It’s been a hot minute since a cute animal adventure scarred me for life. Ever since the first Shelter game where my sweet baby badger got snatched up by the claws of a giant eagle, I’ve learned that these adorable animal games can be pretty ruthless. It’s the maternal connection that gets me, the pang of loss for something you were supposed to protect. It shoots right between the ribs and straight into the heart. Ow.
Endling - Extinction Is Forever is one such game. You play as a fox mother trying to keep her four cubs alive in a post-apocalyptic world, and from that premise alone it definitely feels like developers Herobeat Studios are deadset on making me cry. After playing through the game in two evenings, Endling didn’t end up being the emotional gut punch I had braced myself for, but its story of scrappy survival did have me reaching for the tissues by the closing credits. What can I say, I see an animal in distress and I’m a weepy mess.
Set sometime in the not-too-distant-but-kind-of-distant future, Earth is in serious trouble thanks to, you guessed it, us being greedy goblins. Smoke chokes the planet and toxic waste pollutes rivers and forests, making survival extremely difficult and wow, the game doesn’t wait for a single beat to remind you of that struggle.
When we first meet our pregnant fox mum, she almost gets burned to death in a forest fire, is inches away from being run over by a truck, and is chased off the side of a cliff by a stag that’s caught fire (yes, you read that right). Then, when she finally settles down in a dark, cool den and gives birth, one of her babies is snatched away - it’s not looking good, hun. Endling - Extinction Is Forever is about finding this lost cub, trying to keep yourself and your other three furballs alive as you search the surrounding wasteland for clues about the kidnapped kit's whereabouts.
Taking place in one big area that surrounds a monstrous factory, you guide your fox mum (her kits following behind) along different side-scrolling pathways, the world moving around you like a post-apocalyptic carousel as you explore. Factories pump black goo into rivers, plumes of smoke fill the sky, and masses of uprooted trees are just some of the backdrops behind you. It all conjures an image of a world slowly dying at the hands of humans. We really suck, huh?
Leaving the den during the safety of night-time, you have until morning to find food for your family. The cubs share a single hunger meter at the bottom of the screen that decreases as the night goes on. If the meter empties one of your cubs will start to lag behind the group and then eventually curl up into a little ball and, umm, stop moving. You absolutely do not want that to happen, so you'll need to sniff out the scent of something edible and then follow it to its source. Berries are pretty common but will only replenish a little bit of the hunger meter, whereas something like a rabbit will practically fill the cub's entire bellies. Naturally, though, they're much harder to find. It becomes a balancing act of finding enough food but also getting back to the den in time before the cover of the night comes to an end.
During my playthrough, all my cubs survived but I did have a few scares that left me having to scramble for a Plan B. As you explore each day, memorising routes and food source locations becomes second nature. One time I made sure to make a mental note of where an apple tree was, hoping to return to it as an easy way to get my pups fed on a desperate day. However, when I went back, I found that it had been chopped down and its delicious produce had been fed to the jaws of a hungry machine. As a result, one of my cubs started lagging behind and I had to carry them as I hightailed it to another food source.
Every person is a weird amalgamation of flesh, rubber tubing, and machine, making this strange world even more alien.
The ever-changing environment keeps you firmly on your toes and is Herobeat’s way of saying 'don’t get too comfortable'. The pups learn new skills like jumping, digging, hunting, and climbing, which makes scavenging easier, but it’s balanced out with a world that's slowly becoming more dangerous as time goes on.
Depending on the path you take, you might find a wealth of food, encounter a nasty trap, or have to run from ferocious guard dogs. One bad move could be the difference between death and living to see another day, and it's this tension that Endling captures really well.
But food isn’t the only thing you have to worry about. Creepy gas-masked humans roam the landscape, desperate to catch you for food or to skin you for your fur. The longer you stay out in the early hours of the morning, the more you risk bumping into someone. Every person is a weird amalgamation of flesh, rubber tubing and machine, making this strange world even more alien.
There’s one dude, the furrier, who is determined to capture you (obsessed much?), and if he spots you will begin to chase you until you either run away or fight him off. If he does manage to swipe you, you’re prompted to mash the space bar to escape. Encounters with humans like this can end with you getting injured, meaning that you can't run as fast, which in turn puts your little buddies at risk. Working out how to navigate the map without endangering your cubs will start to become part of your night-time routine.
All of this struggle and you still have to find your lost pup. Every couple of days you’ll catch a whiff of your missing ball of fluff and following its scent will lead you to story moments shown in ghostly images. The guilty party behind this pup-napping is a poacher, and his story is also shown in these apparitions, hinting that life for humans may be just as hard as it is for the foxes. Don’t feel too sorry for him though; he’s also the reason why my fox mum has met her end with a bullet on several tense occasions. Meeting a bitter end sends you back to the beginning of the day, resetting all your progress.
As I mentioned earlier, Endling is not the ruthless survival game I was expecting, but it does a great job of creating tension between the caretaking of your cubs and the dangerous world you need to protect them from. The daily routine of finding food, avoiding danger and returning to your den can feel like you're going through the motions sometimes, but the constantly changing landscape and mix of tender and tense story moments conjure a survival tale that’ll be sure to wrench your heartstrings.