Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Review copy supplied free of charge by the publisher.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter starts with a warning about how it’s a story-driven experience that doesn’t hold your hand, a rather bold claim given how there’s a substantial portion of gamers who will actively dislike a game if they deem it to be patronising or being too intent on gently guiding the player through its world and mechanics. I was instantly intrigued by this message; did it mean The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a game that was originally released in 2014 and has only just made it to Xbox One, was going to be full of challenging puzzles that taxed the mind? Would it have a vast world full of mysteries into which you were dropped with no real direction? So many questions.
As it happens it’s actually a rather stupid message in a lot of ways. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is designed in a way that will guide you gently toward the major narrative beats, although it does let you ignore them for the most part. Nor does the game throw a bunch of brain-bending mind-destroying puzzles at you, either. No, as it turns out The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is actually really accessible in every way except one; the storyline. What the game truly means by not holding your hand is that there is a lot of room for interpretation in the narrative. It doesn’t walk you through how you should feel, what it all means and exactly what happened to the titular Ethan Carter.
The first thing that hits you in the face like a runaway Thomas the Tank Engine is just how damn good the game looks. Sure, it was originally released back in 2014 and thus isn’t quite at the cutting edge of graphical oomph, but that doesn’t stop it from packing in a lot of gorgeous eye-candy in the form of wonderful vistas stretching out before you. It can do this because it doesn’t have much in terms of moving parts or complex animations and thus can focus everything on detailed textures, ambient details and lovely lighting that comes from the low-hanging sun. The map isn’t huge or anything but it is seamless and manages to give you a variety of scenery to admire. These impressive graphics are important in a story-driven game because it helps immerse you into the experience. It’s easy to just find yourself soaking up the view, much like you might have done when first exploring the harsh lands of Skyrim or The Witcher 3.
Since its launch back in 2014 The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has had a number of changes, with the PS4 getting a complete overhaul from Unreal Engine 3 to Unreal Engine 4. Now that it has come to Xbox One there’s a few intriguing options such as a field of view slider, something more console games should have, and a framerate limiter which is set to unlimited by default. Running this on Xbox One S means a locked resolution of 1080p with a fairly stable framerate that only occasionally gives a judder.
So, this is a game all about the story and thus it falls largely into the once much-maligned walking simulator category, albeit with some nice puzzling to go along with it, but we’ll come back to those later. As detective Paul Prospero you are capable of “sensing” what happened to a deceased person you have come to search for the missing Ethan Carter, a young lad who wrote you to about strange things happening. And strange things they are indeed, the events that surround Ethan and his disappearance growing odder and odder as you explore. To really explain the style of mystery would sadly also spoil it for anyone even vaguely familiar with genre, but suffice to say as you peel back the layers it’s a compelling yarn, albeit quite a simple one when you boil it down to its most basic ingredients.
That would be a disservice, though. There’s a lot of room for interpretation in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, both in terms of its ending and in many of the things you can encounter as you explore. For some people this ambiguity that surrounds so much of the plot may very well be frustrating, and for others it will be the cause of many hours of reflection. Just a quick Google will reveal massive threads of discussion among hundreds, if not thousands, of players, all piecing together different aspects of the story. There’s a commonly accepted theory, but there are also some very small details that indicate other things.
It comes down the type of person you are; if you enjoy being told a story and having it make perfect sense by the end then The Vanishing of Ethan Carter probably isn’t going to be for you.
So now we come back to where I started my review, which is the game’s own claim that it won’t hold your hand. In truth what this actually means is that you can merrily amble past almost everything and still get to the end, although unsurprisingly if you do this it’s not going to make a whole lot of sense. Or should I say, less sense than it did. You’d also have to be a bit daft to wander past all the strange occurrences without properly investigating them.
There is a section in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter where you can lose, at least in a rather easy-going fashion. Otherwise, this is strictly a puzzle game where getting stuck is fairly unlikely unless you happen to have the brainpower of your average crack addict from Glasgow, although now that I think about they can be quite sly…Anyway, the point is when you aren’t taking in the scenery or wrangling the story into something cohesive you’ll probably be completing some form of puzzle. These are, as said, quite simple affairs for the most part, including a fun one early on that has you trying to re-arrange an entire house.
The other primary form of puzzle comes in the form of solving murders because as we all know the number one hobby in small, out-of-the-way villages is murdering the neighbors. This plays out by having you examine various things in the environment which causes a bunch of words to float in the air indicating your character’s thoughts. Occasionally you’ll get a hint toward the direction of the next clue, too, by lining up a repeated word. You’ll then have to replicate crime scene by moving a few items into their original positions before then being shown a sequence of ghostly recordings of what happened which you must put into the correct order so that you can finally see the whole thing play out. Again, it’s not complicated nor taxing fare, but it’s still enjoyable to piece together these scenes.
And that’s just about it. Like I said this isn’t a very deep game in terms of how it plays, but it all comes together in a compelling package that kept gently drawing me further and further into it. It’s hardly a long journey, clocking in at around 3-4 hours, and I do feel like it could have done another hour or two, but the advantage is that it feels nice and compact with relatively little fat.
I say relatively because while I have had nothing but praise for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter so far there is a single section involving a mine and a horror game cliche that felt…well, a bit naff compared to everything else. In a longer game it would barely have made an impact, but in such a short experience it stands out as a weak sequence in an otherwise outstanding game.
Regardless of this little irk, though, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is more than worth spending your hard-earned cash on. It’s just a shame it took so long to finally bring it to the Xbox One so that more people can get to experience it. If you’re looking for something with some narrative oomph then this is it. Recommended, easily.
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