The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a very intriguing experience; gorgeous and smart, it’s a marvelous blend of storytelling and visuals. Unfortunately though, as a game it’s only okay. While its truly interesting story and breath-taking scenery will be more than enough for some, there is a distinct lack of substance and quantity when it comes to the gameplay that ultimately brings this game down. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed my time with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and I suspect many of you will as well, but it could have been something more and for interesting as it is, the less narratively minded gamers out there will probably not get their money’s worth with this title.
Taking place in a small unnamed town settled on the edge of a picturesque lake, a paranormal detective by the name of Paul Prospero arrives in search of a young boy named Ethan Carter after receiving a letter from him asking for aid. It’s clear Paul is too late though, the area is silent and signs of violence dot his path into town. Determined to find out what happened and to rescue Ethan if he can, Paul sets out to investigate the sleepy community, finding yet more questions and an abundance of strange phenomena. Not wanting to spoil anymore of the story, let me sum things up by saying that the tale plays out like an episode of the X-Files mixed with an old Lovecraft Novella, combining a pulp detective vibe with short horror stories that are connected by an overarching plot and an air of general unease and tension. In a twist not at all uncommon in this genre, Ethan writes horror stories himself and you’ll regularly find them throughout the world, often more than just on paper. The game uses that old chestnut as an excuse to explore other genres a bit and show you some weird tangentially related stuff in a way that cleverly fits into the narrative. These side stories do serve a purpose though, they help to establish reason for the ending twist that I won’t dare spoil. If you think about it hard enough while playing, you could probably figure things out early, but regardless it feels very well executed. Most importantly this ending twist reveals the true point and moral of the story which ended up being sobering and human in a way I wasn’t expecting. Putting aside all the negative comments I’ll soon be making about this game, its story is truly remarkable and worth experiencing if you appreciate games as a way of exploring narrative structure.
Moving onto the presentation, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a visual tour de force but not one without caveats. Using some crazy newfangled photogrammetry technology, it manages to create these absolutely drop dead gorgeous looking vistas and lived-in looking forests and abandoned houses that will draw you in and not let go. It’s one of the most immersive uses of high graphical fidelity that I’ve seen in a while and every clearly painstakingly handcrafted inch of it is breath-taking and smooth, assuming you don’t move too fast. Despite the game generally running quite well (I got a stable 60 frames per second while running it on the default settings) it can’t load its assets fast enough to keep up with your character’s sprint speed and as such whenever you run for any decent period of time, the framerate drastically drops down to a flow breaking stutter. It’s not really an unavoidable issue either as the world isn’t all that compact and Paul walks kind of slow; when you’re carefully investigating a derelict manse it’s no issue, but when dashing across the game’s beautifully rendered hills you’ll really start to feel the technology pulling back on you. This is thankfully somewhat balanced out by the game’s pitch perfect sound design, which in addition to featuring a beautifully subtle soundtrack that breeds just the right amount of dread and curiousity, has an incredibly deep amount of ambient noise. While wandering the forest you’ll hear twigs crack and leaves crunch under your feet and by the lake you’ll hear the unmistakable cry of loons in the distance, adding an intrinsic haunting note to your travels. The world is incredibly well realized on all fronts, it’s just a pity that the game’s framerate seems to have trouble keeping up with its own ambitions.
Lastly we come to the gameplay, which is sadly where The Vanishing of Ethan Carter doesn’t really deliver. As you might have imagined, this is an adventure game and a very quiet and slow-paced one at that. The gameplay generally consists of either figuring out fairly basic puzzles or conducting investigations where you look for clues and establish a timeline. These investigations are surprisingly simple, consisting of searching the immediate environment for clues and then using simple logic to determine the series of events. Sometimes a clue might be hidden a bit and you’ll need to suss out its location using Paul’s psychic abilities but rarely are you doing anything all that complex. This is a pity because with the game’s spooky angle and Paul’s supernatural abilities, they could have put together some very interesting puzzles using impossible space and unreal logic that would have been truly innovative and really given the player something to sink their teeth into; there are glints of that possible greatness present here (especially with one puzzle early in the game) but it never reaches its full potential. And sadly that lack of innovation tied the bow on what was the ultimate issue for me with this game, I never felt challenged. While many of the puzzles seemed complex at first, after having a few moments to look at them they became more than simple enough to figure out and rarely gave me any pause. This naturally leads to the game being quite short, with me personally getting through it in a scant two and a half hours. At the entry price of $20, that does feel quite brief and frankly I felt like the game was over before I was able to really get a proper taste for it.
While this is most certainly an admirable first effort by the developer, known as “The Astronauts”, that fully shows off the pedigree and skill of its members, I was unfortunately left wanting. As much as the story was stirring and well told and the world was immersive and engaging, the experience was over far too quick and looking back on it, I don’t really feel like I did anything. That ennui mixed with the framerate issues and the short length put a pall over the entire affair and while I definitely feel like this game is very much worth playing, I just can’t give it my full recommendation. If you’re a lover of good writing and beautiful scenery then you’ll most likely get what you need out The Vanishing of Ethan Carter despite its shortcomings, but for those looking for a proper game, something they can really chew on, I doubt this will properly satisfy and as such I’m giving it a 3.5 out of 5 stars.