The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter Review: A Low-Key Lovecraftian Thriller That Does Not Mess Around
Indie games. The very term conjures up a retro-looking, possibly ironically so, emotion-heavy auteur-driven affair. However, The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter has all the slick production values of a AAA title, and utilizes them to their full extent to bring the spooky tale of Ethan Carter to life. Why then, does it feel so much like what people would term "an indie game"? Let's ponder.
First of all, Ethan Carter (let's just forego the Vanishing right now, we know the kid's gone) does not hold your hand. It even advertises this in the very first seconds of the game. "This is a narrative experience that doesn't hold your hand." In fact, the invisible hand of the AAA game is nowhere to be found in this game. The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter further bucks the indie stereotype by using a heavily modified Unreal Engine 3 to recreate a lush autumnal valley somewhere in what seems like those legendary Northeastern Atlantic states so prominently featured in the writings of one Stephen King.
It is perhaps a stroke of great fortune that fate would have me play Ethan Carter only weeks after I finished the 2013 Square Enix Tomb Raider reboot for the first time. The latter game, while lovely in its own right, epitomizes AAA rollercoaster gameplay. It makes overtures toward character development in its cutscenes, whereas the gameplay almost directly contradicts what the game is trying to tell you. Lara is crying and shaking and apologizing after making her first kills, and seconds later you'll get little pop-up notifications saying "HEADSHOT +15 XP!" Not so in the case of Ethan Carter's protagonist, the supernatural detective Paul Prospero.
Arriving in Red Creek Valley after suspicious correspondence from a kid that started out as fanmail, Paul Prospero's interaction with the world is mostly limited to observation and inspection, touching and sensing. Red Creek Valley is a beautiful but lonesome place, and Prospero's thoughts will be your most constant companions in the game. Depending on where you are, sometimes Ethan Carter can feel a bit like a really lonely trek through Skyrim.
The interaction with the world being so limited - "Fix" is the most aggressive prompt your character can get - brings with it a certain kind of safety. Walk up to a ledge and you will not fall off. There is simply no "defeat" condition in Ethan Carter. This makes the entirety of the map, spooky as its locations sometimes may be, a bit of a gorgeous, empty diorama rather than an actual dangerous place. Then again, to its credit, it is a very beautiful diorama.
The lack of handholding is a blessing and a curse. I went into this game almost completely blind, and just let it all wash over me. A very novel experience, allowing me to really take in the story and get lost in it. Put it like this: I wasn't looking for the next gameplay prompt, I was actually looking at the world. If you play in this manner though, you might end up (as I did) stuck. You see, certain parts of the game world only open up after you've reconstructed enough of the story to pass. This is something I learned the hard way, having to backtrack through a fairly large map in order to collect the scenes and stories I missed when I was still figuring out gameplay. For immersion's sake there is no fast travel option - in fact, there's not much at all in the way of UI.
If you haven't seen it already, I recommend the short gameplay video by developers The Astronauts embedded below. Watch it for a couple of minutes explaining the basic mechanics of the game. It is to The Astronauts' credit that even without knowing what to do, I eventually managed to figure it all out by trial and error without much frustration - it's the backtracking once you do get it that might annoy some players. To exacerbate this (possible) annoyance, the game has no save system but auto-saves whenever you've successfully uncovered a scene. This caused my immersion to be broken when I had to walk past certain parts of the map again and again, triggering Prospero's inner monologue several times. "What do the dead know about being dead?" indeed!
Even with all the backtracking, I got a good eight hours out of the game before uncovering all the secrets and getting to its heartbreaking ending. If you watch the video below completely, no doubt you will do it faster. Consider this before spending your money! Also consider the fact that these minor moments of immersion-breaking are situated in an elegant, compelling, visually-stunning game experience.
There are no million collectibles to gather in Ethan Carter for nebulous (or sometimes non-existing) rewards, no QTEs to ride, no inventory to fiddle with, no XP system, no multiplayer component. There is only you, the world, and the story. Uncovering the puzzle is the only reward you will get. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a brief, transporting game not out for player catharsis like so many others, but rather closure for its characters.
This was a review of the PC version of the game, with a Steam key provided by Nordic Games. It is out now on PC for $19.99 and will be hitting PS4 in 2015.