There was a time when video games left you to your own devices and allowed you to explore every nook and cranny without obtrusive tutorials. Whilst those days seem like a distant memory for most, some titles do employ this tactic and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a prime example. Even before you begin your journey, you’re informed that your narrative-driven adventure game plaything won’t be holding your hand – the hand of supernatural detective, Paul Prospero.
Ethan Carter has called upon the services of Prospero to investigate some weird happenings in his home village of Red Creek Valley. A mystical power is affecting family relations within the Carter household and Prospero is just the man to investigate. Mainly because he has supernatural abilities that any mystical power would dream of.
Naturally, you’ll be required to flex your sleuthing muscles and uncover some truths about what’s going in the sleepy village of Red Creek Valley. The place is seemingly empty – it’s just Prospero, some old buildings and a number of dead bodies. These corpses act as the catylst for the rather simple puzzles The Vanishing has to offer. The first one you’ll find will be along a train track where, upon inspection, Prospero will show he’s a big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock and quickly rattle off a whole host of words, deciphering a portion of the mystery before your very eyes.
Every puzzle requires you to grab a number of items and put them in the right places, then go back to said human remains and inspect once again. Approximately four or five spectre-like groupings will appear in front of you, telling an unorganised account of the murder, and your job is to number these story beats in sequential order, in an effort to find out how the human being became a human dead. They’re not taxing and don’t require an awful lot of thought, but are telling a fairly satisfying narrative, albeit one that isn’t groundbreaking and allows you to telegraph its direction. The problem here is that as Prospero, you’re a passive participant in the tale. Like someone regaling you with a wonderful yarn, then proceeding to tell you that you had to be there. With that said, even as a mere onlooker, it’s enjoyable.
With regard to the puzzles, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter doesn’t want to tell you anything, so it’s very easy to pass by any number of these murder mysteries and be none the wiser, due to the fact that Red Creek Valley is an open playpen. To call it an open world would be a bit misleading as it’s not a sprawling map filled with points of interests. It’s more like you’re fenced in and certain areas are off limits, but The Vanishing gives off the impression that it is an open-world adventure. You are free to approach your time here in any way you like and in that regard, some will find that they’ll play puzzles in a different order to the next person. It doesn’t punish you for approaching things in your own way, but trying to find non-highlighted puzzle instigators that are hidden in the beautiful bushes of Red Creek Valley might suggest that some little form of direction would have been welcome. I had to backtrack in an effort to find at least two of The Vanishing’s brain-busters, which, once found, aren’t all that brain-busting. These puzzles do engage you somewhat, though. The term “walking simulator” is bandied around at any first person affair in which you don’t fire an AK47, but The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an adventure game, first. A beautiful adventure game.
Red Creek Valley sits on a beautiful lake, with lucious greenery surrounding its perimeter. Honestly, the detail is truly breathtaking. Even the little details like the chipped railing on a bridge, to the individual specks of moss on cave dwelling rocks, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will most certainly be one of the best looking things you’ll see this year. I rarely recommend something on looks alone, as I believe that there needs to be something more to your average game than just a pretty face, but even if The Vanishing’s number ordering pastime doesn’t sound appealing, you’ll be in awe of the exquisite landscape.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter leans heavily on its Lovecraftian vibe with the peculiar paranormal happenings, and the ambient sounds of Red Creek Valley can have your skin crawling. There’s no real fail state (bar one area, though the punishment isn’t colossal), yet the developers have successfully sculpted a world in which you’ll be looking over your shoulder, just in case.
I admire The Astronauts and their declaration that they won’t hold your hand. In this day-and-age, it’s a rarity. However, it’s a step too far at times. Leaving an area and continuing your journey, before realising you have to go back and hunt pixels in the shrubbery for a puzzle is a frustration one can do without.
The relatively gratifying story and straightforward puzzles aren’t the real reasons to visit Red Creek Valley. The location is a good enough reason itself. More often than not people look to graphics as an indication for this medium’s progression and even though that’s somewhat of a falsehood, it has to be said that this spirit story’s looks are otherworldly.
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.
Review code provided by publisher.