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Review: Endling - Extinction is Forever

19 Jul 2022

Both low concepts and high concepts abound in the wide world of video games. Some games have premises that could be the basis of full dissertations, and others can be immediately understood in a single, tantalizing sentence. Endling – Extinction is Forever, developed by Herobeat Studios and published by HandyGames, is thoroughly a part of the latter category.

It puts players in the role of the last mother fox on the planet and caretaker of four newborn cubs, charging them with the simple task of survival in a forested area being actively destroyed by humans. It’s an immediately communicable idea and an intriguing premise for a video game, but how well is it able to capitalize on that creative concept?

Endling – Extinction is Forever releases on July 19th, 2022 for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. The PlayStation 4 version was played for this review on a PlayStation 5.

The Fires of Industry

Endling – Extinction is Forever begins with urgency. The mother fox bursts into frame as the forest around her is being razed to the ground by looming figures with flamethrowers. Mighty tree trunks fall to the ground and the flames rise higher as she attempts to reach safety, eventually discovering a hole in a cliffside that will fit her.

After collapsing from exhaustion, the fox gives birth to four cubs who will have a desperate need for food and protection when the night comes. From then on, the narrative becomes solely focused on the daily struggles of the mother fox, scavenging for resources and trying to keep her cubs alive as humans continue to pave the way for manufacturing plants and ways to consume the area’s natural resources.

Endling’s emphasis on putting you in the shoes of an animal facing seemingly impossible odds might make it easy to assume that there’s no larger motivation or narrative thrust, but it does an impressive job of telling a story that has a defined beginning, middle, and end despite of the absence of dialogue and without the frequent use of cutscenes.

The title really shines through its environmental storytelling, though. As you’re exploring the paths in search of food, you observe the further destruction of your surroundings and take in the way it worsens with the passing of each in-game day. Every time the fox and her cubs leave the safety of their lair, you’ll notice more and more greenery will have been cleared away as nature is desiccated by industrialization, directly affecting your gameplay as natural resources begin to dwindle and debris becomes more plentiful. Endling goes out of its way to show how other creatures are affected by the razing as well.

One of the game’s most biting successes is found in its refusal to shy away from depicting the horrors of factory farming. Intelligently, the viewpoint of these situations never leaves the perspective of the fox, allowing the player to take notice of it without the game highlighting it in a cutscene. Endling presents the cruel treatment of animals in these situations in a very stark way, without blood or gore, but it’s perhaps more impactful for this given just how calculated and cold it all feels.

This is all to say that Endling’s unabashedly eco-conscious messaging is a success. It handles the issues it presents with gravity and care, all while passively investing the player in the way the environment withers as days go by. One might think there’s only so much that can be done in a story about the last mother fox on Earth, but Endling manages to accomplish a surprising amount while still allowing the player room to interpret the events as they see fit.

How Does the Fox Play?

For a title with such an encapsulated premise, the gameplay of Endling is a bit less easy to explain. For all intents and purposes, it’s a 3D sidescrolling exploration game that sees you guiding the mother fox and her cubs down preset paths that occasionally intersect with one another, allowing you to switch between them at each crossing.

After exiting your lair for the first time, you have free reign to explore the paths available to you on that day, sniffing for scents and whatever means necessary to keep your cubs fed. Their hunger meter is a constant presence at the bottom of the screen, making finding food your ultimate goal more often than not. Resources are plentiful enough when you’re exploring newer paths you’ve yet to see the end of, but when you’ve exhausted most of your options and a new night begins, the hunger meter can run dangerously low at points. This urges you to retread old ground in the hopes of finding a rabbit or rat scuttling down a trail just to reach a comfortable spot before resting for the morning.

In addition to dangers like owls, traps, and humans actively hunting wildlife, the player is also restricted by how much time they have in the night before the sun fully rises and more humans begin to patrol the area. This meter can deplete completely without immediate consequence to the player, but it makes returning to your lair much more challenging, causing brushes with death and tense detours to become common.

Progression is largely tied to reaching a certain day threshold. Certain paths will be blocked off until you reach a specific day that unlocks them and thus more of the map to explore. Players aren’t left completely to their own devices though, as “events” will be marked on the map for them to investigate. These will typically point you to a new source of food, grant your cubs a new skill to make survival and foraging just a bit easier, or feature a scene that advances the overall storyline of the area.

A majority of the cub skills are found by chance while exploring an unmarked trail, however, which encourages exploration and serves as a nifty bonus when you’re trying to sniff out a way to feed the cubs. Unfortunately, the map can sometimes be difficult to follow in relation to the physical placement of the paths, especially when you’re trying to reach an event marker—an experience made even more frustrating given the time constraint the player faces when they leave the lair.

Endling’s largest detriment is that it doesn’t do much to reinvent the daily loop for the player or ask them to carry out certain mechanics in new and interesting ways; the most interactive element of the gameplay is deciding which trail you want to move the mother fox left and right across. Occasionally you might need to climb a tree or sneak up on a creature in order to pounce on it, but both of these are accomplished by simple button presses. The same goes for the timed movement required to avoid being caught by an enemy that shines a light in between clearings of bushes, but this only happens in a few select locations and is handled the exact same way each time.

It’s rather repetitive in other words, but the consistent, open-ended feeling of the game is easy to interpret as a decision that reinforces the game’s core themes of impending extinction and uncertainty. One could even argue the game’s limitations as a sidescroller are intentional too, reducing the fox’s navigation of the world to narrow paths while the humans devastating the locale have free reign over it. Still, regardless of the intentionality behind these decisions, Endling suffers for them.

There’s also the matter of the game’s price point, which is $29.99 at the time of writing. All told, it took me roughly five and a half hours to reach the end credits of Endling. I enjoyed my time with it—mostly in relation to the narrative elements discussed earlier and the presentation discussed below, but it did leave me feeling as though there could have been more. Despite missing one of the cub skills and a handful of events, nothing was there to entice me to play through the game again outside of trophy/achievement hunting.

Adorable and Haunting

The appearance of Endling – Extinction is Forever is one of its most standout elements. The visuals of the wildlife fighting for survival are soft and endearing in a way that enhances the solemnity of the decaying environments as they become more polluted with the passage of time. That grit carries over into the designs of the humans, who appear more grungy and weather-beaten, and everything is brought to life through smooth animations that perfectly match the aesthetics and lighting of the forest.

As you work your way through the game and earn access to new areas, you get to explore a variety of different environments. Snowbound fields turn to dried ravines and factories give way to underground passageways that are all quite distinct from one another.

While elements of factory farming and the mistreatment of animals are found in its presentation, it’s worth clarifying that Endling is far from a constant barrage of depressing imagery. And yet, although this portrayal is artful and not gratuitous whatsoever, those who are particularly sensitive to seeing these situations may want to tread lightly.

The game’s music is atmospheric and somber in a way that perfectly accentuates its tone. It strikes the difficult balance of being pleasing to the ears while avoiding being a distraction, and also plays its own part in bringing some levity to the more serious aspects of Endling.

And Ever

Endling – Extinction is Forever is a bold, unique, slow burn of a game that excellently conveys its ecologically conscious message and paints a dire image of rampant industrialization on a personal, microcosmic level. Because of this success, the game manages to garner an amount of player investment that belies its short runtime, but that runtime is also one of the game’s biggest hurdles when contrasted with its relatively high price tag.

Had more steps been taken to engage the player in the minute-by-minute gameplay or encourage replayability, the number below might have been a notch or two higher. As it stands, however, Endling is a game where the gameplay and mechanics are readily outclassed by its theming and presentation. It’s certainly an experience worth having, but not one that lives up to its full potential.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by HandyGames for PS4. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of HandyGames.