Developed By: The Astronauts
Published By: The Astronauts
Release Date: September 26, 2014 (PC), July 14 2015(PS4)
Available For: PC & PS4 (Reviewed)
“This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”
This is the promise that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter makes when you start a new game. It’s a bold statement. There’s an invitation there, a welcoming wink to those who are sick of modern conveniences like minimaps and waypoint arrows, but also a warning to those who depend on them. The game mostly holds true to its oath, but the rare moments when it breaks its own rules fracture an otherwise cohesive, fascinating experience.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the story of a paranormal detective named Paul Prospero, but even moreso, it’s the tale of the eponymous Ethan and his troubled family. Arriving on the outskirts of the beautiful Red Creek Valley, Prospero has come in response to letters from the boy detailing strange happenings in his quiet little town. Seeking out the Carter house only to find the entire family missing, Paul takes it upon himself to seek out answers. His search leads him through ominous forests, decrepit buildings, and abandoned mines, and what starts as solving a string of murders gradually unfolds into a greater mystery whose details I won’t delve into for fear of spoiling.
The gameplay of Vanishing plays out like a blend of Dear Esther‘s open-ended wandering and the simple, but immersive detective puzzles of Batman: Arkham Origins. The player is tasked with exploring the area until they come across signs of something that warrants investigating, from discarded weapons to, less subtly, dead bodies. Thanks to his nature as a psychic, Paul can tap into abilities that other detectives could not, such as being able to touch a cabinet where a fire axe was recently removed and sense the current location of the weapon. Using these powers, players gather enough clues to enter the spirit world, at which point they have to figure out the order in which up to half a dozen events occurred before being treated to a scene of exactly what went down. Things start a bit slow, with the early puzzles broken up by quite a bit of semi-aimless wandering, but the pacing picks up before too long.
Vanishing‘s visuals and soundwork go a long, long way towards adding impact to both the exploration and puzzle-solving elements. This has to be one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played, which is doubly impressive for a title running on the now-aging Unreal Engine 3. Soft lighting filters through densely packed trees, mist swirls through nearby mountains, and every object that the player picks up is almost as detailed and textured as the real thing. The only caveat to this is the liquid effects, which make the valley’s rushing rivers look almost agonizingly primitive by comparison and occasionally took me out of the moment while I was playing. The soundtrack is understated but atmospheric, rarely intruding upon the moment but complementing the exploration well. Similarly, Paul’s monologues, often starting just in time to provide a bit of a startling break to the silence, tend to be interesting musings on the nature of a man who can commune with the dead.
Ultimately, though, what makes the game is Ethan. He’s an interesting child, and one I think many gamers will quickly connect with. Introverted and creative, he’s got a knack for creating stories, a few of which the player discovers scattered throughout Red Creek Valley. His relationship with his family is strained, his quiet nature contested by those he loves because they don’t understand him. In a world mired in supernatural mystery, it’s Ethan, and his efforts to solve a problem that he doesn’t have the capacity to fully understand, that I found most gripping. I’m sure that some people will play and find plenty of symbolism here; more than once, I asked myself if I was bearing witness to some kind of allegory on the mind of a child, of the problems they face when surrounded by conflicts between adults. Even if you purely take things at face value, though, it’s an interesting relationship that forms between Ethan and Paul, bound by a trail of clues.
It’s a shame, then, that the final act of the game stumbles so hard that it comes very close to undoing the rest of what made it so unique. Without exposing too much, there comes a time when the player reaches a ‘checkpoint’ of sorts, a location in the game where it essentially asks you how many of its mysteries you have solved. If it isn’t satisfied by your answer, that’s it, you can’t finish. Not every puzzle is necessary, but there’s a good chance that most players will miss at least one or two and be forced to take a lengthy backtrack towards a previously explored location, aided by a handy map of sorts. Wait, wasn’t I told that the game wouldn’t hold my hand? This sudden change of pace is a jarring asterisk slapped on the end Vanishing‘s opening promise, a subversion of its own ideals. While I get the developer’s intent, staying out of the way until it seemed ‘necessary’, I’m not sure that requiring players to solve certain puzzles was the right way to go about it. In an adventure driven by discovery, it almost felt like I was suddenly having my face pushed into what the game wanted me to see; forced, at least on some level, to acknowledge the story that it was telling.
Despite this misstep, I wholeheartedly recommend The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. As someone who enjoyed wandering through games like Dear Esther and Gone Home, but ultimately found them lacking in interactivity, it feels like a solid step forward in the budding sub-genre of first-person exploration. It’s not a long game – my playthrough clocked in at just under five hours – but the content it has is almost always interesting. Whether you’re on board to solve supernatural mysteries or simply want to enjoy wandering through one of gaming’s most gorgeous landscapes, The Astronauts’ first endeavor is well worth the twenty dollar admission fee.
The PS4 Differenece
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter comes to PS4 almost a year after it’s PC release but with a move to the Unreal 4 engine to make the game look even better than it did on PC. The game runs at a smooth pace throughout, only hitting a snag when the game autosaves. The game looks absolutely gorgeous on the new console and is quite a treat for the eyes to just see how well detailed the world of Ethan Carter is and is a nice game to show your friends if they haven’t made the jump to a current gen platform. I got about a solid 4-5 hours of gameplay out of this but I have seen others who have been able to breeze through the game in under 2 hours but the story is so well told that the $20 price tag may seem steep at first, but is well worth it in the end. For the PS4 version I am giving the game an 85/100 for the PC review score check below.