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In recent years, classic, puzzle-solving adventure games have seen a bit of a revival, what with Double Fine returning to the genre with Broken Age, and Telltale scoring episodic hit after hit, but there are adventure gaming niches that remain largely neglected. One such ignored sub-genre is the one established by games like Myst and The 7th Guest. Games that were creepy and vaguely horror-themed, but didn’t really present you with any active threats or aggressive scares. Games that just sort of let you wander around spooky environments at your own pace, solving logic puzzles. Modern indie games like Dear Esther borrow some elements from these ’90s classics, but they don’t quite capture the exact vibe.
Well, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which has recently been re-released on the PS4, truly feels like the modern revival of the spooky, chill-out adventure game. Of course, the question is, does strolling around shadowy locales solving puzzles still hold up, or should these kind of games have remained vanished?
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (PC & PS4)
In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter you play as Paul Prospero, a detective with psychic powers who travels to the small Pennsylvania town of Red Creek Valley to find the titular Ethan Carter (sadly, the game takes place in 1973, so he can’t just check his cable listings). It isn’t made entirely clear why Prospero is so interested in Ethan, or why he seems to know more than he should about this haunted place, but that’s not the only mysterious thing going on. You arrive after all of Red Creek Valley’s residents have either split town or been killed, but solving the town’s numerous murders and puzzles reveals fragments of what happened there. Some of these fragments specifically relate to the fate of Ethan Carter, while others are more perplexing. Witches, unknowable Lovecraftian horrors, mysterious space travelers — Red Creek Valley has its share of peculiar residents.
Red Creek Valley is a nice place, so long as you don’t trip over any corpses.
The dialogue in Ethan Carter occasionally sounds like it was written by people with a slightly tenuous grasp on English, but that aside, it does a good job of portioning out bits of plot through flashbacks, scraps of paper and other tattered remnants. The game keeps you guessing with a string of pretty killer red herrings, and misdirections, but in the end, everything makes a certain amount of sense, which isn’t an easy thing to pull off.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an undeniably beautiful game. The developers used new technology to scan real-world objects and environments, and the result is a game that looks very nearly photorealistic. Indoor, man-made structures and natural environments both look amazing, which is a rarity (most games nail one or the other, but not both). Of course, too much straight-up realism can be banal, so the makers of Ethan Carter heightened the appearance of their world with dramatic lighting, and some subtle exaggeration. A tree that looks more eerie than any real tree could here, an extra creepy ruined house there. The effect is mesmerizing, and the recently released PS4 version of Ethan Carter looks even better than the PC original, thanks to an upgrade to Unreal Engine 4.
Yes, the game actually looks this good.
Ethan Carter doesn’t sound quite as good as it looks. The voice acting is a bit on the stilted side, although the game’s subtle piano-heavy soundtrack sets the right tone.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter introduces some clever mystery-solving mechanics that eliminate the stodgy point-and-click interfaces of yore, without also eliminating puzzle complexity or challenge. Once you stumble upon a murder scene (a distressingly common occurrence), you’ll wander around looking for clues as you would in a typical adventure game. Occasionally, a particularly important clue will set off a chain of thoughts in your character’s head, represented by a dizzying cloud of floating words. Look in the correct direction, and all those words will coalesce into a single thought, which will lead you to your next clue. Once you’ve grabbed all the evidence and returned it to its proper place, ghostly images of the crime-in-progress pop up, which you have to arrange in the right order. Do it right, and you’ll be shown how the person laying in front of you met their end. It’s an elegant system that isn’t quite like anything I’ve encountered before.
This isn’t going to end well for one of these two.
In between the murder mystery sections, Ethan Carter keeps things varied with a good selection of other puzzles. Collect ancient runes in haunted, maze-like tunnels, chase a mysterious figure through the forest, or uncover a series of deadly traps – you never quite know what’s going to be around the next corner.
“This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”
Those are the first words you see on-screen when you start playing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and for the most part, the game keeps its promise. The game contains no map, tutorial or flashing arrows guiding you where to go next. It’s up to you to decipher how Ethan Carter works, and you can wander where you want and solve the game’s puzzles in pretty much any order you please. This will lead to some confusion and frustration early on, but learning the rules and mechanics of the Ethan Carter universe is satisfying in its own right.
Every corner of this game’s world has been lovingly detailed and crafted. At times, Ethan Carter feels more like a beautifully made hiking simulator than a weird fiction-steeped adventure game. You’ll find yourself becoming attached to individual rocks, trees and landmarks as you tromp back and forth through the game’s small, but memorable world. The fact that you’re allowed to tackle this place on your own terms just makes it all the more personable. Don’t get me wrong, the world of Ethan Carter is often foreboding as all hell, and yet, when the game ends, you may feel reluctant to leave it behind.
The world of Ethan Carter has that cozy “surrounded by evil on all sides” feel.
As for the game’s murder-solving mechanics, they’re user-friendly and easy-to-grasp, yet still deliver enough brain-teasing bite to keep even the crustiest old-school adventure game fanatic engaged. There’s a certain natural, organic feel to solving a murder that is undeniably pleasing.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a master class in balance. It’s atmospheric and eerie, without resorting to cheap tactics or feeling over the top. It’s beautiful, without being showy. It’s laid back, without feeling like a pushover. Video games rarely do subtlety particularly well, but this game nails it.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter clocks in at around five or six hours for a first time playthrough, which is a perfectly acceptable length for a $20 title. There aren’t really any incentives to replay the game, although once you know where to go and what to do, you could probably finish Ethan Carter in the same time it would take to watch a random Netflix horror movie. Given that, this could be a game you pull out for quick playthroughs on late sleepless nights or rainy weekends.
Ethan Carter is about as simple as games come these days. No DLC or anything blocked off behind paywalls or PlayStation Plus requirements. The game is also rock solid, with no noticeable glitches popping up during my playthrough. A small amount of framerate stuttering as the game loaded new areas in the background (the game is completely free of loading screens) was the only minor technical issue I picked up on.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a dark jewel of a game. It’s a beautiful, exquisitely crafted throwback to a forgotten kind of game, and yet it also delivers fresh mechanics and a steady flow of surprising moments. It’s a throwback, but somehow doesn’t feel like an exercise in nostalgia.
Whether you’re a cranky old-timer fan who’s a bit frustrated by the rigidity of modern adventure games, or you’re simply looking for a laid back world to immerse yourself in between triple-A gorefests, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an experience worth getting lost in.
Verdict: Clear Your Calendar
This review was based on the PS4 version of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which was purchased by the reviewer.