Remember when the stories in video games almost universally sucked? We used to have to suffer through stories that barely deviated from templates such as “amnesiac chosen one saves the world”, “unlikely hero saves princess”, or “bold knight slays evil monster”. Sometimes they’d rock our socks off and change it up by combining them! Yeah, those were dark times. Fortunately for all of us, we don’t live in those times anymore, and even as recently as last year, we’re getting great video game stories such as The Walking Dead, Gone Home, and The Last of Us. Video games are finally getting there. The next game to attempt to tell a mature, interesting story is from White Paper Games and it’s called Ether One. We should all consider ourselves lucky that we were born when we were, too, because this game also succeeds in telling a great story. I just wish it had played to its strengths and focused entirely on narrative than shoehorn in underwhelming gameplay.
In Ether One, you are a Restorer, a person tasked with revitalizing the memories of a dementia patient named Jean. You enter Jean’s mind and visit important moments of her past to try and get her to remember them. Along the way, you are guided by the voice of Phyllis, who is in charge of this treatment. You will gather “mind fragments” in the shape of ribbons that will unlock further and further memories (read: levels) in Jean’s mind. If you desire, you can partake in optional adventure game-like puzzles to get a very small tidbit of information about Pinwheel, the town Jean grew up in (and, not coincidentally, the town where her most important memories take place). The voice performances are great and I found myself being emotionally invested in the characters by the end. That’s about as much as I’m willing to say about the story. I truly believe that uncovering the story for yourself is the reason you should play Ether One. Just know that the story works. It’s not heavy-handed, clichéd, or melodramatic. It doesn’t overstay its welcome. It concludes in a satisfying way. Like I said, it just works.
I wish the same could be said for the actual game part of Ether One. As I mentioned, there are optional puzzles that you can choose to do to uncover little bits of world information. These puzzles are your standard adventure game puzzles: find item that works on object, find code in journals to unlock safes, etc. They start off manageable enough, but then get extremely frustrating as the game progresses. This is not because they are challenging, mind you, but because the environments become needlessly large and the solution to each puzzle often requires that you run from one end of the area to the other. Most of the puzzles don’t actually require thinking, but rather searching every detail in the environment for an item or code so you can unlock the next part of the puzzle… which will then require you to search for another item or code. What’s worse is the inventory system. Since you can only hold one item at a time, when you run into a scenario where you need two or more items, you’re required to teleport the item you have back to your little hub area and set them down on a shelf and warp again back to where you were. Then, when you want to actually use that item, you have to warp back to the hub, grab the item, and warp back once again. Even worse is the fact that you never know what item will be useful. There were several occasions where items that I thought were useless (such as beer bottles) ended up having pretty important clues on them. This means that, whenever you think there is an item that may someday be useful, you need to pick it up, warp back to your hub, and put the item down on the shelf. The warp is instantaneous and you can do it at any time, but it’s just long enough to be annoying and you have to do it so often that I just wish there was an inventory menu. It wouldn’t be so bad if the rewards for completing the puzzles were worth it, but they are just little throw-away tidbits of world building and nothing more.
Fortunately, the vast majority of the puzzles in the game are optional. What is not optional, however, is finding the aforementioned mind fragments. This basically consists of you running around the environment listening for soft whispers (that indicate one is nearby) and then finding them. There are eight in each area and since the areas do get needless large and confusing, they can take you a little while to find. This is not fun at all, but every time you find one, Phyllis chimes in with another piece of important information about the plot, so I didn’t find myself hating it as much as I initially thought I would. I also didn’t mind because of the unsettling atmosphere that is accomplished by the fantastic sound work at play. Even though there is no combat or action sequences, I still found myself to be very tense through most of my four hours spent playing the game. They intentionally don’t explain what is going on to you, so you are left wondering what exactly it is you’re going to find. You have no idea what Jean has locked away in her memory, so whenever you hear something strange, you never know what could be coming after you. In my heart of hearts, I knew nothing would come of it, but the sound design is so well done that it made me think there could be something. Think Gone Home, only you’re in less familiar environments, so it can be even more unsettling.The graphics range from having some nice moments to looking pretty dated. I didn’t find them immediately offensive, but I don’t think they were able to pull off the beautiful vistas that they designed from a technical aspect. Even from a distance, most of the world looks unintentionally foggy and most of the surfaces are pretty jagged. There isn’t really anything special going on with the lighting or particle effects, either. I also don’t recall many moving parts, and when something did move, it was a little too jerky for my liking. The only saving grace is that they opted for a more stylized look, which definitely helps it hold up better than something that goes for realism and fails. The graphics aren’t bad, but they’re not going to win any awards for best visuals, either.
I really wish I could talk more about the story, but I do think you’d be better off jumping in and seeing it for yourself. In fact, I would recommend that you do. While there isn’t much content if you avoid the puzzles, the story truly is a triumph for video games. If you’re into games like Dear Esther or Gone Home, you should probably consider buying this game. Once the game is discounted on Steam or Humble Bundle, you shouldn’t even hesitate to grab it.
A PC copy of Ether One was provided by White Paper Games for this review.