The real hallmark of any game whose characteristics generally involve the surreal aren’t so much the manner with which they implement said tonal direction, but instead how they don’t. How the extravagance of its presentation instead slots neatly alongside the depth its gameplay. At times, an intended red herring to disguise the many revelations at just what said game can end up mustering up — emergent or otherwise. Playing through The Eternal Cylinder, at the briefest of moments, conjures positive memories of the Japanese corner of the industry circa early-to-mid 2000s. Specifically a grouping of games — unbound by platform or studio allegiance alike — that so boldly ditched the notion of comfort in familiarity. Either with their own heritage or just some unwritten rule that a game’s world to draw us into couldn’t let loose from time to time.
The cluster of comparisons — loose a relation these may sound initially — to draw with Chilean developer ACE Team’s latest creation are wide. Off the top of my head: Katamari Damacy, LocoRoco, Pikmin, even the likes of Death Stranding and a slew of would-be mascot 3D platformers from the late-90s find themselves in amongst the mix. Less a direct description of ACE Team’s gameplay pitch here and more a reminiscing on the team’s fascination for left-field fronts hiding an engaging core of hybrid ideas. Whether that is arguably the studio’s biggest profile name Rock of Ages — with its absurdist emphasis on humor complimenting a surprising fusion of ball-rolling and tower defense — or something else entirely. To play through The Eternal Cylinder is as much a welcome reminder that games can be just as interesting to dig through when at their most surreal — when recognizable names like Japan Studio, Suda51, Swery and Kojima are at their absolute, odd-ball best — as it is a reminder that this fits exactly with ACE’s own modus operandi.
A design direction that, with The Eternal Cylinder, once more stands front-and-center. Proud, unashamed of how it may be perceived — moments of loosened discovery equally met by surreal imagery that may or may not be tempting some late-game narrative revelation. Where the feeling with past ACE Team’s releases has been an intentional balancing act between having played locked in focus and having them chuckle at the scene unfolding — at the risk of being bereft of pure originality — the team’s newest venture feels like the dial is leaning a touch more towards fleshing out its more mechanical aspect. Adventurously so it has to be said; as blatant a visual attraction the Salvador Dali-inspired alien world is, this is a game that, the further in your progress, is convincing in its dedication. Dedicated to coming up with as many interlocking systems as one can handle without at anytime feeling overwhelmed, but dedicated more so in barely revealing any of it upfront. It’s the mystery permeating a vast chunk of The Eternal Cylinder that ACE Team have nailed spectacularly.
You wouldn’t think it going into its abrupt starting point. Taking control of your first [of many] spherical little creatures with legs, dubbed Trebhum, as the narrator quickly lays down the law of the land that is this world’s setting and its current situation. A vast, horizon-spanning cylindrical structure wherein the game gets its namesake — a structure so powerful that it crushes anything in its path. The only way to survive is to retreat further and further across the vast stretch of this world — making sure to thread one’s self between towers scattered about, that are as far as we know, the only thing that can put the halt to the cylinder’s perpetual destructive course. In gameplay terms, The Eternal Cylinder‘s progression is straightforward and at first glance nothing that special. Combining the most rudimentary of components from both the survival genre as well as a sprinkling of roguelite-fashioned opportune upgrading from time to time. The latter’s involvement in the generation of new Trebhum to discover on one’s journey not too far behind in that regard.
So looking at this pitch on paper — gather resources, keep meters in check, run to the next tower, start again — The Eternal Cylinder doesn’t sound all that exciting. Or as joyous a systems-heavy game, to delve into, as it actually is. Its physics implementation can be nonsensical at points — especially when all you’re trying to do is jump atop a perched bit of rock, to find your Trebhum ricochet wildly off the side — and those dreaded meters to keep topped up are always staring at you, constantly decreasing even when little is taking place. It all sounds a little dull and dismissive, right? And that’s even with the incentivising artistic direction going on. The reason why all of this is as compelling as it is is because ACE Team have identified the one thing most survival games shockingly ignore when it comes to carving that ideal survival-oriented release: the desire for management. That player-led deduction that a full stomach or a maxed-out water meter may — and at some points will — be the deciding factor on whether you reach that next coveted safe zone or not.
The other added benefit is of course the idea that the Trebhums themselves aren’t just characters you control, but instead act like living-breathing inventory boxes. Not just in the sense of inventory space existing as a mere tab or an options menu as standard in most games, but as something more consequential — inventory space that itself, strangely enough, becomes almost another meter to keep in check. Another spot where opportunity, risk and most of all, that big pay-off can materialize. This is where the Pikmin comparisons of previous are at their strongest but also their most fruitful. Just like Nintendo’s miniature, sprouted armies, simply gathering as many Trebhum as one can get a hold of isn’t as straightforward or as absolving the game’s many dilemmas as it may sound. And while there’s a point to raise that not for a second does the game feel like it’s more punishing to venture with just one Trebhum as opposed to a troupe of five, there’s still that nagging questioning on whether it’s worth having an additional creature or two, or three, for better flexibility.
How this all plays out is essentially like this: each Trebhum has three item slots with which you can fill with a particular kind of object. This can be food, water resources, minerals and most importantly, flora/fauna that when consumed allows your creature (or creatures) to mutate. Doing so grants a Trebhum a new quirk that not only grants a new ability, but most of all, can alter the very idea of resource-gathering in itself. This is exemplified best by a certain grouping of mutations that, for example, convert stored resources into immediate food. Another applies the same process but with water, while another is able to break down minerals into the prime currency used to upgrade one’s stats later down the line. You might justifiably assume this all sounds like the game making the process of survival easier, maybe too easy. Not least if you don’t even need to select an item yourself, if the game is just going to do it automatically. But what if that creature you’re converting into energy for another meter houses a mutation that could come in handy for an additional Trebhum you don’t have yet? What if those materials could be used in another way? What if the more disposable resources could potentially be used as make-shift projectiles to nudge a precious items from off an elevated pedestal one can’t reach by regular means?
It’s here’s where ACE Team’s interweaving of mechanics and decisions to make shines. Not only because the manner of keeping meters topped up is relatively contained to tolerable side glances, but best of all, it furthers another one of the core appeals: the option of exploration. The Eternal Cylinder never makes it so that players have to comb every inch of its regions just to merely make the experience reasonable enough. In fact, there are certain points where players can go out of their way to skip activating towers completely so as to keep the sequence of outrunning the cylinder going longer. But even then, if you’re certain that tame level of risk is not one you want to contend with, it’s likely there’s a lot players will still miss on their travels. And that’s not because the map is intentionally vague, but because The Eternal Cylinder manages to play a two-faced role on reassuring players have more than enough to progress briskly onward, only to then remind them that said assurances are an amateurish mistake to make.
It’s not singular in its occurrence that The Eternal Cylinder manages to draw its players into a false sense of security. Those tense, bee-line trajectories — activated when you step out of the designated safe zones marked by a visible blue-glowing barrier — are a great example of this. Another instance where ACE Team’s deliberate decision-making in certain parts of design are at first absurd in their presence but eventually genius in their execution. During these sequences, wherein a Trebhum’s rolling ability to quickly cover ground comes into play, the camera pulls out slightly to reveal the distance one needs to make to reach the next visible stream of red light and adjoining towers, but rarely does it give away much of the geography before you. Which, on more than one occasion, can lead to an unexpected reveal of some deadly drop to detour around or uneven ground to maneuver through. To once again manage one’s stamina — constantly on the look out for food or flora that can instantly recharge that much-needed energy to sprint to safety. It’s likely players will find themselves making decisions on the go, but never does this abrupt shouldering of responsibility feel unwarranted. For as much The Eternal Cylinder gets right with laying everything out to decipher, it does just as well when it decides against and throws up a dilemma without warning, gleefully waiting for a player’s panic to ever-so-slightly emerge.
Only when the story side of things comes into play does The Eternal Cylinder unfortunately find the novelty of its premise flip into momentary annoyance, manifesting in one of two ways. The first being situations involving the many predators of the world; understandable a reason it may be to litter the land with these ghastly beasts that want to provide you the worst of times, The Eternal Cylinder sometimes doesn’t nail the balance between offering a reasonable-enough threat to consider…and just generally getting in the way with what you’re trying to do. And while the main story-affiliated, antagonistic foes can be dismissed as being gimmick-relevant to the set-piece and the world-building, the same unfortunately can’t be said for the regular assortment of predatory creatures. Not least when all you want to do is gather resources or even get a new Trebhum to hatch without a monster blind-siding you from behind. It doesn’t help that the game offers little in the way of warning or any semblance of visual/audible indicating a predator is eyeing you up or proceeding to attack you anyway.
The other minor annoyance is with how the story’s main beats are showcased on occasion. While the presence of a narrator to guide you between key moments can have its benefits — and may even bolster the mood of the world, as a game like Biomutant demonstrated sufficiently enough — the means by which objectives are explained can be too direct for one’s liking. The notion of a story in totality is also one where The Eternal Cylinder comes across as if it’s trying to comply with some irrelevant standard. A requirement that has so often permeated a lot of independent releases that hearken on about the mystery of its story. Not to say the game doesn’t at least deliver on its preceding implications, but it’s an element the game needn’t require and could so easily drop without losing much, if any, already-established appeal.
The idea that ACE Team’s less-appealing efforts are those that feel too conformed to expectation best surmises why The Eternal Cylinder is as successful a new IP for the Chilean studio as it is. For all the team’s expertise on the weird, the fact that this visual identity is far from the intended appeal should give you an idea at just how well the mechanics and overall reaction to such interlocking systems plays out. Most of which left to the player’s own imagination with how best to utilize said tools and similarly-spoken scenarios. But not for a second do ACE Team view an otherwise absence of comprehension as an automatic fail-state. Yet at the same time, managing to burrow enough of a temptation that failure in that regard will almost always be by the player’s own curious, sometimes greedy, hand. That level of confidence but more so lenience in its concept — an understanding on when and how survival mechanics can be implemented without feeling tedious or invasive — in the end is what makes The Eternal Cylinder as fascinating an adventure to decipher as it is to watch unfold with bated breath.