The Vanishing of Ethan Carter review
The Astronauts’ take on the adventure game is worth the ride, but is far from perfect
From the title itself to the setting to the apparent villains of the piece, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one long love letter to the literary roots of HP Lovecraft. The player takes the role of paranormal detective Paul Prospero, who is drawn to a backwood town in rural America by a letter by one Ethan Carter (no doubt a nod to Lovecraft’s self-insert character Randolph Carter) who is being stalked by the members of his family, who are in the thrall of The Sleeper, a mysterious and horrific entity that turns his family against him. They try to kill him in a variety of horrifying ways, from running him over with a train to bricking him up in a tomb. The theatrical, elaborate methods in which they try to kill him evoke some aspects of, say, Edgar Allan Poe. Then you discover young Ethan is someone who loves to read, and his own stories are littered throughout the game… There’s more to this than readily meets the eye.
The game, mechanically, is pretty simple. You explore the landscape in the first person, interact with objects and through that, solve simple puzzles to solve the various murders. The trick is finding where the various implements are, or in the case of when you have to organise a timeline, choose which events happen in what order. It’s a very simple game, and the difficulty comes from the fact that very little is spelled out or left in your path. You’re expected to explore and try things out. This isn’t a huge problem as you cannot actually die (nor can anything harm you, with one notable exception) but a few puzzles feel a bit trial and error, in sharp contrast with others which are barely puzzles at all. One involves you going through portals in doorways, recreating a the layout of a house to uncover a hidden room, which can be a bit tough as a lot of the rooms look exactly the bloody same, being decrepit and abandoned. Compare this to a previous one that just involves walking past a series of booby traps and then looking at them, the puzzle being just finding them all.
The one part that the game falls flat, for me, is a side section in the mine. Up until this point, the game has taken a very slow, careful, measured approach to horror. There’s little overt horror, with the fear coming from the desolation, the solitude, the feeling of isolation. Nothing can hurt you, nor are there any moments where you could get hurt. This section, however, takes a cue from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, as you have to navigate an underground maze that is haunted by a zombie miner that will effectively kill you with a jump-scare as it tries to rip off your face. It’s a rather jarring change of tone that is entirely at odds with the rest of the game in every way.
I will say that whilst I saw the twist coming from the moment I downloaded the game, the game (mine maze notwithstanding) is put together very, very well. The pacing, tone and atmosphere are spot on, with the music and sound design creating a wonderful mood of tension as you slowly uncover just what happened to Ethan Carter and what his family have done. Graphically, especially the redux update, it’s a gorgeous game. One part of the game that I adore is just wandering around the game area, forever in a perpetual sunset of 7pm. If anything, one of the reasons why I hate the mines is that it’s visually dull and dark, instead of the beautiful vistas of the rest of the game.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is, if nothing else, a novel take on the adventure game concept. It sets up a brilliant sense of atmosphere, and tells a fun story (even if it’s clear it’s not what it seems from the word go). However, the puzzles range from the farcically easy to the ridiculously obtuse, and the mine maze section is such a jarring change of tone and style that it can really sap your enthusiasm if you’re not a fan of games like Amnesia. Wait for it on sale, and give it a whirl. Despite the drawbacks, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is worth experiencing.