To understand the full force of The Eternal Cylinder, out now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, you need to experience it with a controller in your hand and a pair of headphones over your ears.
For the most part, this survival game, like the rest of Chilean developer ACE Team’s output, is one of notable whimsy. You play as a Trebhum, a tiny made-up creature with a head for a body, two squat legs, and a long trunk. You’re at the bottom of the food chain, but the cylinder the game derives its title from, is literally a great leveler. As high as a mountain and wide as the horizon, at full, ominous speed, it shakes the land, and you, like the other creatures, must run. At various, thrilling moments, I was nearly caught underneath it, trees snapping around me as everything turned orange from its hot metallic glow. But I managed to escape, sighing with relief as it rolled to a gentle stop. I dusted myself down before starting the search for my next meal, wary the cylinder’s standstill was only temporary.
You might think that after nearly twenty hours, this spectacle would start to get old, that its power would diminish, but this isn’t the case. It remains one of the most striking images I’ve ever seen in a video game, smartly inverting the awe-inspiring horizon that nearly every open world adventure features. You see that mountain in the distance, well, what if that was behind you and it rolled relentlessly like a nightmarish apparition—a tsunami in slow motion. The closest comparison I can make is to Giant’s Deep in Outer Wilds, a planet whose oceanic surface is one of unstoppable, swirling cyclones. I get the same kind of environmental dread from The Eternal Cylinder as I do from that inhospitable alien world.
The cataclysmic rolling pin is only one part of the game’s warped ecology, inspired as much by BBC nature documentaries and the movies of Jim Henson as it is the works of surrealist Salvador Dali. You control not just one Trebhum but a group of them, at various points hatching newborns from eggs. Your plucky family must contend with threats such as the Omnogrom, a gigantic upturned mouth that will gobble you up in an instant, and the Cleanser, a car with muscular arms whose toxic yellow light strips you of abilities you’ve accrued so far.
This is the other big component of The Eternal Cylinder. In order to survive, you must direct the Trebhums towards the game’s plentiful flora and fauna so that they may replenish their stamina, water, and health. However, other edibles mutate your already peculiar body. The first thing you eat is a green egg dropped by an insect that resembles a grasshopper. Having slurped it up, the Trebhum convulses and suddenly, with a satisfying pop, longer legs sprout from its body, a characteristic vital for exploring the game’s vertiginous topography. Other useful snacks include a slug-like creature that enables you to transform 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 fond of taking metaphor to its literal, often absurd endpoint, you really are what you eat.
Abilities are either perks that simply make survival a little easier, or provide tools necessary for completing specific environmental puzzles. These often take place in Trebhum temples, towering pyramid-like structures that contain elder Trebhums who dispense advice and move the plot forwards. The puzzles here function a lot like the shrines in Breath of the Wild, tasking you with utilizing a particular ability. Sometimes they’re a joy, like when I directed a group of creatures called Glickbol using my new flute-like trunk. At other points, they can be a head-scratching frustration (one molten temple kept me bemused for a full 30 minutes).
All in, the potential of these evolutionary mutations is never quite fulfilled. They’re important when the game deems them important, like moving beyond a particular obstacle or completing an aforementioned puzzle, but when you’re just traversing the game’s richly detailed environments, they can feel inconsequential. What could have been a sandbox survival game that revelled in the freewheeling combination of mutations actually ends up feeling prescriptive, its designers perhaps a little afraid of truly letting the training wheels off. This is compounded by both the game’s narrator, voiced by Peter Hayden, and the cylinder itself, each of which moves the story forwards in decidedly linear fashion. These thrusting elements give the game considerable drive, but also, at times, the nagging sense that you’re playing a spruced-up endless runner. A little more latitude for experimentation would have gone a long way.
The game’s most effective section flips this straight-lined structure, actually letting me peer behind the cylinder. I blew myself up like a balloon before catching a ride on a plume of hot air. As I rose, the landmass stretched away in celestial pinks, the sky above twinkling with cosmic phenomena. I reoriented myself 180 degrees, saw the cylinder, and directed myself towards it, landing with a plop. This is where the Trebhums and I shared our most joyous moment, curling up into balls and rolling along its top edge in an act of gleeful defiance. But then I had to venture behind, and as I floated down, I saw the desolation that the cylinder had wrought—a dead, flattened stretch of scrub. For a game that’s at its best when delivering big visual juxtapositions (a special mention must go to the high-contrast lighting that deftly accentuates the Trebhums’ bizarre features), this felt like the culmination of that approach. Life and death were separated by a giant metal tube—I got to see both in all their splendour and terror.
For all its bombast, The Eternal Cylinder is also a game of quietness. When I did stop for a breather, I found genuine pleasure in swivelling the camera around so that it faced my ragtag crew of brightly colored Trebhums. One was puffed up like a hot air balloon, another resembled a car engine, and a third looked like an aquatic dinosaur. Here was an assembly of beautiful weirdos, each one unapologetic in their own strangeness—another striking image.
This gets to the crux of what The Eternal Cylinder is about. On the one hand, a technological monolith trundles forwards unstoppably—uniform, perfect, singular. On the other, these cute little Trebhums who embody diversity and uniqueness—our ultimate heroes. It’s a straightforward, big-hearted message that, alongside the storybook narrator, lends the game the feeling of a fable. For this time of gigantic crises we find ourselves in—none more so than that concerning the environment—it’s a fitting allegory, a reminder of the power that resides in the collective, and that our differences are an asset, not a hindrance.