The Eternal Cylinder – developed ACE Team Software and published by Good Shepherd Entertainment – is a visual highlight of the recent Xbox Game Fest demos. It has striking otherworldly visuals, a sagely narrator, a mysterious premise, and a suitably chaotic opening sequence that leaves the player as confused as the newly hatched “Trebhum” they control.
A young Trebhum (pronounced treh-bum) is at the very bottom of the food chain – small and weak, yet adaptable and tenacious. They also have some sort of genetic memory that guides them, and excel at rapidly mutating based on their diet. The world into which they’re born is dictated by the cycles of The Eternal Cylinder, a massive rolling wall of death that advances across the planet (the physics of this are not worth interrogating). The Trebhum are somehow important to this cycle, having the power to stall its progress and, hopefully, bring it to an end.
Despite the lack of detail and guidance in the opening hour, The Eternal Cylinder has a surprising amount of lore for curious players. In addition to the ever-present narrator, there are several Trebhum temples and shrines to discover, along with some surviving elders. I thought this would be an entirely systems-driven game but there’s a strong central mystery that kept me pushing forward.
That said, the bulk of your time is spent guiding, evolving, upgrading, and puzzling your way forward. You start off with a single Trebhum, but quickly accumulate several companions that you can switch between at will (they’re AI-controlled and move as a group when not selected). Hoovering up different food sources in the environment is both essential to keep up their stamina (for running from threats and the cylinder) but also to trigger mutations required to circumvent obstacles.
At the most basic level, your task is to guide your Trebhum across increasingly hostile terrain – think topography, weather, and predators – between massive towers that can temporarily halt the cylinder’s progress. Along the way, diversions into ancient ruins spice things up with basic puzzles that rely on the abilities your Trebhum have discovered (mercifully pausing the advance of the cylinder until you move on).
Different food types can expand a Trebhums capacity to store food and water, change their shape, allow them to resist elements, give them the ability to lure other creatures, or briefly frighten predators away. There are 50 mutations in the final game which suggests a good variety of puzzle types. You’ll swiftly learn to spread these mutations out among your party to ensure you can quickly switch to the optimal Trebhum in a pinch.
Once you’ve got a grasp on mutations, the game swiftly introduces survival elements. A well-fed and hydrated Trebhum is a Trebhum that can run fast enough to reach the next tower. This means hoovering up food for nourishment and keeping an eye out for water sources. Thankfully, your AI-controlled Trebhum are able to maintain themselves when you’re not in control, while shrines give you the ability to upgrade your collective stamina, health, food reserves etc. (using multicoloured crystal dust you find in ruins).
It makes for a hectic experience and my first death came swiftly after I expended all my food reserves – by spitting them at nearby enemies instead of eating them – and running out of stamina on the way to another tower. Thankfully, there are both checkpoints and numerous difficulty tweaks that can reduce the impact of the survival mechanics if they’re not to your tastes.
The last thing to touch on is the amazing presentation. It’s not perfect from a technical standpoint – you can find yourself clipping through objects and the camera can go ballistic in tight spaces – but the aesthetics are spot on. The environment and creatures are all out of this world. Very few things look biologically plausible but animate perfectly. The narrator was always enjoyable to listen to but, a few days on from playing, the creatures, ambient audio, and soundtrack feel relatively underwhelming in comparison to the strong visual identity.
All things considered, The Eternal Cylinder demo remains one of the highlights from the Xbox Game Fest. Although I have my misgivings about juggling so many systems, the alien environments, the cute and terrifying creatures within it, and the mystery of the Eternal Cylinder have me intrigued. What is it? Where did it come from? What is the state of the world reborn behind it? How does a cylinder wrap around a globe?!