Life starts from an egg for a creature called a trebhum, and our newly hatched trebhum, small but curious, peers out into a strange world. At that same moment, a great endless Cylinder wakes from its slumber. Slowly it rouses; faster it grows—rumbling, rolling, crushing, consuming—eternal and inevitable. The trebhum flees the destruction as fast as its little feet can carry it. For who can stand before The Eternal Cylinder?
Thus begins the odyssey of The Eternal Cylinder and the tiny trebhum who dwell in its shadow–one of the most unique games I’ve experienced. The concept is fascinating, and the story and world are brought to life with spectacular visual designs and soaring, memorable moments. They’re also weighed down by overbearing narration and an excessive array of systems.
It’s a Dangerous World for a Trebhum
Eventually, the Cylinder slows to a stop, and your tiny trebhum can begin to explore the world. The visuals are immediately striking, from strange and fantastic flora and fauna to a brilliant alien sky. While you might be tempted to go in for a closer look, not everything is friendly. Some creatures want to be left alone and will use defense mechanisms like poison gas to make sure they are. Others think trebhum make for a fine snack.
Most foreboding of all is the Cylinder. While it may rest for a moment, venture too far and it springs to life, crushing everything in its path and forcing you to flee lest you meet the same fate. Watching the Cylinder bring wanton destruction to biomes teeming with life is horrifying. I felt bad for the creatures unable to escape, even if they had tried to eat me earlier. And the Cylinder doesn’t simply roll ahead mindlessly. It has servants, which boast the most grotesque and imaginative visual designs in the game, to carry out its inscrutable yet clearly sinister will.
Trebhum, which look something like a cross between a tiny human and an elephant, aren’t particularly imposing, but they are adaptable. Consuming certain edibles bestows a trebhum with mutations. This could be extra feet to run faster, a hard shell for protection from predators, or thick fur to ward off the cold. Whatever the challenge, a trebhum with the right mutations can rise to meet it. These mutations are the main mechanic in The Eternal Cylinder. Sometimes there’s a puzzle or obstacle that requires a certain ability to overcome. For example, a trebhum might need powerful legs to jump a large chasm. Other mutations can help you find food or stay safe from predators.
You’ll spend much of your time searching for and experimenting with different mutations. Playing with the mutations is great fun. It’s always a joy to witness the physical manifestation of a previously unknown mutation, as most are both striking and imaginative. It’s also exciting when you find a new way to use a particular combination of abilities to your advantage. Over time, new trebhum join your herd, and mutations allow each one to be both distinctive and useful. I’d frequently switch between my trebhum depending on the situation, and their different visual styles and abilities gave them characters I found myself becoming attached to. My brave and determined protector Gwegwo used its hard shell and trumpet-like call to chase off predators, while my wise and cautious scout Grogu soared into the air with its balloon-like body to scan for threats with its analytic eyes.
Roll for Your Life!
Controlling your trebhum isn’t always the most orderly affair. When a trebhum needs to get somewhere in a hurry, it curls up into a ball and rolls. Rolling is much faster than walking, and often the only way to escape danger, but you’re also prone to pinballing off terrain and obstacles. Still, I didn’t find the movement frustrating. Rather it felt like the trebhum are the underdogs, doing the best they can despite their limitations. It helps that they don’t look particularly graceful.
Because things are often chaotic, your herdmates can fall behind. Rather than force you to worry about that, The Eternal Cylinder simply has them appear somewhere in the vicinity once you reach your destination. It can be jarring and does mean you won’t always be able to swap trebhum easily when things get intense, but I think this choice is better than the alternative of trying to manage the whole herd as a unit. As it is, the AI isn’t especially clever, and stragglers still manage to occasionally meet their demise in the jaws of a lurking predator.
The Story of the Many
Though the early game focuses on survival and it takes a bit to get going, story is central to The Eternal Cylinder. This is where my biggest problem with the game lies, specifically in the way it uses narration. An enthusiastic British chap frequently pops in to talk you through events, and The Eternal Cylinder seems to be going for a David Attenborough meets Bastion vibe, but the narration quickly becomes overbearing. I don’t need a voice constantly telling me what to do and giving a play-by-play of every event. The environment itself is an effective communicator. I know my trebhum are cold because I see them shivering. I hear the Cylinder rumble to life when it’s time to run. The Eternal Cylinder is strongest when it leans into this type of storytelling because it puts your focus squarely on the sights, sounds, and mysteries of its fantastic alien world. Sadly, it often chooses to forgo that, and explicit narration dampens the sense of wonder.
The narration also leads to frequent simplistic telling in place of rich showing. Don’t say “the trebhum felt sad.” Give the little guys some personality and let them shine in the important moments! The trebhum don’t emote though, which robs them of emotional depth. Simply stating the emotion as “sad” also removes any nuance or ambiguity. The Eternal Cylinder clearly understands the power of ambiguity. It doesn’t get lost in dumping lore or overexplain the background and details of the Cylinder itself. Instead, it lets you experience the Cylinder rather than presume something so strange can be expressed in words at all. I think the Eternal Cylinder should have taken a similar approach to more of the storytelling involving the trebhum and their quests.
For all my complaints, I’d still say the Eternal Cylinder tells a great story. It’s carried by your encounters with the Cylinder and its secrets, all of which are outstanding. In these moments, spectacular visuals, memorable gameplay, and yes, even the voice-overs, all align into something greater. You don’t so much understand the Cylinder as come to understand that such a thing could never be understood. No, the trebhum must know themselves and what they are capable of. Each encounter builds on the last, ultimately leading to a final climax that pulled me in and had me on the edge of my seat in a way only a rare few games ever have, and an ending I’ll remember for a long time.
So Many Systems
The Eternal Cylinder has a lot of systems. Too many, in fact. Besides the aforementioned mutations, there are survival mechanics involving food, water, and temperature, resources you can spend on a skill tree to improve the quality and quantity of your trebhum, and crafting recipes that give you on-demand access to certain mutations. Individually, all the systems work fine. But aside from the mutations, none are integral to the experience. Dealing with hunger and thirst is trivial on the default difficulty. Food is abundant, and so long as you occasionally stop to grab some you’ll be fine. Upgrades are nice, but they’re not particularly exciting or necessary. Crafting is required for one particular task, but otherwise, you can always find the mutations you need locally. Your pool of crafted mutations is a luxury, one I found I rarely used.
This ties into the exploration. The Eternal Cylinder rightly wants to reward you for taking the time to look around, but its systems make the payoff underwhelming. You might discover a hidden cave, only to find it’s full of food you don’t need. You’ll enter many a trebhum shrine, each of which teaches a crafting recipe and lets you invest in your skills. Meanwhile, my favorite moments exploring were those where I found a fantastic new creature, an interesting landform, or best of all, some clue into the nature of this mysterious world and the inscrutable Cylinder. Sadly, the mechanical rewards are more common and simply not very exciting. Including enough shrines to support the skill tree and crafting even leads to a bit of padding, as The Eternal Cylinder includes several areas whose only notable feature is a shrine.
The Eternal Cylinder would have been better served reining itself in and putting more weight on its most important ideas. As it is, a lot of the things I did felt like doing things for the sake of having things to do. I didn’t hate it, and you can largely ignore the systems you don’t enjoy, but I wish more of my time had been spent meaningfully. I always looked forward to engaging with the Cylinder, but the sections between those moments could be meandering. This is especially true early on when the trebhum are focused on survival and the Cylinder remains an ominous shadow in the distance.
Sound and Music
The Eternal Cylinder makes excellent use of sound and music to complement its outstanding visual design. The most fearsome predators announce their presence with blood-curdling cries, while more subtle threats creep up alongside ominous music that fades in and out. And like the trebhum, the music always adapts to fit the situation. When you’re free to explore in relative peace, it fades into an atmospheric background. When the Cylinder or its servants go on the offensive, it transforms into an ominous dirge, accompanied by the rumbling and crashing of the Cylinder’s destruction.
While I have my complaints about the Eternal Cylinder, I’m ultimately glad I played it. It takes a bit to get going, can meander at times, and the storytelling often frustrated me. It also consistently nails the most important moments, and by the time the credits rolled, I realized The Eternal Cylinder had been something special that I’ll remember for a long time. Maybe The Eternal Cylinder isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s an experience unlike anything else–one well worth having despite its flaws.
THE ETERNAL CYLINDER IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Many thanks goes to Good Shepherd Entertainment for a PC review code for this title.
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A veteran of Oregon Trail and Battletoads, Wes has been playing and talking about games for as long as he can remember. He’s down to try almost anything, and he especially enjoys games with gripping narrative experiences.