Title: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Developer: The Astronauts (@TheAstroCrew)
When I started playing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, my intention was to simply play a little bit of the title and write a Short Take — our sort of hybrid first impression/mini-review — based on my initial experience with the game. While I can’t say I’m surprised, I soon found myself invested in the world of Ethan Carter, intrigued by the mystery surrounding not only Ethan, but the character I controlled as well. What was once supposed to be a quick look at the game, soon evolved into the need to play until the end credits began to scroll; I was hooked. Thanks to the game’s gorgeous environments and compelling story, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one fine way to spend an afternoon.
The game’s visuals are absolutely breathtaking. Set in the fictional city of Red Creek Valley, developer The Astronauts has crafted one of the most incredible looking games I’ve played on the PS4 to date. While it can be argued that there isn’t a whole lot going on — which is by design — the game’s environments never fail to amaze, whether it’s admiring the lake through the trees as they gently blow with the breeze, or exploring an abandoned church graveyard that looks so realistic it could easily send chills down your spine. Pair the incredible graphics with an eerily empty world and an equally chilling score, and you have yourself one of the most immersive games of the year. As if this incredibly detailed world wasn’t enough, the story is the proverbial delicious icing on the cake.
Playing through the eyes of paranormal investigator Paul Prospero, you set off to learn more about a series of events that transpired in Red Creek which ultimately led to the disappearance of the titular Ethan and the Carters. The very first message players are greeted with when starting the game is an admonishment from The Astronauts telling them, “The game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” At first, I became concerned as one of the last games of this nature I played, the Xbox One visual novel Nero, subscribed to a similar design philosophy. Due to Nero not being a linear experience, nor pointing players in the direction they needed to head, I missed several puzzles that would have filled in more of the story. Thankfully, near the end of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a portal/fast travel system opens up and allows players to revisit specific areas that contain puzzles relevant to the story. Unlike Nero, literally all of the puzzles present in Ethan Carter are critical to the story.
While puzzles in the game aren’t necessarily laid out in front of you and made obvious at first, there are no side puzzles that lend any additional information to the story the game wants to tell. It can feel a bit overwhelming at first, but embracing the challenge of exploring the environment, and discovering the various mysteries the game hides within it, will yield the sensation of knowing what it’s like to be Sherlock Holmes! The narrative twists and turns as each area’s mysteries are solved, eventually revealing more information about the family as the game reaches its conclusion. As strong as the ending of the game is, it’s severely hindered by a few choice dialogue options that seemed both unnecessary and completely out of left field.
As I alluded to before, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has a very Nero-like vibe to it in terms of how the game is played. Gameplay mechanics are very simple — walk around and solve puzzles you happen upon in the wild — but the Nero comparison ends there. While the core story-related puzzles share the same approach — laying out a scene and tasking players with finding all of the clues scattered around the area — puzzles pertaining to Ethan’s background can be much more complex. One such puzzle involves memorizing (or learning from trial and error, as it were) a house layout, which players must then piece back together. This house is magically-possessed, of course, and requires players to swap the appearance of several rooms on the other side of a mystical portal. It’s as interesting, engaging, and perplexing as it sounds. Thanks to the immersive story on show, none of these tasks ever feel daunting or unnecessary, and they grant players a better understanding of not only Ethan, but of the events that transpired in Red Creek Valley.
The Astronauts made a series of excellent design decisions when crafting this tale. From the incredibly detailed environments to the perfect soundtrack that really immerses players into its beautifully eerie world, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the best adventures out there. Even though the game as a whole is excellent, the dialogue at the very end keeps this from being the perfect experience for me. At any rate, if you love mystery-driven adventure games, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an absolute must-play.
- Breathtaking visuals
- Immersive world
- Excellent story
- Doesn't hold your hand...at all!
- Poor dialogue choices during the closing moments