Within the opening moments of Endling: Extinction is Forever, we take the role of a small fox escaping from a burning forest. Why it’s burning, we don’t yet know, but the graffiti scribbled over endangered species signs indicates that it’s probably our fault. We race through this apocalyptic environment, scrambling up dirt ledges and digging underneath fallen, charred trees.
We’re not alone in our struggle – we see small rabbits hurriedly dash across the foreground and an elk leap overhead as it flees for its life. Eventually, we come to a precipice, the flames licking at our paws – the end of the road. Our decision on what to do next is snatched away from us as the elk bursts onto the screen, its horns aflame as it furiously bucks, trying to put them out. In its frustration, it charges toward us, sending us both careening over the edge of the cliff. While we mercifully land in some old rubbish bags piled below, the elk isn’t so lucky.
It lays on the floor, antlers now smouldering against the orange-tinted sky. Finding the strength for one more pained cry, it slumps dead on the floor. The fox then limps back to its den in the rain, collapsing hard as the lightning strikes outside, a single tear rolling down its cheek.
It’s a heart-breaking opening. But as upsetting as it is, I consider it nothing but a tutorial of sadness – a developer’s kind of attempt to prepare us for what’s to come. Endling: Extinction is Forever is a 3D side-scrolling adventure from Herobeat Studios, and it’s a painful experience from start to finish. But if you can mentally prepare yourself, it’s extremely rewarding.
The heroine fox in this story isn’t just any fox; she’s the last mother fox on Earth. Taking the role of the doting parent, it’s your job to protect your four fox cubs in a world that’s been brought to its knees by climate change, deforestation, pollution – take your pick. In order to do this, you’ll need to venture outside of the safety of your fox to scavenge for food, your cubs’ hunger level indicated by a visible green bar. Endling operates a day and night cycle, meaning that you’ll have a limited period at night to explore before the dangers of the day rear their head.
The scent of food can be detected and followed to the source, which could be one of many things, each requiring its own method of acquisition. A wandering rabbit provides good sustenance, but you’ll need to sneak up on it for the kill. A pile of garbage offers an easy source of scraps but presents its own risk of getting trapped in whatever hazards could lie within.
Exploration will eventually yield new routes as you unlock shortcuts back to your starting point, and a handy map is always available to keep track of unlocked areas and points of interest. However, it can still be a little difficult to work out where to go at times, and although Endling is a side-scroller, the routes veer off into three dimensions, making the world feel much larger than it is.
Fortunately, exploration is nothing but sheer joy, as the art direction that supports this world is astounding. The simple but beautiful illustrations and color palette work perfectly together to encourage details to pop in both the crisp foreground and extensive visual backdrops. This is complemented by an emotive score filled with the tense pitch of stringed instruments and the industrial buzz of electric guitar, accentuating every scene, carefully designed to have your heart racing, swooning, or sinking as required.
How quickly you return to your den each night must be carefully managed. To return too early means a long period of sleep where no food is being gathered. Equally, danger lurks at every turn, so lingering in the wilderness longer than necessary could prove your undoing. Owls watch from high branches in trees, waiting to dive. Bear traps sit and wait for a tiny paw to step forward, and the many humans living in this derelict wasteland are, almost exclusively, out to hurt you. But it’s the risk you must take, because if you do fail in your objective, it’s your cubs that pay the price. It’s no coincidence that you’re given the option to customize their colors at the start of the game.
Every design decision in Endling is made to bring you closer to each of them. Scenes take place in the den between your scavenging excursions showing your cubs gently snoring, eating, or playing games with one another, and the animations work wonderfully with the simple art style to demonstrate the animals’ emotions. As you traverse the environment with them, they age and grow, each learning unique skills that can be utilized in the wild, instilling personality over time. You fight to protect them and calm them down when they’re scared. It isn’t long before you’re unable to ignore the love you’ve developed for them, which makes things so much harder when they go wrong. Death is a theme that permeates the entirety of Endling, but never is it felt more powerfully than when your best efforts aren’t enough to protect your babies. And it will shatter your soul.
There’s a rich narrative running through Endling that leads you further away from the safety of your den and deeper into human-controlled territory, as you track the whereabouts of one of your cubs stolen by a fierce-looking fellow known as The Scavenger. Sniffing out clues will unlock retold moments of events passed, and you’ll slowly piece the mystery together.
Incidentally, you’ll learn more about the people of this world, as you explore the factories and surrounding lands where they continue to ravage the planet’s natural resources. The constant barrage of near-fatal abuse that you encounter from every source imaginable may be enough to put you off risking any close encounters. But even here, in the darkest times, kindness can be found – and it’s through these brief glimmers of affection that you’ll find a semblance of joy in what is otherwise a barbaric tale.
Furthermore, you will begin to discover that everyone affected by this disaster has their own plight, and nothing is black and white at the end of the world. Endling is an environmental message bellowed by the developers without so much as a token gesture of subtlety. Extinction is forever, and though this may not be the current state of reality, it’s clear that Herobeat Studios wants to make sure we’re aware that it’s the direction we’re heading in.
Endling: Extinction is Forever launches July 19 for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. NME reviewed it on PC.
Endling: Extinction is Forever has as much subtlety in its message as it does in its title. But that’s the point. What it does have, however, is a nuanced, beautiful, and tragic story to back up that message. It’s a masterfully crafted side-scrolling adventure, brimming with emotion, supported by beautiful visuals and music. It blends its narrative and survival elements perfectly, and though it’s difficult to call something this painful enjoyable, it is a deeply affecting and worthwhile experience.
- A strong and important environmental message
- A powerful, emotional narrative
- Simple but beautiful visuals
- A carefully curated bespoke soundtrack
- Well-balanced survival and narrative elements
- Could be too upsetting for some
- Can be confusing working out where to go next