Review: The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter
It’s the one word that best sums up The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the first person, exploratory puzzle adventure from The Astronauts, a young development studio helmed by the original founders of People Can Fly.
The game starts off by warning you that it will not hold your hand, but it soon becomes apparent that this is just a way to excuse the poor direction. Starting in the middle of the woods, the player is left to their own devices – which basically means you’ll wander aimlessly for long periods of time, possibly stumbling across a clue to whatever the developer was trying to do with its story.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a slow game, very similar in style to Dear Esther. But, unlike that thought provoking adventure, Ethan Carter has none of its inspired direction or intriguing story, only a frustrating slog through a game that provides far too few answers for its many questions.
It does share one positive similarity with Dear Esther: it’s stunning to behold. Using Unreal Engine 3, it renders beautiful forests, mountains and old, country buildings in stunning resolution and is very scalable, running on ageing PCs at a decent clip while still maintaining much of its beauty.
This means that traversing the world that The Astronauts built is never wanting for visual treats. Its branching paths and open nature mean that you may never find all of its secrets, but you will “ooh” and “ahh” at its lakes, trees, buildings and even its graveyard.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter also brings an interesting detective mechanic to the game, even if it doesn’t fulfil its potential in such a directionless game. As “occult-minded detective Paul Prospero” you will come across various mysteries on your journey, and moving in closer will reveal an “inspect” prompt. Clicking this prompt brings up words and thoughts, swirling around the screen and the object of your inspection, as a nice way of showing Prospero’s thought process to the player without using clumsy narration. Not that clumsy narration isn’t present in the game, but it’s mercifully infrequent.
In some ways, more clumsy narration might have made the game more fun to play, really. Negating the boredom and frustration that sets in when you’ve wandered the same area for the fourth time, failing to find the precise clue needed to progress the current case.
This is how the game seems to work. It drops you in its world without explanation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but then never sets about giving you even the slightest hint – not even with clever visual clues to steer you onto the correct path. Basic gameplay mechanics are never explained, which includes the ability to “touch” various scenes to discover…something, anything. The touch prompt will open a rift, seemingly either to the past or to the “other side” in which maybe you could learn something relevant to your case. Unfortunately you may never learn what that something is, due to the stubbornly obtuse design.
This is unacceptable.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a disappointing mess of a game, made all the more disappointing because of the missed opportunities littered throughout its gameplay ideas. The detective angle has huge potential to bring a new dimension to the storytelling, the ability to see through portals into the past, even the open nature of its world – everything could have banded together to create a stunning and mysterious tale in this gorgeously-realised rural setting.
If only the game wasn’t so stubbornly set on not telling its players how to even play it. Without competent direction, you won’t find any fun here. And even the darkest games need an element of fun to be worth your time.
And The Vanishing of Ethan Carter definitely isn’t worth your time.