Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Review: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (PS4)

 A story of a boy, and his paranormal investigator.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a PS4 version of the positively received PC game from Polish indie team The Astronauts. Originally released in September 2014, this PS4 version comes less than a year later releasing on May 15th 2015.

The story has you taking on the role of paranormal investigator Paul Prospero following a letter from a fan called Ethan Carter and investigating his disappearance in the town of Red Creek Valley. As soon as he arrives though it is obvious something is amiss when he finds that the town has clearly been abandoned for many years. Through investigating murder scenes as well as other happenings he closes in on the truth of the whole matter.

The story itself is mostly told through the brief bursts of personal narrative from the main character, investigation puzzles and the stories written by Ethan that you find during or after the puzzle sections. Wrapping up in about 4 or 5 hours for a first playthrough, although with a guide or on a 2nd playthrough it could be beaten much faster this is not a long game and sadly the story itself does not really come together enough to fully follow until the last half hour or so. That last half hour though really pulls it all together and then flips it on its head with the dramatic twist but as much as I enjoyed the conclusion, it was not quite enough to ignore the pace and direction issues in the seemingly disjointed scenes leading up to it.

Direction, that was a big issue for me personally in the gameplay. This was in part my own fault because I arrived in Red Creek Valley seeing an open world in front of me and expecting it to fully utilise this, so I went off in a random direction and actually managed to completely miss the first puzzle of the game but after realising dead ends were just for show I soon got back on track. The first scene of the game tells you that there will be no handholding and unlike many games it meant it. There is no control tutorial or anything, when I arrived at the first murder scene it took me a little while to realise that the wobbling circle around the body grew larger if I found clues so I did spend a little while at first bumbling around exploring the landscape. On one hand it is admirable to just pass the game to the player and say “Here, you work it out we believe in you” but on the other hand even the simple mistake of missing the first puzzle due to this lack of direction caused needless frustration. I by no means want a game to drag me through, but a tiny push in the right starting direction would have made the whole experience smoother. Once things start to roll though the puzzles are pretty simple, murder sites require you to find all the clues to unlock a scene where you decide on the chronology of events, if you get this right then the full scene will be played out to you and that part of the story explained allowing you to move on. There are a couple of scenes with different gameplay, for example chasing an astronaut around the forest or matching the layout of a house through portals but on the most part it is find clues, solve murder and on to the next part. Even though this overly simple gameplay was a slight let down, I often got the feeling that the whole title was supposed to be less of a game and more of an “interactive experience” I am sure some people may consider it a failure at this, but I think even with it’s lacking areas it still managed to pull it off, but only once as this will have zero re-playability for most.

Graphically Ethan Carter excels with everything being absolutely beautiful, from the enclosed forest to the gorgeous view over the lake, everything feels abandoned yet still somewhat alive. The game has been moved from the Unreal 3 engine used in the original release to Unreal 4 for the PS4 and the PC remake release, this has obviously made a difference to the overall quality of the graphics. This level of beauty is able to be done for a reason though, there is nothing in the way of action so the engine is mostly rendering still images of an unchanging surrounding and doesn’t require much power, add to that the fact the game world feels like there is a lot to explore but in reality pretty small and it is easy to see how such a beautiful game can run so solidly. That does not detract from the eye candy on show though while playing where every corner you turn presents a whole new wonder to gaze on.

Sound is another strong point with solid sound effects and a very well composed classical soundtrack that mostly plays quietly in the background with occasional peaks depending on the situation, this entire soundtrack is used to full effect at every point of the story. The voice acting again is strong with great delivery in all but a couple of spots where it falters slightly, this voice acting really does a great job of binding some of the story and making the characters a little more memorable even though they are not around most of the time.

All in all The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has its ups and downs. Graphically superb but lacking in meaningful gameplay or real challenge. The potential to have been a truly fantastic story if it had been filled out a little more in the gaps between parts and it had started to come together a little earlier to give the player that little more drive to push to the end. These issues aside though, the story was good, if just a touch from great and it’s conclusion in my opinion really made the early frustrations entirely worthwhile. If you have not played this already on PC and are looking for a short game with a more laid back play style then I recommend this. Although I expect many players will opt to wait for it to go on sale before they commit.


Who should buy:
  • Fans of a mystery with a twist
  • Players hoping to go at their own pace
  • Anyone who likes to be dropped into a world with no clues

Who should avoid:
  • Players expecting a lead through the games story
  • Players expecting a beefy mystery to really get their teeth into
  • Anyone who enjoys hardcore puzzles impeding their progress

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