When you first boot up ‘The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’, you’re greeted with a message that simply reads, “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand”. Immediately afterwards you find yourself directly thrown into this beautiful, open world game. Believe me when I tell you this is no understatement. As you try to uncover the mysteries of Ethan Carter you’ll find that all the brain work will be up to you.
In ‘Ethan Carter’, you play as supernatural detective Paul Prospero as he enters into the fictional world of Red Creek Valley where a young boy named Ethan Carter has been sending him fan mail. Ethan seems to have an uncanny knowledge of the supernatural world, so Prospero shows up, already knowing Carter is missing and sets out to find the lost boy before it’s too late.
The game is an open world setting that lives up to its ‘doesn’t hold your hand’ claims by allowing you to proceed in the game however you see fit. As a detective with supernatural abilities, you uncover clues to help you solve puzzles in the various areas of the world as each puzzle helps you unravel the bigger, overall mystery. Using your abilities to track down integral items, you piece together all of the events and recreate them, which leads you to the next part of the story… if you decide to play it like that.
That is both the strength and the downfall of ‘Ethan Carter’. The game relies very heavily on the players desire to discover what happened to Ethan and what is wrong with his family. The storyline is easily the strongest aspect of the game as it flirts with the paranormal while keeping the human elements front and centre. Ultimately, you want to find out what happened to Ethan, his family and who The Sleeper is for both peace of mind and to see if you can still save Ethan. However, the impact storyline can get a bit muddled if you decide not to play the game linearly. For instance, I missed the ‘Spaceman’ part when I first ran through it, so when I doubled back for it, that part of the story held minimal impact as I had already seen much more unfold already. So, while the storyline is still very strong, it does suffer a little from its ‘do as you will’ style of play.
The gameplay itself really shakes down to some of the most difficult puzzle solving I’ve ever undertaken. Again, with you having free reign, you also don’t have an objective marker or anything to indicate what you need to solve that particular puzzle or where to find any of the others. This did get hella frustrating at times as you could spend up to an hour look for one particular item. However, finally solving these lengthy puzzles was very satisfying, resulting in some very rewarding gameplay. In saying that, if you can do more than three puzzles consecutively, you have far more patience than I do.
The other strengths of ‘Ethan Carter’ are that it doesn’t just rely on any one aspect of the game or another, instead crafting a complete experience out of the game. The graphics are beautiful as they paint Red Creek Valley in stunning colours and incredible panoramas. The entire area of the game is designed quite well and each part of the play area is unique. The sound effects are also awesome as it ranges from loon calls on the lake to horrifying sounds underground to jump inducing traps going off. The music helps quite a bit with that, too. The music builds tension, atmosphere and, at times, a terrible sense of foreboding as you know something wicked this way comes. It also gives you some peaceful walking around music as you wind your way around the Valley, looking for that next puzzle to solve.
In the end, ‘The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’ is a great game to pick up. I don’t do horror, at all. Until this game, my two previous horror experiences were ‘Dead Space’ and ‘Resident Evil 3’. But I’m genuinely glad I got to play this one! Sure, this review took me an extra couple of days because I had to summon the courage to play it, but ‘Ethan Carter’ was such an experience, that I’m glad I didn’t miss out on it. Fans of puzzlers, horror and story driven games alike will find enjoyment from ‘Ethan Carter’ as it manages to be compelling, challenging and terrifying, all at once.