It’s a shame I didn’t get a review copy of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter months ago when it was released, the game seemed right up my street considering it was similar to games like Ether One. I wanted to play it, but not so much that I sunk £15 on the game considering it was around the time I was releasing my first game. I finally managed to purchase the game just the other day when it was £7.49 on the Steam store, and considering I’m between project at the moment, I decided I needed to see what all the fuss was about.
The game starts out with a with little introduction of the character you’ll be playing as, private detective Paul Prospero, a super natural detective from the sounds of things, as he instantly tells you that Ethan is seeing things that he shouldn’t be. You enter a forest from a tunnel, and so begins your journey through this strange and wonderful world that is Red Creek Valley. It’s not long before you come across the first hint as to what The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will entail, with a trap springing up from nowhere. As you approach it, you’re given the prompt to press and hold A on it to “sense” the item, a method of being teleported into a different realm, where things of the past can now be seen.
The past doesn’t just reveal itself though, and objectives must be adhered to in order to get the portal open in the first place. Most of the time, this will just be a case of putting things back in their respective places before they were picked up and used as a murder weapon, but occasionally things will be mixed up. Once everything is in place, you’ll be able to travel through the portal and see the past events that lead up to the new persons murder, using snapshots of people as a timeline, it’s up to you to guess in which series of events led up to the murder, and order them in the correct manner to see the scene unveil itself before your eyes. It’s an interesting mechanic, one which allows you to get a better picture of the world without throwing anything in your face needlessly, with all the story being realised as you put the puzzle together.
The game would be boring with the mechanic alone, so The Vanishing of Ethan Carter goes one step further and has mini-stories all throughout the world, each so vastly different from each other that it really messes with you as the player, but also makes the world feel so alive. An early example of this has you chasing a astronaut in the middle of a dense forrest, with dinosaur noises surrounding you. As you chase the astronaut, he disappears and reappears further away, pushing you to chase him even more. Eventually, his shuttle will appear, with a bright teleportation light appearing, taking him away. You run into this light to be then transported into outer space, a random occurrence for such a grounded game, but one that genuinely made me say “wow” out loud upon seeing it. Finally, you’re transported back to the forrest, but this time, with a voiceover of Ethan being shouted at by his brother, telling him that his stories are terrible and he should stop. A single page fills the screen, with a description of what you just done; you were just acting out Ethans story about a dinosaur chasing a light and never being able to use it’s claws again.
Whilst The Vanishing of Ethan Carter may look like a big open world where you can tackle each puzzle as you come across it, this isn’t the case, as it’s actually fairly linear. Trying to skip ahead a few puzzles leaves you stumped for how to progress, for example how do you get past the gated entrance to the mines? If you follow the path the developers (The Astronauts) have made from puzzle to puzzle, you’ll easily be able to progress through the world, but deviate from it, and you’ll find it impossible to advance. That may sound annoying to some players who look at the marketing material and think the game is something it isn’t, but having a lovely big world like Red Creek Valley, where you can explore everything you can see, is actually a fantastic experience, one where I would get lost in the woods plenty of times because of my innate curiosity to explore large expanses.
It’s in the exploring of the big world that you’ll really feel a part of it, with gorgeous vistas and fantastic textures making the world feel alive, surreal, and certainly a graphical beast. There may not be much in the trees of the forest, but you won’t feel cheated for having walked through it to see a stunning sunset over a sublime town.
I cannot finish this review without saying the following: I regret not buying The Vanishing of Ethan Carter when it was first released (despite not getting a review copy), because if I had, it would have easily been on my personal top 10 games of the year, and I would have personally championed it for GamrReview’s Game of The Year awards. The gameplay was fantastic, and whilst many people may not enjoy wondering around a world without much happening for 4-5 hours, I absolutely adored every minute I spent in Red Creek Valley, and would gladly do it again should The Astronauts develop something similar in the future. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is easily one of the most polished narratively driven “walking simulators” I have ever play, and I would beg anyone who wants to know anything about games design and narrative to give the game a play. You will not be disappointed.