As satisfying the gameplay remained, even through into its third outing, it was clear ACE Team were ringing out the last remaining droplets of goodwill the Rock of Ages series could achieve. Even if that did cast a light on how familiar the formula had eventually become (on top of some occasional technical issues from time to time), the Chilean-based studio did at least maintain a knack for juggling tone with gameplay. And a fair few sub-genres of gameplay on top, be it encompassed in an absurd premise or otherwise. Whether one can read this as the figurative “moving on” point for ACE Team — that we won’t be seeing any new Rock of Ages material from hereon — or not remains to be seen. At the very least, after playing though the studio’s latest title, The Eternal Cylinder, for a fair few hours, there’s an argument to be made that the team have achieved the next logical step in their own evolution. Honing their craft and more specifically, finding a new way to marry aesthetic with mechanics. But it’s what lies underneath this new if similarly-surreal premise that’s most surprising of all.
Fitting then that for a developer aiming to build off what’s come before, that evolution — adapting to the task at hand — becomes one of the key focal points with The Eternal Cylinder. In all its other-worldly, odd-ball sightings. Not least because of the way the titular Eternal Cylinder imposes itself to begin with. A mammoth, horizon-spanning monolith whose omnipresence is the primary threat with which you and your band of Trebhum creatures must constantly outrun and maintain safe distance from at all times. Truth be told, I initially went into The Eternal Cylinder expecting a drastically different kind of gameplay loop than the one presented. The presumption being that this was more a marathon than an occasional sprint. Yes, the opportunity would be there to scavenge resources and maybe dive into opportunity-led caves, but always had you looking over one’s shoulder. Worried that you were always one foolish decision away from death. Time was in fact never a luxury; The Eternal Cylinder itself can not and will not be stopped. The game’s namesake a deliberate noting on where most of the focus will be from hereon.
The truth is that’s not entirely the case, or at least part of it is not the case. While the titular megastructure looming behind you at all times can’t, as far as we know, be permanently stopped (the game’s lore claiming it to be a billion-year old force of which has destroyed countless civilizations prior), ACE Team provide leeway in the form of towers dotted across the predominantly-oblong shaped map. Getting to a desired tower in time and having a Trebhum stand on its corresponding pedestal halts the Cylinder. Interestingly, though, should you fail to reach a tower or simply choose to ignore it, the Cylinder will keep going. Meaning, theoretically, one could just keep going on and on through the many biomes. In such moments, when the Cylinder has temporarily halted, players are left at their leisure to explore a limited region of the environment. It’s only when you step outside a pre-determined safe-zone does the Cylinder reactivate and it’s but another mad dash to the next tower in the near distance. Making sure to read what basic cartography the in-game map provides in working out which part of the environment offers the quickest, easiest straight to tackle in reaching that next vital tower.
As basic this shift back-and-forth may sound on paper — gather resources, run to the next safe-zone, gather resources, run to the next safe-zone — The Eternal Cylinder is fortunately a lot more nuanced and interestingly emergent than its premise may paint. Remarkable it is on its own that ACE Team find a way to have the begrudged, meter-watching intrusion commonplace in most survival games, actually wind up not that influential to the experience (though the hunger meter has its way with one’s focus further down the line), arguably the best thing about The Eternal Cylinder is how integral managing your little troupe of Trebhum creatures actually is if one is to maximize the number of avenues to success one can access. More importantly, how The Eternal Cylinder is, again, not so straight-forward that “more for more’s sake” is that desirable a route. You can go out of your way to recruit/gather as many Trebhums as possible, but it’s the short-term decisions players take on their travels that may in fact deter you from a larger cast.
The basic gist is that each Trebhum has three inventory slots as well as a water meter primarily serving as the thirst meter it may be, can also be used as a projectile weapon of sorts to loosen items off hard-to-reach walls or ledges. Upon your travels, you’ll also come across certain types of flora and fauna that can evolve and mutate your Trebhum, which in turn grants them new abilities. Some of these abilities are commonplace — the ability to jump higher, swim or withstand poisonous fumes (of which in one case, becomes a story requirement). Others, however, are stumbled upon through exploration which in turn provides even greater a dilemma on how one intends to proceed. Say you stumble upon a creature that, when consumed, allows you to instantly digest food and refill your water meter instantaneously. Another more surprising discovery is the ability to process many of the raw materials you no doubt will accrue. Doing so converts them into a crafting resource which in turn not only allows you to upgrade your Trebhums’ stats, but can also be used to recruit more Trebhums you similarly stumble upon on your travels. So then, a predicament: do you stock up on non-edible materials in the hopes of converting them (assuming you’ve even found that ability yet) at the risk of running low on food. Or is the opposite more a priority, given hunger/thirst/energy also affects how well you can sprint when it comes time to reach the next safe-zone.
Given that each opportunity is multi-phase — in order to do this, you need this, which in turn can only be access via this method — you can quickly see this is a matter of time investment as it is a question on how much effort you’re willing to put into the explorative element. In disregarding this avenue, are you willing to sacrifice valuable inventory space as a result? It’s an interesting tug-o-war between priorities that, when it comes down to it, all have their own equally-useful benefits. Even if some of those would-be benefits are by way of satisfying the survival side of things. Those meters don’t fill themselves after all. But even so, that tug-o-war of such wouldn’t be as interesting as it is were it not for the way The Eternal Cylinder is structured. Discovering opportunities for yourself. How the presence of a cave or an interesting spot in the environment doesn’t always guarantee an immense return with one’s investment, but may be worth looking into regardless. Food may well be plentiful, but that over-abundance bizarrely enough, ends up becoming meaningless — a pointless exercise. Which funnily enough, seems to be the point. It’s the deeper pockets of space where survival becomes key. Where the risk of having too many in your party slowly comes to the forefront.
Having a larger group so as to horde as much resources as you can get your hands (or rather, snout) on is all well and good, but that means more food to scavenge. So do you in fact play it safe and confide in a limited, maybe even solitary, Trebhum with a mere three inventory slots at your disposal. That’s without taking into consideration the many predators on the prowl, not to mention having to make sure each one of your creatures gets to their desired destination unharmed. As annoying some of the AI-controlled Trebhum can be as you constantly switch control back and forth — watching as one creature gets stuck on a part of the world’s geometry or even, pointlessly, jumps into a cave after you and suddenly forgets how to get back out. There’s a charitable use of respawning on the back-end yes, but even so, paving over the cracks doesn’t mean the issue can’t persist and worryingly lead to some unfair deaths later down the line. Even still, either strategy has its own pluses and minuses here but what The Eternal Cylinder proceeds to get across (and as a result, get right) isn’t so much the importance of staying alive — as many a survival game horribly overestimates on the gameplay side of things — but that exploration is more a benefit than keeping to the straight-and-narrow that is the game’s basic progression.
It’s no surprise to find that ACE Team look to have found a new, inventive way to combine their love for surreal visual oddities, with a gameplay hook with more depth than it initially paints. Perhaps that’s why The Eternal Cylinder stands out so. Managing to linger in the memory for more than its surreal set-up — instead prized for the way it manages to side-step the pitfalls of survival with a game that moves away from the arcade-like short-burst of something like Rock of Ages, into something more long-term and fulfilling in accomplishment. A hard-to-ignore requirement keeping one’s meters topped up it may be, so as to survive the next inevitable sprint away from the titular Cylinder. But it’s pleasing to see ACE Team moving beyond short bursts into admittedly more mechanically-nuanced territory where smart, patient decisions are rewarded and impatient equivalents are just as costly. Territory that, contradictory to its own aesthetic, offers many a subtle coaxing players towards one of many strategies, with all the risk and danger said route might entail. The presentation is sure to catch peoples’ eyes first and foremost, but The Eternal Cylinder‘s promise lies more so in its structure. A fitting balance of survival and budding adventure that players may well want to see continue.