Title: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Publisher: The Astronauts
Developer: The Astronauts
Reviewed On: Playstation 4
Release Date: September 26, 2014 (PC), July 15, 2015 (PS4)
A copy of the game was provided by the developer for the purpose of review.
Every now and then I’ll come across a game that will make me weep for the game developers. A game that has so much potential and great ideas, but is mired by poor design choices. This month, it was The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Despite its promise of brilliant puzzle-solving concepts and ideas, it’s fraught with design issues that tests anyone’s patience. The story strings you along, rewards occasionally, but it mostly frustrates.
The story of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter opens with a man named Paul Prospero. Paul is a detective who has remained in contact with a young boy — a fan of Paul’s work — named Ethan Carter. Ethan Carter is a special young boy with gifts most children don’t usually have. He can see things that he shouldn’t, and witnesses events and entities most are unaware of. One day Ethan Carter goes missing and Paul must piece together what happened. Using his own mental gifts, Paul can view certain events already transpired, the placement of objects, analyzing said objects and harnessing the energy from them, before playing it all back in his head.
This ability lets him piece together the story of Ethan’s disappearance. The narrative comes mostly through first-person monologues, and the occasional third-person cutscene is pieced together using Prospero’s ability. Sadly, while Ethan Carter seems to pass itself off as a horror, the narrative of the game isn’t ever really scary or unnerving. The story manages to hold interest and is easy to follow, but this isn’t really what I’d call a horror game.
The gameplay is fairly straightforward: wander around to find clues, and sometimes dead bodies (also clues). Often when you touch a body, a scene will be played showing how a specific item should be placed in order to proceed. Once all items are replaced properly and the puzzle is sorted out, you’ll need to figure out the chronology of events. Spirit sprites will guide you to the event locations and number them. If you number them correctly, the scene will play out, revealing more story and allowing you to advance.
While picking up items and collecting clues, you will also encounter times when the screen is bombarded by one specific word. In order to activate this clue, you must line up all of the same word, to the point where they become one. Pressing the action button will then reveal further details on what you must do next. This mechanic works in principle, but often can be quite frustrating to line up. You will often find yourself walking back and forward, struggling to line the words up in order to proceed.
Another aspect that’s rather frustrating about the gameplay is the way in which you uncover the story. Each puzzle is relatively self-contained, and moving on before solving it will force you to backtrack at the end of the game and complete it in order to finish. I myself had this issue near the end of the game where I had to backtrack for a long time, just because I had failed to solve the very first puzzle and accidentally moved on thinking it was part of a different puzzle. Highly frustrating, as you can wander for hours lost, if you miss any puzzles. There is no order you are forced to do the puzzles in, but it is definitely best to complete the one entirely before moving on.
The game doesn’t hold your hand. You will get lost, and many of the game’s hints are subtle, to the point of being unhelpful at times. The puzzles thankfully aren’t too difficult, with the exception of one. The answers to several puzzles will likely frustrate you too, as everything must often be put into its perfect place to progress. This can at times be immersion breaking, as locating the perfect position often takes time.
Graphically, the game looks great. The Unreal Engine 4 shines here. Unlike other games in a similar vein (Kholat for example), Ethan Carter has vibrant, sprawling environments. The game doesn’t feel like a retread, that is, until you’re forced to backtrack. The water physics react to the player’s presence in the right manner. The game textures are quite detailed even when one gets up close and the sky looks incredible. The game is filled with wide sweeping vistas and I found myself constantly taking screenshots so I could display some examples of how beautiful the game is. The game has enough different set pieces to keep one entertained in the world, and while there isn’t really any threat of danger, the world still feels unpleasant. Blood stains and ritualistic markings are everywhere and you don’t feel welcome in the land.
The sound design was quite decent too. The music is mostly ambient, with the monotony occasionally broken up via small jump scares, and disturbing visuals accompanying sudden breaks in the sound. The sound effects are fairly standard, complementing the overall atmosphere and adding to the intrigue. Ethan Carter is a detective game, full of mystery and the paranormal. The soundtrack echoes this fact really well. The voice acting is also decent, with each emotion presented clearly. Characters are clear and well spoken, and it never feels like the voice actors are out of character. They’re all very believable, albeit not particularly likable. This is intentional though and fits the confines of Ethan Carter perfectly.
Overall, the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a fairly decent, albeit frustrating, puzzle title. While the gameplay is a bit light, and the story seems somewhat confusing initially, everything will eventually fit into place. The story that unfolds around Ethan’s disappearance holds some intrigue and is arguably one of the most interesting aspects of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The story will manage to keep one interested, but small elements definitely let down what could have been a great title. There’s just not a lot of gameplay to go around and, provided you don’t have to backtrack a lot and get stuck on puzzles, it should take roughly six to seven hours to finish.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has no re-playability, and once finished, you will likely only revisit it once more. The story is unpredictable, but ultimately quite shallow, which is a shame since the puzzle elements were brilliant despite their design issues and the “adequate” story somewhat lets the entire package down.
There were no bugs, despite the number of times I carried out unorthodox methods to get around the world. I feel like the game should have hiccuped constantly as I played, but it was incredibly stable, with a solid frame-rate and no slowdown. Sadly there is no fast travel, aside from a single elevator one has access to near the end of the game and it’s still a bit of a trek.
Overall, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has a lot of polish, and it’s clear that the developers put a lot of time and effort into making it. Of course, a new paint job doesn’t fix the issues the game has at its core. Ethan Carter’s not the best game ever, but it is a good example of smaller titles with great production values, and a short but sweet, self-contained story. I’ll be keeping an eye on Astronauts from here on out.