The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a story driven point and click developed by the studio The Astronauts. The game places a strong emphasis on exploration, investigation, and an eerie atmosphere. Upon loading a new game, I was genuinely surprised that this indie looked, sounded, and felt so great. I was drawn into its world and story immediately. The aesthetic, sound design, and nonlinear narrative are superbly woven together. Don’t get me wrong it certainly isn’t perfect. It has a few questionable design decisions and some minor bugs. However, I don’t feel like they significantly detracted from the experience as a whole.
You play as the story’s supernaturally gifted protagonist, Detective Paul Prospero. You’ve received letters from young Ethan Carter who asks you to investigate happenings in his remote town of Red Creek Valley. The game makes it a point to tell you, “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” True to its word, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has no map and no journal to remind you of what you’re working on. It takes place in a large and truly open area which contains puzzles that aren’t required to be completed in any particular order. It’s a refreshing reprieve from on rail adventures that force open worlds with little to no reason.
Most of the time you’ll be working on one of ten puzzles. They require some critical thinking but after the first few you’ll realize they follow similar formulas. Though each is satisfying to figure out, I feel like I enjoyed unraveling the bigger mystery of Ethan Carter himself much more. Each time you complete a puzzle you’re rewarded with a cut scene that explains exactly what transpired. As you see more of them you’re able to piece together the overall mystery. This organic connection of events is what drives the narrative of the game. It’s very well done. It assumes the player is paying attention and trusts him/her to connect the dots themselves. Another point of interest is the way the game conveys information. As you investigate an object words will pop up in quick succession that simulate how someone might think to themselves rather than talking to someone out loud. They’re not complete thoughts, but they effectively lead you to possible conclusions.
As far as controls go they’re minimalistic as one might expect. Aside from standard movement you’ll inspect objects with left and right mouse buttons. You can run and crouch as well but that’s all you’ll need to know. There is gamepad support as well. It works just fine. I found no problems with either. There are an acceptable amount of graphics options too. Even with the settings on low you’ll still find the environment textures look pretty nice. This is thanks in part to the implementation of photogrammetry for the creation of many of the game’s art assets.
Now to the few areas where the game falls short. First and foremost the game pushes exploration and investigation. However, there’s a section near the end that actually punishes this. Instead you’re forced into a cat and mouse game. It feels completely out of place. Also, you’re not allowed to manually save. For the most part you’ll need to wait until you complete a puzzle to get an auto save. There were also two times when I got stuck after looking at clues. The game didn’t freeze, I just couldn’t control my character or access the menu screen. After restarting the game though everything seemed to work fine.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter overall was a great experience. It only takes about five hours to complete and there’s really no replay value. However, it’s a $20 title and it really leaves an impression. The unsettling story is intriguing, the open world is engaging, and the way the individual puzzles drive the overarching narrative is masterfully executed.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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