Balancing the difficulty in a platform game is a fine art. Even though the genre has pretty-much existed since the inception of modern video games, developers are still often guilty of not providing enough of a challenge or making levels almost impossible to complete. Even in recent times, only a select few titles have been able to truly craft what can be classified as platforming perfection.
The End Is Nigh is the latest title from Edmund McMillen (one of the masterminds behind The Binding of Isaac series and also Super Meat Boy) and co-creator Tyler Glaiel. Published on the Switch eShop by Nicalis, this latest release is described as a spiritual successor to Super Meat Boy. It’s easy to see why, as the game emulates the punishing yet addictive platform action players were first exposed to back in 2010, and somewhat expands on the concept by including subtle adventure elements.
The story in The End Is Nigh is focused on a little anthropomorphic globule named Ash, who is one of few who has survived the end of the world and must now endure a lifetime of pain and suffering. It’s the player’s job to make Ash’s existence more bearable by guiding him on an epic quest as he evades an endless swarm of decaying, mutant-like creatures and attempts to make a friend out of the human remains he finds along his journey. In contrast to the violent yet colourful tones of Super Meat Boy, the themes within The End Is Nigh are much bleaker, with plenty of morbid settings and some highly explicit humour thrown in for good measure.
Just like Super Meat Boy, there is very little room for error in The End Is Nigh. This is a precision platformer where you’ll be required to make leaps of faith and avoid lethal projectiles on a regular basis. If Ash hits an enemy, is impaled by spikes, crushed by a block, falls off a ledge or suffers one of the many other painful deaths, he’ll be reset back to the start of an area. Fortunately, the character movement – including the basics like running and jumping – feel exactly like the mechanics in Super Meat Boy, allowing you to alter the height of Ash’s jumps and speed of his movement. The controls provide pinpoint accuracy and a high level of responsiveness to ensure you can’t blame failures on the controller. Ash has also been given a few previously unseen moves, including the ability to hang from ledges and what can be described as a ground pound. During certain parts of levels these moves becomes essential to master in order to keep Ash alive.
Learning from your mistakes is a big part of the experience in The End Is Nigh. Just like it was in Super Meat Boy, replaying a section multiple times over is quite common; in some cases it’s best to take a break and come back to it when you’ve cleared your mind. As stressful as certain areas may be, the game never pushes the limits. Any seasoned platform game enthusiast should never feel too out of their depth. Provided you’ve got the necessary skills, the speed and understand the patterns of each level, it’s more a matter of perseverance.
The main difference in The End Is Nigh is how levels string together. There are more than 600 levels – each offering unique challenges – with no menu breaks in between. It’s a seamless transition from one screen to the next. This design also means you can backtrack within areas, enter levels from both sides of the screen and even via different pathways. Occasionally you’ll be required to backtrack to obtain a collectible that is only reachable from a particular angle or in order to make progress in an entirely different direction. The game’s map, located in the pause menu, gives you an indication of the area you are in and the current chapter. Every time you make it to a new area you’ll reach what is essentially a checkpoint that allows you to warp back to the start point.
If the game wasn’t already challenging enough, there are hundreds of collectibles in the form of “squishy tumors” (again, this fits in nicely with the suitably miserable themes) and twenty plus game cartridges – with each including achievements and even more levels for players to work through. The main levels are enough of a task, but if you are out to push your platform skills to the absolute limits the long list of collectibles should keep you busy for quite a while. The multiple endings that can be unlocked also further the challenge.
The visual presentation in The End Is Nigh fits well with the overall theme. Surprisingly, the apocalyptic backdrops are diverse enough to distinguish each section apart and Ash, the enemies and the many hazards are easy to spot. In the pause menu there’s an anti-aliasing option which can be turned on or off. With it enabled the smoother picture makes the game look similar to a classic but high quality flash game, which is fitting given McMillen's past development history prior to the breakout success of Super Meat Boy. Disabling the anti-aliasing option results in the game sharing a closer resemblance with a sprite based game. Either way, the game runs flawlessly in both the docked and handheld mode. The soundtrack and sound effects reinforce all the key themes, and are definitely up to the high standards you would expect from a developer of this calibre.
There’s no doubt about it - The End Is Nigh delivers excellent platforming. It’s a manageable challenge from start to finish, and a game that becomes more and more enjoyable as you slowly adapt to its seemingly unforgiving design. At the same time you’ll never feel completely unstoppable like you would in other notable platform titles. It keeps you on your toes from start to finish and has a balance few other games associated with this genre manage to achieve.
Where The End Is Nigh falls short is the fact it doesn't expand a great deal on the initial foundations laid by Super Meat Boy many years ago. What we have here is a spiritual successor, but with the open-ended adventure elements not having as much of an impact on the game as you may expect. The main character and settings in this aren’t quite as likable as Meat Boy and his own game world, either. In saying this, if you are a fan of the source material and happen to enjoy well-crafted and tough platform games, check this one out.