Review: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

A short and singular, but gorgeous and well-realised, experience The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a new benchmark in adventure games.  The quite technically-solid engine offers some damn-near-photo-realistic visuals that give a great setting for some unfortunately rather simple puzzles, but it's all the connective tissue in a story that is quite well-told and keeps the player on their toes with plenty of twists and turns.  It's an exploration through a presented world that I found quite compelling all the way through.

Review: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Date published: Feb 22, 2015
2 / 3 stars

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a first-person adventure game developed and published by The Astronauts, an indie outfit whose staff include several industry veterans from the likes of People Can Fly of Painkiller fame. So an adventure game was something that seemed somewhat out of sorts for me, but I'm glad to say I think came together quite well. It's a short and singular experience, but one well-told and absolutely gorgeous in its execution.

It's hard for the first thing you notice not
to be the absolutely stunning visuals that the game offers

It's hard to understate the quality of the visuals on offer here.  Just cast your eyes up to the lead header there and realise that's an in-game screenshot.  Get close enough to lick some gravel and you can start seeing some seams in places and the like, but in general almost every piece of the scenery you wander through bleary-eyed in grand adventure game tradition looking for things to interact with is quite gorgeous, and it certainly works to the game's favour that the world you do mope about in thusly is so beautiful.  Part of the appeal of said genre is to present a world that makes you want to find out the story it tells, and I found myself just wanting to wander and take screenshots.  It's that pretty.  You could print a line of postcards and convince people that the country town that Vanishing of Ethan Carter is set in is real.

The engine on offer, which resembles a pretty heavily-modified Unreal engine, is incredibly solid.  A plethora of visual options are presented, the game had no issues at all with my multiple-monitor setup, and the amount of granularity in the options for various visual effects, from the anti-aliasing, motion blur, and field of view, are all presented here.  It almost would be the Serious Sam option of having perhaps too many options, but the developers have done a good job of making them easy to understand and several presets that seem quite solid.  Even on low or medium settings the game looks quite good, and I never had any significant issues with framerate even on the highest settings, and that's using my rig, which while substantial, is not exactly a super-gaming rig 2000 or something (see the bottom of the review for specifications).  

The attention to detail is what really stands out here, and so much of that is in the little things: from how the grass seems placed in such a way as to not stand out as 2D sprites and sways in a fairly realistic way with them seeming to react to a breeze, to fire effects that are at risk of burning you if you sit with your face too close to the monitor, to the rather spectacularly-rendered particle effects that evoke the wind brushing dirt or as appropriate ash from the ground, or plants swaying again in a quite life-like fashion as you walk through tall grass.  It's a game that makes me want to reach for my thesaurus to find more words to express that the game is quite realistic indeed, and only in the realising that this means I'm banging on a bit about that am I stopped from doing so.

The story that the Vanishing of Ethan Carter tells is quite compelling

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter places you in the shoes of occult-minded private eye detective Paul Prospero as he investigates a mysterious letter he receives from a child fan of his, which claims he "saw things that no kid should have seen".  You are then set into the town that is the setting for that investigation, and left to poke around entirely upon your own initiative.  The game bills itself as a "narrative experience that doesn't hold your hand" and it's very true to it's work.  Although if you go far enough you will find arbitrary walls to impede you from getting too off-course, there is a good feeling of expanse and space to the game world, and not everything you find will necessarily be relevant.  It's up to you to find the scenes of a series of incidents in the game world, and put together a variety of clues to solve them.  While there are certain core ones that you need to solve to essentially get the ending of the tale - which is signposted rather well near the end of the game in the case you get that far without finding the main plot points - it is otherwise entirely up to you.

That's both a strength and a failing of the Vanishing of Ethan Carter, as the difficulty of the puzzles comes from the fact that they're not really signposted at all, beyond interaction prompts of course, and I got through the game without having found everything myself, if the fact that I had 10/14 achievements on Steam when I did get the rather brilliant twist that is the ending I'm not going to spoil.  It's easy to miss a fair bit of content therefore, and I can imagine some people having difficulty finding all the stories, and there's two in particular that you can probably bound right by without knowing that you have - until you get to the end section anyways.

While I wouldn't call it a horror game in the vein of classics, it does a good job of mingling just enough of that to create a real sense of tension to the game, as well as a few genuine scary moments that I'm not going to spoil, but there's at least one section in the game that will definitely get someone of a normal disposition and isn't expecting it; though, like most other things like that, it loses a lot of it's impact when you do expect it, and indeed it was wearing a bit thin after I had to do that section a few times due to my own personal ineptitude and poor sense of direction.  That's on my own weakness for maze puzzles more than the game itself though.

The other big criticism of the story on offer is the length

This is going to be a somewhat subjective complaint, as some people would be entirely fine with paying twenty quid for a game as compelling and beautifully-designed as the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is, but I am also cognizant of players who expect a longer game for that money than the 4-5 hours that I'd say makes up the running length of the game. 

Since this is a very subjective sort of valuation, the best I can do is put forth my own personal opinion, and in this case, I'd say that the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is worth it, and it's worth it for the atmosphere and the production values.  This is a game with the kind of attention to detail and care taken in the design of that world and the admittedly-simple mechanics (more on that in a bit) are top-notch, and they put much more established studios like Bioware or Ubisoft to shame with the quality of writing on offer, and how tightly the game itself is bound into that.  I don't regret buying it, and I bought it for full price.  In a world of Steam sales and bundle sites, that's high praise indeed for me, especially given how rarely I would say it, and indeed given how rare an occasion it has been where I have.

One of the common criticisms of similar "adventure games" like, for example, Dear Esther, is that they are "walking simulators."  Indeed, the game opening with that line about it being an experience that "doesn't hold your hand" seems to be the developers attempting to avoid that pitfall.  For their part, they've succeeded, I feel.  If you cast your mind to a few paragraphs back you may recall me mentioning that it does a good job in making the world seem open and expansive even when that is something of an illusion, and that is indeed true.  There's a good sized world for you to be able to explore here, and the set pieces are fairly spread out with plenty of time to admire that brilliant scenery.  All the more reason why I feel that the game is well worth the asking price.

Environment immersion comes from a brilliant art and sound direction

Red Creek Valley, the setting of this investigation, benefits from an absolutely stunning art and sound direction, and that really is the ace up the sleeve of the game.  This isn't an engine of stunning visual fidelity that then squanders it on the same grey-brown settings that aren't so much well-trodden as walked down, then returned upon to be purged with fire and salt, and then walked on some more until a groove is in the ground.  I wasn't kidding when I say you could sell screenshots as a line of postcards and possibly have people believe that the setting is a real place, and indeed it didn't surprise me to read on a passing forum thread mentioned on the Steam overlay that they based it on photos.

That's just one half of the art direction however, and both the sound design and sound engineering in the Vanishing of Ethan Carter are solid.  The soundtrack waltzes whimsically through merry if understated wandering tunes to eerie and, most importantly, subtle horror themes when you wander through the dark secrets of the valley.  The narration, delivered in a hard-boiled but believable noir growl that I rather enjoyed, and the voiceovers in general were mostly strong, with only a couple of times where it seemed weaker - one of which I later found out was for rather good reason, so there's that.  Sounds are well-engineered too, with surround headphones or speakers they all come from where they should, at appropriate volume, and there's nothing that's an audio cue that doesn't have something visual as well to accompany it, which means you won't miss cues for that reason.  Just another area of the game that obviously had attention paid to it.

The game mechanics are solid, but simple, and perhaps a little too simple

And so here we come to the one thing that actually bothered me personally in an otherwise sublime experience, and that's the puzzle design.  This is pretty much a classic adventure puzzler sort of game, where the central game mechanics are based upon solving a variety of puzzles.  There's a few different kind of mechanics at play in the puzzles, such as having to use a "searching" mechanic where you try to align a floating variety of the items names together to grant you a vision of where that needed item is, and a very thematic "chronology" deductive mechanic where you have to try to determine what order a series of events occurred in.  The problem is there's only a couple other I could name, and it certainly feels a like there was potential for more in that term.  I'll give the game credit where it's due in that regard though: the puzzles were all in aid of the story, never just there for gameplay or running time's worth, and they all felt like they fit naturally into the game flow.  There's a pacing to how the puzzles and accompanying story are presented that really does help keep you engaged in them, and the only time I lost steam going through the game was in that one maze section I had to keep repeating.

I have to wonder to myself, however, the level of nitpicking and what it says for the game, when chief amongst my complaints is that I want more of that game what I enjoy.  It's reflective of a game that I rather enjoyed, and compelled me to enjoy it further, and while the ending was a rather satisfying and thought-provoking twist, both the game and critic in me both wondered what could of or might of been if the game had some more room to flex a little more space.  Nonetheless, it's very tightly-presented, and how well the puzzles and story work hand-in-hand is quite laudable.

The Final Word: Recommended - While same may find it a bit short and/or shallow for its price point, the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the most solidly-produced and atmospheric adventure games I have ever played, and that alone I would say is worth the price of admission.  It’s a good story that is well-told and a solid puzzle game as well.  If the price point puts you off I’d definitely recommend taking a look the next time it hits a Steam sale.