Video Games Review: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (PS4, 2015)

In September 2014, developers The Astronauts released a short but rich game called The Vanishing of Ethan Carter on Steam. I never got to play it but it received positive reviews and was praised for its visuals and unique storytelling. This year the title received an overhaul courtesy of the Unreal 4 engine and was subsequently released for the PS4. And boy is it a doozy.

The titular Ethan Carter is a young boy who has written a letter to his idol, Paul Prospero, a paranormal investigator asking him to come to his hometown of Red Creek Valley and uncover its mysteries. When Paul arrives, the town is abandoned and he quickly discovers that something sinister is at play.

Ethan Carter is a narrative driven first person mystery game and from the outset it warns you that it won’t hold your hand. This much is evident as the absence of a tutorial and an all round sense of confusion plagues the opening minutes of gameplay. Ethan Carter is linear to a degree – there is always a general path in which to follow – but you’re free to explore Red Creek Valley at you own whim, unencumbered by time limits or mission objectives.
Therein lies the beauty of it. There are multiple stories that Ethan has written all pertaining to various locations and incidents in Red Creek Valley and with no order in which to find them, it’s all a matter of exploration. I missed two right at the beginning of the game because I didn’t veer off into the wilderness, forcing me to travel all the way back in order to do them. Although that sounds tedious, I found it to be less of a critical observation on Ethan Carter, but more of a comment on the importance of discovery within it.

As Paul, you must decipher puzzles and solve murder cases by finding evidence and reconstructing crime scenes. Some are challenging, some require minimal effort but they’re always fun and engaging. It’s written well, its narrative littered with intrigue that keeps the player only just out of the loop. Ethan Carter is at its best when it’s pace is slow and drawn out, touching on themes of murder, sci-fi, mythology and the supernatural. It’s best to approach it as interactive literature in order to link the stories because initially it all seems a tad disconnected. By games end though, all the pieces falls into place.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter strives on its ability to visually astound. As it stands, it may be the most beautiful game I have played on the Playstation 4. I was taken aback and it took a while for me to start utilising the sprint button, choosing instead to appreciate every facet of this small but impeccably detailed world that The Astronauts have constructed. Red Creek Valley is shrouded by trees and foliage with leaves that drift across the screen. It all looks gorgeous as the sun penetrates the blanket of cover that branches create. Water cascades through the valley and crashes over walls and and building interiors have an eerie lived in feel. The only real drab piece of scenery shows up during an extended stay in a mine shaft. It isn’t ugly, but it certainly is unappealing considering what is waiting for you just outside of it.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter clocks in at about 3 hours and while that may sound daunting when you consider that it is available for around $25 at the moment on the PSN store, its presentation and superb narrative is worth it.

Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Unique, intriguing story; One of, if not the best looking game on PS4
Lowlights: A single visually drab section; For some, the length may not justify the price
Developer: The Astronauts
Publisher: The Astronauts
Released: July 15, 2015 (PS4)
Platform: PlayStation 4, PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 (via PSN)


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