Life, death and rebirth: a popular set of themes to discuss in all forms of media, with games being no exception. As a first-person adventure game, The Wild Eternal from Ilsanjo takes these themes and runs with them the whole way through, exploring not just what they mean to the protagonist Ananta, but to the player themselves.
Set somewhere in the Himalayas during the 1600s, The Wild Eternal places players in the role of Ananta, and elderly woman who seeks to escape the cycle of reincarnation after enduring a life of heartbreak and hardship. Players begin their journey in a lush, overgrown wilderness, shrouded in both fog and mystery. As you take your first slow steps, you’ll soon notice that your eyesight isn’t quite what it used to be, and that you can’t sprint. And it through this, in the game’s opening moments, that The Wild Eternal demonstrates its sheer cleverness.
Ilsanjo have managed to use almost every aspect of the game’s story and setting as a means of implementing mechanics. Ananta’s frailty in her old age, for example, means she’s a prime candidate for some good old fashioned upgrades. These come in the form of Buddhist shrines which can be prayed at for blessings; while these are initially basic abilities such as a remedy to Ananta’s nearsightedness and the ability to sprint, unlockables gradually escalate until you’re walking on water, sliding down hills and engaging in pleasantries with wandering spirits. Interacting with objects will reveal more about Ananta’s past and personality, along with information as to what she can and can’t do which, you’ve guessed it, leads to more upgrades; but more on their acquisition later.
Throughout her journey to escape the cycle of reincarnation, Ananta is guided (to use the term loosely) by a mysterious fox spirit calling himself the Avatar of Dreams. He’s a mysterious fellow, often speaking in riddles and metaphors and never properly answering your questions. Thankfully, his insights are expertly written and, at times, genuinely thought-provoking, meaning encounters with him are always a treat rather than an annoyance. Sticking to his vague nature, the Avatar isn’t entirely straight with you as to why he’s helping you on your journey, though as you explore more and more can be discovered about his past, the pieces of the puzzle gradually slotting into place as the journey continues.
Immediately after meeting the Avatar (or perhaps before if you want to ignore him) you’ll notice your first shrine. There are a great many shrines spread across the game, each offering a unique upgrade to your abilities that can be obtained by praying at them and making an offering of Tribute, a collectible that can be found as you explore the world. As mentioned earlier, these upgrades range from the seemingly mundane to the supernatural, and discovering a new shrine to discover its secrets is always a welcome opportunity. Mercifully, once you uncover a shrine, any shrine you visit from them on will also have that shrine’s upgrade in stock should you not have the necessary Tribute at the time – and as Tribute can be rather difficult to find (at times, perhaps too much so), this is certainly a welcome feature for the sake of convenience. The thought of having to remember each shrine’s upgrade and how to get back to it would not be out of place in a dystopian novel.
Your objective from here on out is a simple one: explore the various regions of the game’s world in order to find the mysterious Tears of Aum, used to unlock the next area where, of course, you will track down even more Tears. The Wild Eternal forgoes the use of a map in favour of a compact game world with highly recognisable locations. Take note of a large stupa in the distance, for example, or a mountain shaped like a great bird, and you know that a Tear awaits you somewhere nearby (the Avatar of Dreams also points you toward these locations, but only by name). There remains the ever elusive Tribute to be found, of course, as the aforementioned upgrades will make your quest to escape the cycle that little bit easier, with some even helping to provide background information on the world itself.
To compensate for the lack of a map, Ananta can come across a compass which can be used to work out roughly where you are in the world, made all the more helpful by the existence of waystones. Ananta can bind her compass to a waystone (or two, later on) in order to make it easier to get your bearings, particularly in heavily wooded areas that tend to look the same. Other useful items include fruit, which refills Ananta’s stamina for sprinting, and a lamp which can be used to illuminate the darkness, leave behind globs of oil in the vein of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs (sans witch and house made of sweets) and some more special abilities.
I’ve thus far managed to avoid devoting the entire review to the game’s world and visuals and, for the sake of the reader’s sanity (along with my own), I shall attempt to briefly summarise my opinion on the matter: in short, The Wild Eternal is breathtaking. The starting environment of a garden shrouded in fog may do little to impress, but as you dig away at the game and peel off layer after layer, discovering more unique and mesmerising sights, the game will surely get its hooks in you. The path before you is bursting with colour, both bright and dark, welcoming and foreboding. It’s a world that seems at times alive and at others a work of static art to be drunk in. Every brief jaunt across the map reveals a new mystery, collectible or breathtaking vista. This, couple with a relatively minimalist soundtrack, does a great deal for the player’s immersion, making the Himalayan region an absolute joy to explore. There are some (literally) rough edges where certain models or animations are concerned (of particular note was a lion who moved like an NPC from a PS1 game), but these are minor niggles that are rarely encountered throughout the game.
All in all, The Wild Eternal is a relaxing journey that catches you off-guard with a surprisingly deep, if not particularly complex, story and cast of characters (most of whom remain unseen). It’s not a particularly long game if you want to get through it fairly quickly: it took me about 3 hours to reach the end at first. However, there is more to discover, both with regard to the game world and the story itself (there seems to be a trend of the end not being the end at the moment), which encourages further play – and it is definitely recommended. So, should you find yourself stuck in a cycle of playing the same goes over and over again, look no further than The Wild Eternal, and let the Avatar of Dreams be your guide.