Ladies and gents, we’ve got another Soulslike Metroidvania on the list. Why? Because I really like this subgenre, and frankly Ender Lilies is a really good one that deserves your attention. While it may be a case of ‘a lot of things we’ve seen before mixed together’ that doesn’t it stop it from being any less of a gem you should check out. More after the jump.
ALSO AVAILABLE ON: Nintendo Switch, Xbox One/S/X, Playstation 4
GENRE: Metroidvania Soulslike with a hint of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure
So here we are, down the Metroidvania Soulslike rabbit hole again. For those who need a refresher: This is basically a Metroidvania (A 2D sidescroller where you explore places, find new abilities, and explore both new and old areas with them with a lot of fighting sprinkled on top) mixed with a Soulslike (A tough but fair combat system, limited healing that restores at a checkpoint, checkpoints themselves respawn everything you killed) type affair. There’s some obvious comparisons to be made, and don’t you worry, I’ll get to those, but let’s touch base on the game’s premise first and how it works into the gameplay.
Ender Lilies is, like most Soulslikes, a game that takes place in a crapsack world. In this case, the world is afflicted with a horrible event known as the Blight, which turns people into grotesque Cronenburg-esque monsters (If you know, you know) via a downpour of cursed rains that never ceases. You play as an amnesiac little girl named Lily who just so happens to be capable of purifying the Blighted once they’re subdued…There’s just one little problem: Said little girl is frail and defenseless. She is incapable of fighting, only evading! “Wait a sec” You might say: “Then how do you fight?” Well, that’s where the game’s unique mechanic of Spirits come into play, and where the JoJo jokes come from. While Lily herself can’t fight, she will amass an army of those she purifies of the Blight, recruiting their Spirits to fight by her side. Instead of wielding weapons, you as a player press a button that corresponds to an equipped Spirit to have said Spirit perform an action, the action depending on the Spirit in question. While the Spirits are admittedly wielded like weapons in a gameplay context, it’s still a unique concept in that the protagonist herself isn’t fighting directly, and instead is being protected by her army of ghostly defenders. If you’re familiar with Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, this is probably amusing as heck to you.
Per the Soulslike Formula, Lily can also heal herself a limited number of times before needing to rest at a safe area (A Respite in place of a Bonfire) and also has a dodge move that provides some precious i-frames for avoiding damage. What differs compared to most Soulslikes however is that Lily doesn’t have a Stamina gauge to worry about. Primary Spirits (like your first one) can be used as often as you like in most cases, aside from ranged Primary types who have ammo to worry about, while Secondary types have a limited number of uses and individual cooldowns to consider. What this means is that combat is less about managing a Stamina gauge, and more about managing cooldowns, and even then you (ideally) have access to at least one Spirit you can use freely in any situation. This means you don’t see lots of passive moments or downtime in Ender Lilies: You’re always engaged in some way since you can pop a dodge or attack whenever you need to. On top of this, you can equip two sets of Spirits, each set containing 3, and can swap between them freely in combat. Each set of Spirits is akin to a “Build” in this game, with a simple example being having one set of Spirits be focused on melee attacks and parrying, and another focused on delivering damage from further away. In this regard, Ender Lilies greatly rewards experimentation and trying new ideas, something I always enjoy in these types of games. You do gain new abilities over time, on top of new spirits, but I don’t want to spoil the fun on those. I’ll just say the combat definitely opens up as you gain more Spirits, and especially so once you get a new ability later on. Now, there is an obvious comparison to be made here: Aria and Dawn of Sorrow. Yeah, there’s definitely some influence here given the whole Spirit summoning thing, but it works quite well in this context: Not having Spirits be tied to RNG drops is also nice.
In terms of character customization and building, Ender Lilies prefers something a bit more akin to the Hollow Knight Route, where you equip items that provide various bonuses. The more slots you unlock, the more of these helpful items you can equip at once. These and your chosen Spirit sets are how you essentially do a character build, as opposed to investing in different stats as you level up. Level-ups *are* a thing in Ender Lilies, but they’re a simple, streamlined process. You gain a level, your base damage and HP go up, no having to rest and allocate points. Interestingly enough, death costs nothing in this except being returned to the last Respite you use, so as a whole, death is not very punishing, a bit of a departure from what I’ve come to expect from these kinds of games. Not that I mind it, considering Ender Lilies clearly is a game that wants you to be more aggressive and involved in its faster paced fights, as-again-there is no Stamina gauge to worry about. That’s not to say the combat is mindless, far from it. You still have to learn enemies, react, dodge/parry and find an opening to exploit, but with the lack of Stamina, you don’t have to worry about a fight stopping dead in its tracks as you go on the defensive waiting for a meter to refill.
The Metroidvania elements are definitely nothing too surprising for this kind of game, and anyone who knows the genre will not be surprised one of the first abilities you get is the holy grail of Metroidvania platforming: The Double Jump. While many of the exploration focused abilities are something we’ve seen before, the level design makes full use of them, making the exploration itself as much of a treat as one would expect for this kind of game. Most rooms tend to have something collectable in them: Be it a health upgrade or resources to upgrade a Spirit to improve its combat performance. You’re encouraged to look around, but you’re thankfully told when a room is cleaned out and has nothing more to find, preventing you from spending too much time in a place looking around only to realize there’s nothing to find. Getting around also becomes faster and smoother as you gain more abilities, with levels being designed around these abilities in such a way the progression feels natural. You don’t end up getting an ability only to use it to get past one obstacle and then never use the ability again: Everything stays relevant, which is how it should be in a game like this. There’s also plenty of chances to go off the main path in order to find additional rewards, like upgrades, more equip slots, and even new Spirits, so the game definitely handles its exploration elements well. One thing I particularly like is that the map clearly marks rooms with an exit you haven’t used yet on top of if you’ve found all the items in them, so you rarely have to worry about not knowing where to go next: When in doubt, look for unexplored exits!
So, like any good Metroidvania or Soulslike, the bosses are a big part of the equation, and thankfully they’re very good. The bosses themselves can provide plenty of challenge, at times they might even make you rethink your current build and swap out one spirit for another that might be more effective. That’s not to say every boss *requires* a specific build, but sometimes you might find one tool in your ghostly arsenal works better than another. The bosses themselves are varied as well, with each providing its own types of attacks to dodge and patterns to learn. One thing that I always faulted Salt and Sanctuary for was that many bosses feel too samey because it’s all about dodging different flavors of melee: The bosses in Ender Lilies feel a lot more varied in terms of their attacks and their movement, keeping each encounter fresh and fun, and satisfying as heck when you beat them. Things especially ramp up towards the end, with the final bosses being a pretty significant leap in difficulty.
So, let’s talk about what sticks out so much in Ender Lilies: The presentation. The game has a certain beauty to its artstyle, despite its bleak, depressing nature. “Ruined Kingdoms” is a typical setting, yes, but something about the hand drawn nature of it here and the attention to detail really hammers home the point this is *NOT* a happy world, it is a dying world, and it is being twisted into something beyond recognition. And the music hammers that point even further home with a somber, almost mourning tone throughout most of the soundtrack: Even boss fight themes are sorrowful, because you aren’t fighting some kind of evil monsters: You’re fighting those who have succumbed to a horrible plague and yearn for the pain to end. Sometimes a light bit of vocal is added to further enhance the mood of the music, giving it an almost NieR vibe that more than fits this bleak world. There’s no denying: This is a depressing world, and yet it’s somehow beautiful despite this in both look and sound.
The story also gets a nice bit of presentation: While a lot of Souls-likes prefer to bury most of their story in lore texts, this game takes a bit of that, but also a bit of more direct presentation: The first Spirit on your journey who is always by your side adds quite a bit to the story with his dialogue and commentary throughout the journey, and every major boss has a story to be told once you free them from the Blight, complete with its own special cutscene. It gives the game a much needed balance in how its story is presented, not relying overly on finding lore-dump items, and making sure you can follow along just by playing.
One thing to note is like many of Iga’s ‘vanias, this one DOES have multiple endings, so you’ll have to work your butt off to see the good ones. It *is* possible to get all the endings in a single save file, but the true ending will require a fair bit more work and exploration than the bad or normal ending provides, so I hope you’ve got your explorer boots ready to go.
What we get in the end is a game that has a lot of power in just its presentation alone, as it really draws you into the bleak, dying world you’ll be exploring, and then adds a fun combat system and good exploration elements on top of it. What we get is something that I easily put on par Hollow Knight in terms of quality and presentation, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Go play Ender Lilies.