I just completed The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and wow do I have a lot that I want to talk about. However, the majority of what I want to talk about, I won’t talk about in this review for fear of ruining a single ounce of the game experience for players. In fact, I highly recommend that you just go into this game knowing nothing at all. It makes the experience that much more magical.
That’s right, I said magical.
I reviewed The Vanishing of Ethan Carter using a Steam key provided by the game’s publisher.
The first portion of this review is totally spoiler free, and purposefully vague. The latter portion (separated by an asterisk line) will feature some gameplay spoilers, but nothing close to anything that would ruin the experience for the player.
So to start: playing through The Vanishing of Ethan Carter gave me the unique feeling of what it must have been like to be one of the characters on the first season of Lost. Beyond stumbling through forests finding things that don’t belong for reasons beyond understanding, I was slowly unraveling a story as I trekked onward, putting the puzzle pieces together in my head, half expecting to be completely wrong anyway.
I wasn’t completely wrong in the end, by the way. Which says two things about the developers: they expected players to think what I thought and so they stashed the clues in just the right places…and that they also successfully wove together a story that can only be truly appreciated by playing the game as a whole.
Speaking of which, the game “as a whole” is about six hours. Some will complete it faster than I did, some will take a longer amount of time. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a gorgeous game, and I spent a lot of time admiring the scenery and refraining from holding down the Shift-key to run. I greatly enjoyed the sights and sounds of the game as I briskly walked around exploring.
There were a few times where I ran though…but those times are best experienced without foreknowledge.
Players play as a detective who is investigating the vanishing of a boy named Ethan Carter. Various side mysteries branch off from the main investigation, and these typically involve some sort of puzzle-solving mechanic; primarily reassembling a scene of a crime in order to properly deduce what happened.
On a very surface level, I could explain the entire story of the game in a single sentence…but doing so would just destroy the core of what The Vanishing of Ethan Carter really is. There is so much going on “behind the scenes”, so to speak, that I could probably spend three times longer in the game just going back and making observations during a secondary playthrough.
As vast as the environments of Ethan Carter are, there are invisible walls around…but never in the wrong places. The designers did such a fantastic job making the environments that without the invisible barriers I am certain I would have just kept walking for miles. Because the developers refrained from any hand-holding game tutorials, players are free to go about their journey the moment they start the game. The invisible walls, I realized, serve more as a silent and invisible guide, keeping me focused on the task at hand, rather than walking around endlessly taking screenshots for my Steam profile.
All in all, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the best single-player game narratives I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. It’s properly mysterious, as well as challenging but never impossibly so. Between the visuals, the impressive soundtrack (as much as I liked TRI’s soundtrack, Ethan Carter’s trumps it), and the engaging story…you can’t go wrong with Ethan Carter.
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Ok, this is where I speak a little more in-depth about the game mechanics. Again, if you want to experience The Vanishing of Ethan Carter with a totally unfiltered perspective…I advise you stop reading at this point.
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So you’re not just a detective…you’re a detective with paranormal abilities who can recreate a scene of a crime by rebuilding the scene as it was when the crime took place. This involves scouring an area for misplaced objects and figuring out where those objects belong.
Interacting with an object brings up stream-of-consciousness text onto the screen. So, let’s say you see a body laying face-first on the ground, when you interact with it the words, “face down…stabbed in back…no footprints…missing shoe” may come up onto the screen. I’m just making this example up, by the way.
Once the shoe is determined to be a missing piece, you can use your paranormal abilities to hone-in on the location of the shoe. It took me a good chunk of time to figure out exactly how to do that…and I ended up having to backtrack to a previous crime scene to solve that case, after I discovered the proper way to discern the locations of objects.
It was a little discouraging at first, but once I figured it out it’s impossible to forget how to do it, and it was smooth sailing from there.
The game’s ending (which I’m not even going to hint at) left me a little disappointed, largely because I had a hunch about what was happening from about half-way through the story…and it also left some of the driving motivations I had for completing the case, unanswered.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the first game that I feel the urge to revisit, out of pure desire to better understand the story, and see what I missed my first time around. At the very end of the game, I recognized some symbols carved into the floor of a building, that were painted on the side of an earlier building…those two buildings are related somehow, and I want to figure out why, even though I know how the game ends.
It’s just such great game.