Show trumps survival in the deliciously weird ‘Eternal Cylinder’
Image courtesy of the ACE team
To understand the strength of The Eternal Cylinder, now available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, you must experience it with a controller in hand and a pair of headphones on your ears.
For the most part, this survival game, like the rest of Chilean developer ACE Team’s production, is a notable fantasy. You play as a Trebhum, a tiny creature in makeup with a head for a body, two stocky legs and a long trunk. You’re at the bottom of the food chain, but the cylinder that the game takes its title from is literally a great leveler. As high as a mountain and wide as the horizon, full speed and threatening, it shakes the earth, and you, like other creatures, must run. At various exciting times, I almost got caught underneath, trees banging around me as everything turned orange from its warm metallic glow. But I managed to escape, sighing in relief as he quietly stopped. I dusted myself off before starting to search for my next meal, wary that the cylinder shutdown was only temporary.
You would think that after nearly twenty hours, this show would start to age, that its power would decrease, but it is not. It remains one of the most striking images I’ve ever seen in a video game, cleverly reversing the awe-inspiring horizon that characterizes almost all open-world adventure. You see that mountain in the distance, well, what if it was behind you and it rolled around relentlessly like a nightmarish apparition – a slow motion tsunami. The closest comparison I can make is with Giant’s Deep in Outdoor savages, a planet whose ocean surface is one of the unstoppable swirling cyclones. I get the same kind of environmental fear from The Eternal Cylinder as I do with this inhospitable alien world.
The Cataclysmic Rolling Pin is just one part of the game’s warped ecology, inspired as much by the BBC’s nature documentaries and the Jim Henson movies as are the works of surrealist Salvador Dali. You control not a single Trebhum, but a group of them, hatching newborns from eggs at different times. Your brave family faces threats such as Omnogrom, a gigantic upturned mouth that will engulf you in an instant, and the Cleanser, a car with muscular arms whose poisonous yellow light robs you of the abilities you have accumulated so far.
This is the other major component of The Eternal Cylinder. In order to survive you must direct the Trebhums to the abundant flora and fauna in the game so that they can replenish their stamina, water and health. However, other edibles mutate your already particular body. The first thing you eat is a green egg dropped by an insect that looks like a grasshopper. After sipping it, the Trebhum convulses and suddenly, with a satisfying pop, longer legs spring from its body, a vital feature for exploring the game’s vertiginous topography. Other helpful snacks include a slug-like creature that allows you to turn food into water, a plant that gives you fur, and a gelatinous cube that, yes, turns your body into a cube. In The Eternal Cylinder, a game that takes the metaphor to its literal and often absurd end, you really are what you eat.
Abilities are either perks that simply make survival easier or tools needed to solve specific environmental puzzles. These often take place in Trebhum temples, towering pyramid-shaped structures that contain older Trebhums who provide guidance and advance the plot. The puzzles here work much like the shrines of Breath of the wild, instructing you to use a particular ability. Sometimes they are a joy, like when I led a group of creatures called Glickbol using my new flute shaped horn. At other times, they can be a head scratching frustration (a molten temple left me stumped for a full 30 minutes).
Overall, the potential of these evolutionary mutations is never quite realized. They’re important when the game deems them important, like passing a particular obstacle or completing an aforementioned puzzle, but when you’re just going through the game’s richly detailed environments, they can seem unimportant. What could have been a sandbox survival game that reveled in the combination of freewheeling mutations actually ends up feeling prescriptive, with its designers perhaps a little afraid to really let the training wheels go. fly away. This is compounded both by the game’s narrator, voiced by Peter Hayden, and by the cylinder itself, each of which moves the story forward in decidedly linear fashion. These push elements give the game considerable pizzazz, but also, at times, the lingering feeling that you are playing a rejuvenated endless runner. A little more leeway for experimentation would have gone a long way.
The most efficient section of the game flips this straight structure, actually allowing me to look behind the cylinder. I inflated like a balloon before boarding a plume of hot air. As I stood up, the landmass stretched out in heavenly pinks, the sky above sparkled with cosmic phenomena. I reoriented 180 degrees, saw the cylinder and walked towards it, landing with a plop. This is where the Trebhums and I shared our happiest moment, curling up into balls and rolling along its top edge in an act of cheerful defiance. But then I had to venture behind, and as I floated I saw the desolation the cylinder had caused – an expanse of dead, flattened brush. For a game that is at its best when offering great visual juxtapositions (special mention must be given to the high contrast lighting which skillfully accentuates the quirky characteristics of the Trebhums), this looked like the culmination of that approach. Life and death were separated by a giant metal tube – I could see both in all their glory and terror.
For all its magnificence, The Eternal Cylinder is also a game of tranquility. When I stopped to take a breath, I found real pleasure rotating the camera to face my motley crew of brightly colored Trebhums. One was inflated like a hot air balloon, another looked like a car engine, and a third looked like an aquatic dinosaur. There was an assembly of handsome weirdos there, each not apologizing in their own strangeness – another striking image.
It goes to the heart of what The Eternal Cylinder is about. On the one hand, a technological monolith is moving forward irresistibly: uniform, perfect, singular. On the other, these cute little Trebhums which embody diversity and uniqueness, our ultimate heroes. It’s a simple, big-hearted message that, alongside the storybook narrator, makes the game feel like a fable. For this period of gigantic crises in which we find ourselves, nothing more than that concerning the environment, it is an appropriate allegory, a reminder of the power that resides in the collective, and that our differences are an asset, not an obstacle. .