From the outset The Vanishing of Ethan Carter proudly proclaims that it is a game that does not hold your hand. It’s hard to avoid getting that message in nearly everything the game does, or doesn’t as the case may be.
When things go bad, really bad, like X-Files bad, you play the investigator people call. Your new case: one Ethan Carter, a youth in a rural township, has vanished. It’s a good thing you’ve got some special observational powers on your side because the evidence is quite literally puzzling.
I knew very little about this game going in so had no frame of reference for it. As it turned out, its graphical presentation is highly pleasing to the eye. I did a little digging and found out the PS4 version is using the Unreal 4 engine whereas the original game was using Unreal 3. The upgrade from that is minimal because the game was already so pretty, but much appreciated.
That visual appeal is important to keep the gamer interested while wandering the various areas looking for clues and puzzles. Vistas way across vast expanses of water point out the loneliness of this quest. The well made ruins of a once populated area project the dark tone of the investigation. Elegant lighting, realistic architecture and great textures all work together to create a sense of immersion whether inside or out. Since immersion is highly needed in a game that won’t even hint at what you are supposed to do, this presentation succeeds on every level.
The standard gameplay for getting around is easy enough and similar enough to an FPS that you can pick it right up. The ability to run without running out of breath is a good idea implemented because you may find yourself so far off where you should be that you’ll have to run a long way to get back on track. The rest revolves around puzzles which give information or reveal what happened at each important location. I hate to give up how any of the puzzles work exactly so I’ll say that whether you are putting things in the right spot to reconstruct the scene or interacting with supernatural realms, each miniature investigation is a little different. A uniting factor is when you are prompted to put certain scenes in order to view the event at that location. This is one of the very few times the game will give you some idea of what you are supposed to do in a puzzle.
There isn’t much rhyme or reason to which puzzle must be done when but wherever you find things that can be interacted with (their name shows up atop the item, body part, etc) you can bet you’ll find a mystery there. It does seem highly unfortunate to this reviewer though that in some situations what you need to have or do next could be so unknown or far away from the scene that one could spend days and days trying to figure out how to close things out before moving on.
The puzzles themselves have a nice medium level of difficulty, some will call them quite easy, but first you’ll have to figure out what you’re supposed to do or prepare to be lost for awhile. Trial and error may help set you on the right track but it could just as easily derail you so use what typically works best for you by all means.
Purely practically, as a game with a lot of exploration, it would have been a good idea to have a jump command.
The audio weaves itself into the effects of the visuals to set that ever important tone. I never found errors or poorly chosen tunes. While the main character has a cool and mysterious voice that I’d like to hear more of, the rest of the characters don’t fare as well. Collectively the other voice performances are middling.
Ethan Carter isn’t an especially long game unless you went and got yourself lost a lot, and really most gamers will. Hopefully for you though, that’s just part of the challenge right? Since you know what you know now that you know it when it’s all said and done, there aren’t many reasons to return to the investigation. You might have missed some scenarios you’d like to go over, revisit that world to take a nice virtual walk or try to make sense out of some details that escaped your grasp but playing it more than once seems largely unnecessary.
The strengths of this game are in its structure. You’ve got a nice open world, some clever puzzles, a crime to investigate, and the challenge of figuring it all out. Taking these pieces apart though, they are really just the outline of a game. The lack of hand holding is something that certain gamers certainly pine for in the age of nauseating tutorials, but Ethan Carter may stand a bit too much on the coat tails of the emperor’s new clothes (there’s no there there).
With that point made I have to say these game pieces do fall together nicely in this particular venture, and my misgivings don’t stack up a great deal against the positives that the game achieves even without a more unifying thread.