O Ethan Where Art Thou? Take charge of a chilling mystery firsthand and uncover the truth behind The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Those familiar with gaming are, undoubtedly, familiar with the Mystery/Adventure genre. The genre is an old one, but still around for a reason; the formula works. For some, nothing beats adopting the role of a detective, or similar individual, to solve a case and put the criminals to justice for their wrongdoings. Even better is the fact that, with these kinds of games, it’s quite easy to begin roleplaying. That is, you begin to get sucked into the world around you and essentially become your character. While many games pull this off well, the newly-released The Vanishing of Ethan Carter may have just surpassed most others in its genre.
The premise of the game is rather simple. The player is put in control of detective Paul Prospero. Aside from being highly skilled, Prospero has yet another talent. Unlike other detectives, Prospero possesses special abilities. By using these abilities, he can gain a look into the past or different parts of the present in order to view events which occurred nearby, or locate missing items needed to help solve the mystery at-hand. Though crimes may seem straightforward or, on the opposite spectrum, random, not everything is always as it seems. When normal police work doesn’t make the cut, Prospero appears on the scene to uncover the full truth. Prospero’s most recent case involves the detective receiving a telepathic message from a boy by the name of Ethan Carter. Ethan has somehow managed to awaken an evil entity known as “The Sleeper” which, in turn, has started wreaking physical, mental, and emotional havoc on both Ethan and his family. Upon receiving the message, our protagonist heads out and the game begins.
Much like the game’s premise, the gameplay itself is also rather straightforward. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter features no combat; the gameplay consists purely of exploration and puzzle solving. Players use Prospero’s otherworldly abilities in order to uncover clues about the gruesome murders that have been occurring in an attempt to gain a better understanding of what has been going on. The past just doesn’t present itself however; the crime scene must be re-created (at least in part). By inspecting your surroundings, and manipulating the scenery to appear as it was during the time that Prospero is attempting to look into, the past may reveal itself.
While I usually don’t do this, I feel as though it is necessary to put gameplay talk on pause momentarily in order to address the game’s claim to fame. Within the first few minutes, what is most likely the game’s number one defining feature boldly proclaims itself; the graphics. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, simply put, is absolutely beautiful. From the vibrant golden and green forest, to the murky, sinister mines, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter grabs hold of players visually and not once lets up. These incredibly enticing graphics, combined with the stellar voice acting, creates an almost-realistic world; one in which you can actually see yourself as the protagonist.
Once again, let’s turn to the voice acting. Apart from the protagonist Paul Prospero, the game’s cast consists entirely of Ethan Carter and his family including a mother, father, brother, uncle, and grandfather. With such a small cast, even one bad voice actor could turn the entire feel of the game sour. Fortunately, this is most definitely not the case. Although most likely outshined by the graphics, the voice cast is all very well-suited for their respective parts. Dialogue always felt clean, professional, and, most importantly, believable. Not a single line seemed out of place or in lacking in quality.
The writing itself was also quite phenomenal. Each new encounter always revealed just enough; never too little, or never too much. The general ebb and flow of conversation was also very believable; things definitely seemed more natural than scripted. The game really wanted to make sure that you as a player knew what was going on, and almost every scene could be re-enacted again and again if things were still unclear. Though events were relatively small and scarce, one could almost say that getting to the next cutscene was more than enough to move on.
Now, back to gameplay, Between the beautiful scenery, and the high-quality voice acting, one could almost say that gameplay elements are not necessary; that this is enough. Unfortunately, certain parts of the game come pretty close to that. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a “narrative experience that does not hold your hand”. The game doesn’t lie about either of those things, especially the latter. Those of you used to games such as The Elder Scrolls or Saints Row are quite familiar with the magic arrows that tell you where to go. If you were expecting some sort of compass, any sort of directional assistance at all, you’re out of luck. In a somewhat refreshing manner, the game broadly paves the road for the player, but expects the player to get across said road by themselves. On top of the “no hand-holding” policy, the game also encourages exploration. The island, while relatively small, is filled with many different nooks and crannies to explore which offer more immersion and slightly longer-lasting gameplay. Exploring your surroundings is a major appeal to many people, myself included. While many look around merely to admire scenery, even more go off the beaten path in hopes of uncovering secrets. Anything will do for most, from treasure to lore to an Easter Egg. The problem with this game is that there are no secrets. With as much free space as this game has, and the sinister nature surrounding this new mystery, it’s easy to expect people to go around in hopes of uncovering extended information on the mystery-at-hand, so a lack of secrets is highly disappointing. It doesn’t call for anything dramatic, perhaps collectibles such as newspaper clippings or additional stories written by Ethan. Regardless, the inclusion of secrets may have upped the intrigue and “mystery factor”.
With no bonus areas or items, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter sends you in straightforward path from one event to another. While this may be okay in certain contexts, this formula makes the game rather dry at parts. The scenery is nice, yes, and it’s clear that the developers want players to appreciate all of the hard work that went into making such an immersive environment. While that is absolutely fine in certain instances, there seems to be too much of this. A long walk across a bridge or path is fine here or there, but there are long walks between each and every event. And, as aforementioned, there is nothing extra. These long treks became boring and, in a few instances, confusing. In all seriousness, this game is a borderline “Walking Simulator” in certain parts. There isn’t anything to do for a lot of the game but walk and admire scenery. The puzzles, although few and far between, were varied and honestly pretty fun. By focusing more on problem solving and less on fruitless exploration, the game would have prevented itself from becoming somewhat drab here and there.
Although lacking in certain areas, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a great game overall. The puzzles are fun, and the game boasts astounding graphics and sound. For many these two qualities were enough to make the game enjoyable and it’s honestly not hard to see why. The game succeeded very well in certain parts, and by no means should it be passed by, If you’re in the market for a new game, and don’t mind things a little on the artsy side, be sure to check out The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Nordic Games; Developer: The Astronauts; Players: 1; Released: Sept. 25, 2014; Genre: Adventure; MSRP: $19.99
Note: This review was performed on review code provided by The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s publisher, Nordic Games.