core mechanics however, surrounds how these unassuming balls of evolutionary stubbornness can chop and change their legs, bodies and trunk through mutations to gain new abilities, resistances and quirks. Mutations for the Trebhum occur through hoovering up and eating various plants, organic matter and other creatures in the world, with dozens of mutations gradually becoming available as you explore and progress.
Good thing, too, as the vast expanses of the world the Trebhum inhabit is rather opposed to virtually anything surviving. Whether it be eating up a flaming plant to douse a small area in flame with your snout, snacking on a fish to be able to swim infinitely or gobbling up a worm-like thing for “analytical eyes” that let you scan your environment, you’ll be needing to make frequent use of mutations to keep your Trebhum family growing, healthy and able to move forward. It’s a fun system and encourages you to really snap up any new creature or fauna you come across to see what’ll become of your Trebhum next.
You have to of course be wary of some mutations which are more hindrance than help, especially at the wrong time. It does become noticeable after some progress as well, that most mutations are almost one-time use in their necessity to progress a story section or puzzle, after which you’ll have little to no reason to seek them out again. By the end, I was pretty much sticking to a couple of mutations that were all-purpose and only changing one of my party when the game absolutely required it, so the sense of experimentation does dissipate the further in you go to some degree.
Face The Overwhelming Odds
It’s not only mutations you have to contend with to keep your Trebhum family alive too, as you’ll need to navigate a variety of survival-lite elements to endure your arduous journey from the tyrannical cylinder of destruction. Along the way, you’ll need to ensure you manage your food intake, water supply, energy meter, heath and resistances to hazards. Most of this is achieved through, again, hoovering up every organic object you can see and promptly devouring it. Sitting in pools of water for hydration, eating other creatures for health regeneration, all the usual good stuff.
Different biomes present unique challenges, like needing a furry skin mutation to survive the wintery expanses or a heat resistant mutation to get you through the desert. It means you’re always thinking about the next aspect of supply you need to manage. Running out of food or water for too long equals swift death, while a low energy meter reduces your available stamina, required to travel quickly via rolling (which you’ll be doing a lot of) or swimming.
Early in the game, resources are plentiful so it actually felt like these systems weren’t particularly necessary. As you progress to the mid-game resource options become more limited, water reserves less plentiful and the number of hazards increase, providing a gradual upscaling of difficulty, which is good. The one area it floundered was in the desert biome, where finding food, water or the heat-resistant plant became a massive chore and unbearably tedious. It was manageable, but this area felt too punishing in multiple ways to actually be fun to endure, effectively encouraging you to get through it as efficiently and quickly as possible.
Compared to the winter and other biomes, which actually felt like a good balance of exploration and needing to account for your survival elements, the desert one just felt a bit much, especially when the biomes after it actually felt easier again. It’s a disjointing section in an otherwise smooth difficulty curve.
Outrun The Cylinder… and The Creatures
All the while you’re getting to grips with the survival and mutation systems, you’ll be hard pressed not to notice that on your tail the entire time, is a gigantic, imposing and ultimately devastating cylinder of death. Each “level” or section of The Eternal Cylinder has you moving between towers. Reaching a tower before the cylinder marks it as safe, allowing you to roam around the small-medium area of it’s protection bubble.
Once you leave the bubble, the cylinder reawakens and begins decimating everything. Your job is to reach the next tower before it crushes your Trebhum tribe, usually by high-tailing it in the most efficient path possible. This process rinse-repeats dozens of times to progress you through the story and the game.
Exploring the biomes, you’ll discover all manner of creatures and beasties which can be interacted with or more likely, avoided at all costs. You’ll also spend time delving into caves, seeking out the secrets of Trebhum shrines and building up your herd through trading items to release them from make-shift havens or reviving deceased ones using a rare mineral at specified locations. There’s some light puzzle-solving for most shrines which are okay in isolation but a few become tedious due to the lack of explanation at times as to what the puzzle even is or how you’re supposed to go about solving it. Usually, each puzzle will involve using one or two mutations to progress, and your biggest hurdle will be working out what the Hell this particular one actually wants you to do.
Occasionally, the all-consuming cylinder will throw out some curveballs in the shape of enemy boss types to overcome, blasting out lightning to hinder you progressing too quickly to the next tower or by instantly destroying a safe tower you’ve just reached. You know, keeping you on your toes. These elements do add some necessary variety to the proceedings, but a couple of boss battles were needlessly frustrating and elongated to complete, while others were so obvious there was barely any challenge to them.
I also found the lightning-blast setpieces to run counter-intuitive to the whole idea of outrunning the cylinder. The lightning shoots a certain distance ahead and acts as a wall you can’t go past without being turned into char, but the cylinder moves at a snail like speed to compensate – so you end up trawling along staying just behind the lightning up to the next tower. There’s no extra pressure or stakes, if anything it’s an easier, just more boring traipse up to the next tower.
Overall, the gameplay is a mixed bag, with most aspects feeling alright at first but over the runtime it becomes more uninteresting and tedious. By the second half I was mostly beelining it for the next tower whenever I could, and begrudgingly solving whatever rudimentary puzzle was blocking my path otherwise. I imagine for those who enjoy exploring and taking everything in there’s a lot more to love, but I just didn’t feel compelled to when none of it is really necessary or engaging to complete.
A Gorgeous, Haunting Universe
The world and aesthetic of The Eternal Cylinder however are an absolute smash hit. Whether it be delighting in the inhospitable, icy tundra biome, the beautifully melting heat of the desert or even the infected and haunting desolation of the infected areas the cylinder has harvested, the game looks fantastic and is full of shifting colour, lighting effects and aesthetic design.
The cylinder itself is constantly an over-aweing, menacing and foreboding threat that looms over your every action. The antagonist Mathemitican design, as well as other enemies, are incredibly creative, haunting and downright creepy in the best possible ways. They’ll make you recoil and instill a real sense of unease with how well they’ve been shaped into virtual monstrosities. It’s truly brilliant creative design and I loved this part of the title.
Similarly, creatures and fauna you’ll discover have suitably other-worldly and uniquely strange shapes, makeups and looks. Ranging from large circular balls of purple which open up from the bottom as two lines of teeth, to massively imposing giraffe-like figures harbouring huge sacs of poison spewing plants on their back. The world of The Eternal Cylinder truly is a sight to behold and is one of the primary motivations to keep pushing forward, to see what other ghastly, beautiful and whimsical ideas the development team have.
With a story that’s equally as unique, uplifting and bleak all at the same time, it becomes a real marvel that actually carried me through even when the gameplay left me feeling uninterested. As the last of the Trebhum species, you’ll slowly unravel the mysteries of the landscapes around you, the secrets of your predecessors and the machinations of the cylinder and it’s forces of destruction. Information is dolled out slowly and over a series of objectives which will take you to places of all manner of deep introspection and reflection.
Obviously the Trebhum can’t verbalise, given their trunks for mouths, so the majority of the story is delivered via a well-voiced and softly spoken narrator who’ll describe every inch of your journey. Luckily, the developers knew when to let you explore in peace so the voice will give it a rest while you’re sauntering around, getting that perfect balance of keeping you invested while not being overbearing on the whole experience.
I can’t speak highly enough of the aesthetic and narrative The Eternal Cylinder captures. While solving the puzzles and overcoming the boss obstacles wasn’t necessarily fun to play, it all perfectly slots into its narrative and graphical vision for this universe. Style certainly can get you places substance can’t occasionally, it seems.
A Tale Worth The Run
The Eternal Cylinder can clock in anywhere between 7-12 hours depending on your enjoyment of its gameplay. If, like me, you aren’t drawn into its survival mechanics and exploration that isn’t extrinsically rewarding, you’ll probably find yourself rolling through 60% of the game as quickly as possible, only stopping to take in the sights occasionally.
If, however, you enjoy experiences that immerse you in a universe with plenty to explore and discover just for the sake of being in that world, you’ll have a much longer and rewarding time. Oddly, given the nature of the cylinder, it’s a game that suits those who like to slow everything down and get lost in the possibilities of what’s out there just because they can. Eternal Cylinder won’t reward or punish you for either approach, the enjoyment will come from your own sense of satisfaction. Luckily, the story and aesthetic are good enough to keep the former type of player invested to the end of its deeply unique and well-told tale.
Boasting an incredibly unique, creative and gorgeous aesthetic with an exceptionally intriguing, well-told narrative, The Eternal Cylinder manages to still be rewarding even when its gameplay and mechanics become tedious and uninteresting. You’ll certainly be tired outrunning this circular vortex of death, but the tale is worth seeing through for the sights along the way.
The Eternal Cylinder is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC via Steam.
Developer: ACE Team
Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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