Review: The End Is Nigh
It takes real talent to make something outwardly unpleasant that’s still fun. I’m not just talking about aesthetic, either. In the gaming world this notion extends to titles that are absurdly challenging, overly depressing, or just plain rude. Edmund McMillen has carved out a niche for himself in making games that tick several boxes on the unpleasant side, yet will absolutely devour your time and attention. It happened with Super Meat Boy, it happened with The Binding of Isaac, and it’s happened again with The End Is Nigh. His latest venture represents a clear honing of his art, but one that is honed to a rather painful sharpness.
The world has ended as it is wont to do, and you might be the last living, sentient creature on the planet. I say “might” because you’re naught but a dollop of jet-black ooze, down an eye and strangely okay with living amid the apocalypse. Your game console breaks which inspires you to go out searching for a friend, and that journey takes you across some of the worst hellpits and deathtraps of the wasteland. You’ll shimmy across collapsing skyscrapers, spelunk through caves of foul water and viscera, explore deadly machines humming away on their own, and even visions of a far grimmer future. Eventually you might even find that friend you’re looking for, but it might not be the happy ending you hoped for.
The End Is Night starts you right off in your blasted shell of an apartment and from there launches into a odyssey of ruin. Levels are split into groups of about 20 or so that flow naturally into each other, and in some groupings have multiple paths criss-crossing them. It feels much more like an actual world than the strings of levels from Super Meat Boy, as you can explore for hidden paths and strange encounters off from the regular challenges. As you might expect given its pedigree there are loads of secrets to turn up, sure to tax your already strained platforming skills even further.
Having a more open design to the world and levels gives the game a greater emphasis on observation and exploration, and the specific mechanics of movement build upon this direction. Your little glob cannot and will never double-jump, leaving you primarily with a single solid jump to carry you through the insane challenges ahead. You can hang off ledges and hooks though, and launching off from these can give you significant lateral distance. As you progress further the game will inform you of a few others powers you possess, nothing game-changing but they’ll be necessary to overcome the diverse and lethal threats you come across. Traps range from ubiquitous spikes and deadly growths to acid you can spend no more than a few seconds in, expanding walls of rotten flesh, anti-gravity fields, and more.
Overall this is a much slower and more contemplative platformer than Super Meat Boy, one that invites you to study a scene and devise a strategy before forging forth. It’s supported by a wealth of secrets and mechanics that value precision more than reflexes, but the tradeoff is the difficulty. SMB was hard but fair, and left the most absurd challenges for the very end of the game. The End Is Nigh by contrast expects more from you up front and then spirals off into crazytown by the conclusion. Get used to gaping at new rooms when you first see them, forcing yourself to ignore the little voice in your head calling it impossible. It might take you a hundred tries to complete a single scene but you can do it, and just to really rub it in your face the late game finds a creative way to start limiting your attempts, too.
There are a lot of little unexpected bits of The End Is Nigh that impress me more as I find more of them. You can collect a huge assortment of console games that provide their own retro-inspired challenges, assuming you need further punishment. The secret levels which take place in the future set up a fantastic payoff in the late game that I won’t spoil. Even the art manages to be soft and pleasing despite representing an entire world of gore, rot, and despair. Oh, and I can’t forget the ridiculously catchy soundtrack comprised of manic remixes of classical pieces. Honestly it feels like a superior game to Super Meat Boy in just about every way, except in how those improvements make it a less approachable game as well. I love the pace and the freedom and the style but it gets way harder than I was expecting, so we’ll have to see how long that love holds out. For now though, The End Is Nigh is one of the most engaging and interesting platformers on my list.