ENDER LILIES (Early Access) takes familiar mechanics and applies them to both innocent and haunting themes creating a remarkable combat and exploration experience wholly worth supporting.
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Developer: Live Wire
Sub-genre: Souls-Like
Publisher: Binary Haze Interactive
Platforms: Windows, Steam, PS4
Release Date: 2021/01/21
Languages: English, Japanese, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Simplified Chinese

Store Links

    Steam    

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The Metroidvania genre has proven to be quite effective at using feelings of loneliness as a motivating catalyst to drive a mystery. There’s a lot that can be done with the concept, so while detailed environmental storytelling and lore-dripping bosses are nothing new, new and meaningful stories can still be told using the framework. ENDER LILIES: Quietus of the Knights is a nearly perfect amalgamation of familiar mechanics, twisted just enough to fit its melancholic narrative. This preview is for the Early Access version of the game, so by nature it’s only a report on early impressions. However, if Ender Lilies stays as strong as it starts for the rest of its updates we may be looking at another masterpiece to add to the upper tiers of the genre.

In most games you play as an already-trained warrior, or an unlikely hero thrust into a tough situation where they discover the power that was already within. In Ender Lilies you play as a young girl with no combat training whatsoever, and that innocence is retained throughout the experience. Lily is apparently blessed by some kind of protective shell that prevents direct harm to her. Mechanically this takes the place of the HP you’re probably familiar with from other games. As soon as that shell is shattered she dies from pretty much any attack. Rather than wielding weaponry herself, Lily purifies the spirits of deceased knights, and those grateful souls join her in her quest; doing the fighting for her. You start with the spirit of a swordsman, who besides narrating the story as you come across it, acts as your main attack. By pressing whatever button you assign him to, he will magically appear at your side and swing his sword at whatever is in front of you. The entire time Lily will stand with her arms in a praying position, remaining physically frail but gigantic in a spiritual sense.

Lily’s innocent visage is especially powerful as a narrative tool as the combat becomes intense. She shudders backwards as your swordsman charges your foes. The familiar expression of a righteously indignant hero bent on destroying evil never crosses Lily’s face; instead it’s replaced by distress and concern. Being as Lily is still the fragile flesh you need to keep alive to avoid a game over, she does have to participate at least in getting out of the way of enemy attacks. This is done with the dodge button, but she’s clearly no agile acrobat. Instead she simply throws her body out of the way, like she was shoved aside by a protective parent. It’s an ungraceful move with some significant end-lag as she recovers. The dodge produces i-frames making it crucial for avoiding attacks, but you still have to time it correctly since it can’t effectively be spammed. Most spirits have a similar end-lag associated with them, conveyed by Lily’s contrite stance followed by her opening her eyes again. It feels more like you’re controlling the spirits protecting Lily instead of Lily as a character. It’s almost as if you’re one of those protective spirits yourself.

No one spirit is a panacea for every dangerous situation. The swordsman is definitely the most useful of your liberated friends, but having to get in close with your enemy just makes Lily especially vulnerable. The second spirit you acquire is thus more useful for aerial enemies, and the third for punishing grounded foes. The combat becomes more dynamic the more spirits you acquire. You can equip a variety of six spirits at a time, and their benefits and limitations play off each other in a way that all of them were able to shine for me in specific situations. Some spirits have a limit to their use – they work like a consumable that refreshes whenever Lily rests at a checkpoint. Thanks to mid-level refills and judicious application though, the ammo limit never restricted me from experimenting and making the moves natural part of my strategy.

Bosses have that familiar brilliant design of patterns and telegraphs, but if you go at them with just your swordsman they’ll be frustrating and long due to their bulky HP pools. You can approach them with careful observation and get good at dodging their attacks for a strong combat challenge, but the real challenge lies in using all of your tools to beat them more quickly. Each boss has three phases, where they start out slowly showing what they’re capable of, speeding things up a bit for that second phase, and then unleashing new patterns for their third. Mastering their earlier phases without taking any damage is thus critical to your success, but may lead to unwelcome repetition as you have to do the slow parts over and over again. Starting out with just your sword attacks and then layering in your secondary abilities not only makes this design more palatable, it makes genuinely interesting. I beat all of the bosses available in this early access at the thrilling edge of what Lily was able to take.

If I were to try and identify what the combat in Ender Lilies needs to develop the most, I’d say that its sound design could use some improvement. The music basically perfect, both atmospherically and aesthetically, but the sound effects are lacking. So much of what happens in battle is weirdly silent or muted. It lacks the crunch that could really express how dire the situation actually is. When Lily gets hit, the shattering effect of her protective aura is visually stunning, but it could feel so much worse. Everything about the game’s visuals in fact enhance the narrative of Lily being a girl you want to protect, but with better sound design you could actually feel fear for her safety.

Another minor gripe I have is that your secondary abilities could use some better conveyance of their availability. Only infinite primary attacks can be used infinitely; everything else is stuck on some amount of cooldown before they can be used again. In the bottom left corner of your screen you can watch that cooldown timer do its work, but that location strays too far away from the action. In practice this means you’ll probably be spamming the button until it finally works rather than intentionally timing your shots as soon as they’re available. It never feels good to go for an attack only to do nothing. My recommendation to the developers is to convey cooldowns more overtly. A lot of games use sound effects to indicate when cooldowns become available – and this would be a good approach for sure – but Ender Lilies also has a great opportunity to do it visually just as well. Three of the spirits you have equipped float next to you as small wisps before you cause them to materialize. Making them more distinct to the powers they represent and maybe having them change color when they’re unavailable is perhaps a good way to keep the player’s eyes where the fight is actually happening. I would rate the combat in Ender Lilies as already “great”, but these kinds of changes could move it towards that lofty position of “best.”

In speaking of great, exploring the game’s world is already fantastic. It starts out a little bit slow as you work your way through the game’s tutorial, but once you make it to the game’s first crossroads that metroidvania autonomy is wonderfully implemented. You have two choices fairly early on and the only thing that guides you in the “best” direction is how fierce the foes you fight become. Both directions lead to ability upgrades that make tackling the other direction more dynamic, and even though the current content ends abruptly, the scope of the world is already nearly overwhelming. Thankfully the game’s mechanics are relatively forgiving. Unlike other games with a “souls-like” combat feel to them, there’s no punishment for dying. You level up as you fight, and death causes no loss, so exploration feels unrestricted and empowering. Conquering the world of Ender Lilies is never about facing your foes in battle – instead it’s about contemplative discovery.

As I’ve suggested with my description of every aspect of this game so far, the game is visually bursting with narrative significance. Occasionally you’ll find lore books that are a bit wordy, but the premise of ENDER LILIES: Quietus of the Knights overall is intriguing. The words that aren’t said are often more powerful than what is told to you. Post apocalyptic settings aren’t unusual for games in general, especially not in the metroidvania genre, but this is the first time I think I’ve seen it from the perspective of a child. This definitely triggers some biases in me, because as a father this kind of theming makes the narrative riveting. The game’s fantasy elements enables Ender Lilies to provide a familiar combat experience while still retaining the beautiful innocence of its main character, and from that viewpoint we may find something uniquely fresh as this game draws nearer to its completion.

I wholeheartedly believe at this point that ENDER LILIES: Quietus of the Knights is thus a game worth supporting. Early access is often a dubious system in regards to the consumer, but I personally like to think of it as an enhanced kickstarter. The game is in a state that enables its players to provide meaningful feedback that could push it from an honorable mention into a masterpiece. There are 3 of 8 planned areas available now, which took me around 3.5 hours to complete, meaning the final game is likely going to be a fairly meaty offering – especially if meaningful backtracking and cross area content is added. I don’t usually give scores to early access games unless they’re allegedly “complete”, but this one has the potential to reach the higher tiers of the metroidvanias that I have enjoyed. If you want to be an important part of an excellent game’s development, I think this is a great opportunity.