The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a first-class exploration adventure in which you play PP, a noir-style detective who uses extra-sensory perception to explore the mystical as well as the mundane elements of a case. Your task is to solve the mysterious disappearance of a young boy named Ethan Carter, the youngest son of a large and insular family living in a desolate, poverty-stricken valley cut off from the outside world. As you explore the beautifully-rendered surroundings, you’ll learn more about Ethan’s disappearance through solving immersive puzzles and reading torn pages from his notebook of (increasingly bizarre) stories scattered about the valley.
What’s right with it
The atmospheric look and feel of the game is superb. You can explore the richly-imagined environment at your leisure, and move between key puzzle areas as you please. The game provides you with a great sense of liberty – you’re exploring an entire valley, how and where you want, and what you find there is up to you.
In order to create a fully immersive experience, the game’s developers have avoided tutorials and excess use of guiding markers. To a large extent this approach is handled successfully – you’ll soon pick up the majority of what you’re meant to do, and feel deep satisfaction as you discover little details or figure out pieces of the puzzle as you find them. The puzzles themselves are very nicely designed – they vary in their approach and feel like a living breathing part of the landscape.
The intriguing, occult-laden storyline leads to a final resolution with true heart and soul. There are no cheap endings here (and no spoilers, don’t worry).
One of the strongest features of the game is its intent to tread a new path in adventure storytelling, much like Myst did initially and Gone Home has done recently. Keeping the players guessing is where it’s at, and you’ll be kept guessing!
With around 12-15 hours of great gameplay for £14.99, the game delivers great value for money. It’s cheap, but it doesn’t look or play cheap.
What’s wrong with it
I’ve very few nitpicks, but I do have them. They both centre around the game’s professed desire to ‘not hold your hand’ in terms of gameplay, and there are a couple of issues with that. Firstly, the opening sequence of the game suggests you have to scurry in every bush and look in every shadow. In fact, the game doesn’t quite work that way, though there’s an element of surprise finds in unexpected places. Don’t worry about it, though. Explore the game the way you want to.
My second and final quibble is in regard to the game’s mechanics. If you want a game to feature a whole new way of playing, you need a tutorial in place. If you want to avoid tutorials, it’s useful to have familiar gameplay mechanics. On the whole, the lack of tutorial was of no concern – but there is a particular gameplay element which involves focusing on an object until you get a ‘word cloud’ of thoughts, and it took me a while to realise I could interact with these word clouds a little more fully than I initially thought. This meant backtracking to solve some prior puzzles I’d only half-completed. It’s not the end of the world, and any game has compromise. However, including some kind of familiarisation with this particular gameplay mechanic in the opening sequence wouldn’t have hurt.
In all, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a wonderful example of a current crop of indie games that are A+ in look and feel, and explore traditional storytelling concepts to make you feel like you’re really going somewhere new.