The Astronauts’ memorable PC indie title from 2014 has managed to find its way to PlayStation 4 boasting a complete rebuild in Unreal Engine 4 and some tweaks to iron out some of the less favourable facets of the game. As a result, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter turns out to be an excellent port with only a few minor kinks within its stunning exterior.
Game: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Developer: The Astronauts
Publisher: The Astronauts
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 (Review code provided)
I’m frequently asked what I think is the ‘best looking game’ I’ve played is and it’s a subject that can be completely subjective. Some games might not be aiming for realism but look equally appealing as a game that boasts pure, technical authenticity. What tends to surprise most people are the times when I bring an indie title into the discussion.The Vanishing of Ethan Carter would be one of those occasions where you might say it puts a few of its AAA brethren to shame in the looks department.
Essentially, the game is a mystery adventure in which you, Detective Paul Prospero, investigate the serendipitously beautiful Red Creek Valley on a mission to discover what has happened to the missing boy, Ethan Carter. There’s a solemn tone to proceedings, throughout. The rich landscape that fills itself with intrigue and screenshot opportunities feels eerily hollow and lifeless, initially holding undertones of the classic adventure, Myst, not only in its isolation but in its leanings towards the supernatural.
It really is a wonderful world to traverse full of lush greenery and picturesque scenes that really works well in contrast with the dark tone. You’ll be free to wander within the, not overly large, boundaries the game sets; encouraged to, in fact. The devs even layout a disclaimer at the beginning of the game announcing that there’ll be no hand-holding, and they stay true to their word from start to finish. For some that may be a deterrent, but I found it liberating. For instance, when I first stumbled into the world I didn’t really understand why holes were being ripped in the screen or what they were meant to be revealing. I soon discovered it was part of the puzzle, a puzzle that I’d have to put together to reveal a window into Ethan’s engaging, and sometimes disturbing, world.
The presentation of the gameplay facets is actually excellently done. Examining clues and objects will initiate text to flow on screen revealing Prospero’s thoughts as you piece things together. Every clue you find at a puzzle scene allows you to build evidence and an understanding of what happened in the form of flashbacks, then once you’ve placed it all in the correct order you’ll see a cutscene of those events unfold in full and be treated to yet more of the narrative.
Puzzles can be tricky at times, especially if it’s not a genre you frequent in. However, perhaps the most challenging part is finding them in the first place. I found myself wandering past important events and solving areas out of the intended order. Although it’s not necessarily an issue, looking back I’d have prefered to receive the narrative chronologically. Similar issues arise when you’re oblivious to your next step. Again, the hand-holding ban will infuriate some and please others, but if you were like me you might find yourself just wondering around aimlessly searching for a trigger-mechanic, or a clue… or even a gate to a new area. Everything’s easy when you know; The Vanishing of Ethan Carter makes learning that knowledge a reward, whereas some games might have served it up on a plate and nudged you on your way.
The overriding atmosphere is aided by a superb score that compliments sound design and helps define the tone. The game does seem to border on horror elements but never seems to cross that line fully, preferring to keep you dangling on the edge of your seat with creaking floorboards and eerie wind gusting in the background. Becoming immersed is easy but for some slight frame rate issues on the PlayStation 4. Whilst none of the issues affect gameplay whatsoever, camera movement feels a little sluggish at times and frame rates can fluctuate wildly from one viewpoint to the next – it’s almost a non-issue in an otherwise stellar looking game.
If you’re particularly adept at puzzle games you’ll whiz through it all in one sitting whilst others might find it a little tougher going, especially if you’re overlooking puzzle areas altogether and finding it difficult to progress. The narrative is certainly strong enough to encourage second playthroughs, regardless, and anyone like me will find The Vanishing’s gameplay a nice change of pace that can be revisited without fear of losing touch or needing to replay anything to get back up to speed.
The Astronauts have developed a game that puts production values and great narrative in a complimentary package that ends up genuinely engrossing. There is some minor issues beneath the truly gorgeous visuals, plus a little patience might be required for those looking to progress quickly, but The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a title that once helped redefine the idea of what an indie title could be, and now console owners can be part of it, too. I can’t recommend it enough.