A fable about love and a song about nature that moves and stirs consciences about our purpose in the world.
Within the first five minutes of playing Endling: Extinction is Forever you can tell that this is one of those games that, without being a technical wonder or an action blockbuster with a thrilling and profound story, will inevitably touch you in the depths of your soul. For the journey of Mama Fox (impossible to refer to her simply as the fox, or the main character) is a survival adventure, an intimate journey and a cry for help from nature at the same time.
I was talking about the first five minutes because that is where we get completely into the Mama Fox's skin. Running away from the flames of a forest fire where she lives, we learn some of the few controls that we will use in the adventure. Mama fox can jump, sniff, run and climb trees. But only one thing matters now: running away from the flames. She is desperate (and we are as well, as we watch the trees burn and the other animals die), and she manages to get to a small cave, where she faces an even greater challenge: giving birth to her cubs.
Our aim in the first days is to search for and get food to keep the four little cubs in good health while avoiding other predators and, mostly, the odd humans that prowl around. We only go out at night, under the shelter of darkness, and using our smell we can find and eat anything: wild berries, rubbish, small rodents, fish... anything works for keeping our cubs health bar high. But then a unfortunate event occurs, and a scavenger (a human being) takes one of the cubs out of the cave, and that sets off the rest of the family's journey in search of him. It will be a dangerous journey, but at this point I as the player was fully involved in helping the cub find his family again.
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The young cubs are crucial pieces not only to the story, but also to the gameplay, and of the feeling that the title leaves behind. It might be because, like Mama Fox, I am a father myself. As the constant feeling of my cubs surviving hunger and danger is what has kept me going through the game. The missing cub develops a smell and each night we go out in search of that scent trail that will lead us to new clues about the path that the scavenger took with our cub, while exploring the surroundings, keeping the rest of the cubs safe, all while you teach them how to survive.
There is a 'metroidvania' component in Endling, based precisely on the cubs' learning. There are places that, due to the size of Mama fox, will be inaccessible to her, but not for the little ones, who through events (such as an accidental fall and subsequent advice) will learn new skills, such as digging, jumping, or going through fences or holes in walls. This will provide access to new food resources and open new paths, although the latter is also associated to the story development.
As I have already mentioned, there is a day and night cycle in which we only venture out of the shelter under cover of darkness, and we must always return before the sun rises, whether we have achieved our goals or not. Many times, we will have to decide between letting a prey escape or not following a scent trail of the lost cub because we are too far from the cave and must return as fast as possible (even if that means being noisy and drawing more danger upon us). As I said, the important thing here is to keep the family alive.
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At this point, it is time to talk about the other component of Endling: Extinction is Forever, the world we live in. The map (an essential tool in this game to be able to investigate all the routes, events, and food resources) is divided into different areas. All these areas are located around a factory and some buildings where some cruel humans live. And I say cruel because each encounter you have with them represents the way our species treats the world. Polluting the river, skinning a poor rabbit, using the factory, and dumping waste... With a few exceptions in a more advanced part of the game, humans will be the main enemies. The world is dying, but in a beautiful way, nature keeps withstanding death. The plants, the riverbed... even some dangers like owls are beautifully built in a scenery that, while we move through it by side-scrolling, rotating and changing the orientation to give a sense of depth to the territory. The beautiful music, with its simple, warm, and melancholic melodies, is also a wonderful complement to the story.
Without being particularly difficult (if you aren't too reckless), you can keep the cubs intact at most times. But if you make mistakes, or do not react quickly enough to encounters (presented as quick time events), each loss will weigh like a burden on both you as a player and the game itself, as you may lose a cub with abilities that another does not have, and you have to find another path that will make the adventure more difficult. Sometimes it will seem like there is no way to move forward, or that there is no food left. It can be a bit frustrating to face enemies knowing that you are going to end up hurt and limping your way home, but at least you would have survived to fight another day. And hopefully the cubs will survive too. I also think that the cubs' skills should be learned as a group, since everyone is present, everyone can see the learning and they could embrace it together. But what Herobeat Studios were looking for here is that you value and love each cub for their individual worth, and not as spare parts that can be replaced.
Sometimes Endling has been an exhausting adventure, and a bit unfair too (like life itself), but at the same time it has a beauty and intentionality that many games would like to achieve, and only a few do. Despite its short length, this game has left a mark on me as deeply as Journey or Firewatch did before it. I think Endling will be one of those games that I will want to revisit again from time to time, as if it was part of my family.
9 / 10
A sense of involvement with the story. Very clever use of skills. Outstanding art and sound.
A bit confusing at times. Skills are quite hidden and block progress. Sometimes feels unfair.