When you first start The Vanishing of Ethan Carter there’s a notice that says ‘This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.’ When we first read this, we took it to be a mere statement of fact. Wrong. It’s a warning. And one that you’d be wise to heed before jumping into this offering from The Astronauts.
Rather than adhere to established rules of adventure / mystery games, The Astronauts have opted instead to create a near photorealistic world that you can wander through and piece clues together at your leisure. Whether this will work for you depends on the type of gamer you are. But before we delve too far into the pros and cons of this unique hands-off approach to storytelling, here’s a quick synopsis of what The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is about.
In the game, you are cast in the role of psychic detective Paul Prospero who is contacted by a young boy called Ethan Carter. Ethan fears he may be in danger and asks for your help. Intrigued, you journey down to Ethan’s home town of Red Creek Valley to investigate. You arrive too late, however, as Ethan has vanished (hence the title) and it’s up to you find out how , why and where.
As you explore Red Creek Valley you’re able to use Paul’s paranormal powers of communicating with the dead and seeing visions of past events.
The plot itself, and the totally unexpected twist at the end, make The Vanishing of Ethan Carter a truly note-worthy adventure. But what makes the game really stand out is the jaw dropping beauty of its graphics. Originally released as a PC title, and then a PS4 ‘exclusive’, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has been ported over to Xbox One. And, in the process , the game has undergone a make-over with the Unreal Engine 4. The result is probably one of the best looking games we’ve ever played. Remember the moment when you first booted Crysis up on your PC? Well, take that experience and pump it full of steroids and you’ll be close to what The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has to offer. The world of Red Creek Valley has been reproduced with a technology that is closer to reality than…well, reality itself.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that this game is tough. How tough? Well, imagine a bear armed with a flick knife and you’ll be in the right ball park. Many, many years ago, we played a game called Riven that was so difficult that people wrote books on how to solve its puzzles. And even after reading the books you were left scratching your head and reaching for the headache pills. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter isn’t quite that esoteric, but it’s not far from it. In this game, The Astronauts ‘no hand holding’ approach means you’re able to go wherever you want, but you’re never quite sure what you should be doing when you get there. Playing through this game you’re going to do a lot of exploring, backtracking and, in our case at least, standing still, looking around and wandering what to do next. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter offers no maps, no diary, no way points and no signposts as to what you should be doing or where you should be going. The puzzles are so confounding that, even when you solve them, you’re still not entirely sure what you’ve got to do next. And, if you can’t solve the puzzles, well, there’s always YouTube.
As an aside, gaming has to be the only art form that allows you to pay full price for it, but, if you can’t work something out, you can be locked out of the rest of the product without any hope of a refund. It’s a bit like reading a few chapters of a book and then getting a test at the end of a section to make sure you understood what you’ve been reading. If you flunk the test, the book seals up and you’re stuck with a newly purchased door stop. Should games be this difficult? It’s an interesting debate we’d like to hear your thoughts on.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter embodies the idea of ‘tough love’ with a fanatical zeal. There are of course many hard-core gamers who will rise to the games challenge and relish the prospect of playing such an unforgiving and demanding adventure. The success of Dark Souls bears this out. However, there are likely to be many more who will feel alienated by such a prospect.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a tremendous game with amazing graphics and an engaging, immersive plot. But it’s also a game that requires bucket loads of patience, lateral thinking and lots and lots of time. Whether many of you will persevere with it to fully experience the game until its conclusion is unclear. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is definitely worth a try but may prove a tough nut to crack.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.