When you get to breaking down various elements of a game in order to examine them for review, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter might come up short in some areas. However, despite it's weaknesses, I and many others, quite liked it. It's a bit of a paradox. Likes and dislikes are subjective and can even change depending on circumstances. What I like today, I may not like tomorrow or vice versa, which is all a way of saying that a "good game" can't really be determined by the sum of its mechanical parts, but by how well it immerses the player within the game world. Determining those elements are rather less tangible when it comes to reviewing because that does rely on an individual's experience and not solely on the nuts and bolts of graphics and gameplay mechanics. Regardless, it is still possible to categorize the "human" elements that appeal to most people and it seems that this game mostly has what it takes showing a very positive rating on Steam and an 82 on metacritic.
Starting with the story, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is summed up perfectly by its title. The character we play is a psychic investigator named Paul Prospero who was contacted by a young boy named Ethan Carter in a cry for help. Paul has the ability to see ghostly residuals of past events and his aim is to track Ethan's movements by following this spectral trail. This is accomplished by finding notes, examining clues, and re-creating scenes through the use of his psychic abilities, which allows him to slowly reconstruct the history of what has led up to Ethan's vanishing.
To start with the positive, this game is extremely pretty. The technology used is called photogammetry, which can reproduce an exact replica of objects in 3D from photographs. The results are exquisite. Some interactive objects can be picked up and also rotated to show all of the perfect detail. Although the world of Red Creek Valley, where the game takes place, might at first seem vast, as you progress, you will find it is not as big as it looks. However, within its limitations, it's an open world and you can wander at will and should as there are things to find. You can accomplish objectives in any order, but in truth, there is a set number needed to finish the game. You are always on foot and if you miss any in a particular area, you will need to backtrack and it's a long, long walk. This caused a lot of complaints from users and in the updated Redux version, the developers added a mechanic at the end of the game that allows you to fast travel to previous areas.
The premise of the game playing is also interesting. As Paul traverses the valley, he finds clues that he can scan and once he finds all of them, the scene is re-created in ghostly frozen vignettes. He must then tag these in the correct order of events, usually 5 or 6 clues, for the scene to then play out in full animation, at which point that case is solved. There are also a few other types of puzzles, such as portals, finding traps and even a spaceship ride. The interactive features are really quite unique.
Regrettably, The following is what some could consider to be the negatives of the game. Although, it appears to be a big open world, there is not very much to do in it between interactive puzzles and some of them can not rightly even be called puzzles. There are only a handful of ghostly cases to solve and only another handful of other objectives. Since you walk everywhere, this leaves you with a lot of area to just be admiring the view and due to this lack of more content, the game is quite short. There are also no people, except for the ghostly ones during cases, and no other living creatures except for a few distant birds. Therefore, there is also no need for any dialogue. Narrative is produced through notes and ghostly scenes of which there are few in comparison to the size of the world.
To me, the story, although intriguing, lacks depth. There is little narrative from Paul, and it relies on the short re-created scenes, some notes, and some residual memories to supply the back story. There are clues right from the beginning about what is actually going on and by the time the game finishes, the ending might not really be a surprise to those who consider them. The game gives you all the basics, but any "depth" is really left to the player's imagination. Many people read more into it than I think is there, wishing to justify the reason for what ultimately happened. Whether this is a good approach to story-telling is really a subjective judgement, but it's a case of providing fodder for discussion, so I guess, in some ways, it works.
The game opens by telling you that there is no hand-holding – a sentiment I highly agree with as too many games treat you like dummies. However, what I don't agree with is the complete lack of any instructions concerning the actual mechanics of the game. I had gone quite a ways before concluding that I must be doing something wrong. This forced me to consult a walkthrough just to discover how to play the game and the whole premise of what Paul's abilities were. I had to restart from the beginning once I knew. This is taking no-handholding to the extreme. However, other things in the game's favor allow you to optimize and customize your own experience through the menu, which also allows for key mapping.
On trying to analyze why I liked this game, I realized that it was the peace. It was a bit like going to a beautiful park and just taking in the gorgeous view. That is not to say there is no tension at times. Red Creek Valley does have its seedy side with an abandoned rail and dilapitated buildings, however there is nothing frantic about it, no enemies, no combat and only a few jump moments. I believe there is only one place where you can die, although this just throws you back to where a puzzle begins. Mind you, I did not try jumping off cliffs to test this. The story itself is based on disturbing matter, but doesn't engender any anxiety. The controls are smooth and the puzzles not mind-bending enough to produce frustration. Playing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is like taking a vacation from gaming and was exactly the type of game I needed at the time. It also has enough uniqueness to it to make it an interesting exercise for a few hours.
I would not recommend this game for anyone seeking thrills, chills or high adventure and combat. There is none. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an entirely different kind of game. Although initially it might give the impression that you can be scared at any moment, after playing for a while, you understand that it's not going to happen. It does have a certain tension created by an environment that is completely empty of sentient life and full of decaying structures that are incongruous with the scenery, but there is no personal danger for the character.
After release, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was re-made with the upgraded Unreal Engine 4 and called Redux. Purchasing the game will now give you both versions and if you already owned it, it was a free update. A downloadable VR version is also available for an extra cost.
Unfortunately, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has no replay value and it left me a little unsatisfied. There will be nothing further on this IP as everything is about the story and the story is straight as an arrow with no alternate choices. The game's concept also completely shuts the door on being able to expand this game through DLC. It's too bad as I and many others would have liked more.
The Astronauts is a small independent game developer founded in Aug of 2012 and located in Warsaw, Poland. The three founders are the same people who originally started the company People Can Fly of Bulletstorm and Painkiller fame. When People Can Fly was acquired by Epic Games, the three departed to pursue their own opportunies. Currently, they are now up to a staff count of eight people and are apparently working on an open-world Action Adventure, but there is no news on this.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has been relatively successful for being a small Indie development, and as of June 2015, less than a year after release, it had sold 250,000 copies with SteamSpy currently showing over 400,000. In Sept of 2015, a Redux version ported to Unreal Engine 4 was released with the major complaint about the save system revamped and a fast travel option added near the end of the game. Previous owners received this free as well as retaining the original version and continue to debate over which one has better graphics. A VR version was also released in Mar 2016.