Endling: Extinction Is Forever is a stylish survival game with a worthy environmental message, but spends too long treading water.
Like a nature documentary, Endling wants to tell a story as well as display the brute facts of life. Just as the TV lens frames real-life creatures with tales of hardship and heroism that prick your sense of empathy, this survival game wants you to root for a vixen and her cubs sniffing out food among man-made rubble and pollution. The result is a melancholic rumination on rapacious human appetites, and a close-up shot of one four-legged family’s tribulations.
In isolation, each half of Endling's equation is easy to appreciate. From your foxy perspective, humanity is an ongoing natural disaster and constant thorn in the side, right from the start as you guide the pregnant animal from the grasp of a raging forest fire. Then once you find a lair and release your litter (hold X to give birth), your nightly hunting, scavenging routine has to work around the rhythms of human life. The restrictions are analogised most efficiently by a 3D open world that is actually made up of side-scrolling 2D paths you transition between at junction points. When you first venture out, some routes on the map are locked, because people have closed them off in the course of their activities. As they later open up, it’s not because you achieved something, it’s an arbitrary change that sends you in new directions.
And while that means more room to roam, at the same time your surroundings visibly decay from night to night, nurturing a creeping sense of alarm. Natural food sources such as mice and fish dwindle, forcing you to stick your head in bin bags for scraps, while patches of water you need to swim through get greener and sludgier as you near the perimeter of an ominous factory. Fruitful hunting grounds dry up, prompting you to venture further, risking contact with people. An undulating challenge evolves organically as the pieces shift around you.
Concurrently, the fox herself is a sympathetic character, although her cubs soon upstage her in that respect, once they begin accompanying her on excursions. Endling’s sharp cel-shading and fluid animation brings cartoon cuteness to the gang, from the mother’s hang-dog expression when she gets injured, to, well, everything about her progeny. “Aren’t they just to die for?” the game seems to scream when you snuggle up with your squidgy cocktail sausage newborns, or stop to pet their later incarnation as cuddly toys. “Couldn’t you just eat them?” Of course, there are predators about that really could just eat them, and all that adorableness ensures you’re extra vigilant about protecting them. You desperately want the little critters to grow big and strong and learn the tricks of the trade, welling with pride when one triggers a scripted skit that sees them grasp a new skill.
For all the polish on both sides of Endling’s coin, however, its stories don’t harmonise around a coherent experience. For starters, given its grim examination of human violence, there’s relatively little danger. Even in leaner times, there’s almost always enough nutrition in your vicinity to make certain your food meter never empties. And although some human characters attack if you approach, leading to brief Little Nightmares-style chases, more often such threats function as additional roadblocks, forcing you to take a long way round. Yes, it’s a relief that Endling’s fluffy cast aren’t subjected to some gory vulpine survival horror, but the result is a survival game with little tension or urgency, which sits awkwardly with its message.
This reluctance to ratchet up the stress also means there’s not much variety once you’re through Endling’s first act. The opening hour or so stakes core themes down successfully, as the land degrades and the fox is pushed into industrial territory. But the following acts effectively reset the clock to drive the same cycle home again. The most enticing aspect then is the different kinds of devastation and deprivation in the background, as you have to adopt fresh lairs amid logging and fur trapping operations, then a grubby refugee camp. Problem is, your sorties and interactions don’t evolve with these scenes, and the cautionary tale feels like it’s stalling before making its final point.
The fox’s personal journey, meanwhile, gains texture early on when one of the cubs is kidnapped, and from there you sporadically pick up scents that offer insight into where they were taken. The way the pup’s fate is depicted in semi-transparent purple stills, though, makes it difficult to follow, and even more than the big-picture narrative, the story spends too long treading water. Plus, unfortunately, in my case, the denouement never arrived due to a glitch that broke the last string of clues. After diligently following every scent for four hours, I was robbed of closure.
Then again, even if it had played out as intended, the missing cub plot line would have still been an indulgence in an experience that doesn’t need to personalise its stars so much to make you feel their pain. Rather than a production that Attenborough might put his voice to, Endling serves up Disneyfied critters whose design rubs against its unflinching glare at ruthless industrial exploitation. Moments of beauty and tragedy fight against episodes of sentimentality. Given Endling’s deeply critical assessment of people, why give these foxes so much humanity?
The most effective marriage between Endling’s themes and mechanics comes with its depiction of deforestation, as more trees are felled each day. Piles of logs start to block preferred paths, for instance, while an armed lookout becomes harder to avoid thanks to ever-thinning cover that helps you sneak by.