If there’s one thing I can say surely about my favorite kind of games, it’s that I love a good adventure. I love being placed in a mysterious world with a not-so-clear sense of purpose or design. There’s something unique about the adventure genre, wherein you are often left confused, sometimes frustrated, but always intrigued to press on.
If I’m being upfront, I would say I tend to rate adventure games highly. They’re the kind of game where I feel obligated to almost sell it in a review, as it’s a genre frequently forgotten and generally unappreciated. I would tell you that games like The Longest Journey, Syberia, and Grim Fandango are among the best games I’ve ever played. Or that classics like Maniac Mansion, Space Quest, or the Monkey Island series need to be revitalized. In fact, I recently just gave Grim Fandango Remastered a perfect score, in a plot to convince our dear readers that they absolutely must play this game, whether they are newcomers or long-time fans.
In other words, I might be biased.
When I got my hands on the PlayStation 4 version of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, as with all adventure games you never know what to expect but also at the same time have a vague idea of how it will play out.
You’ll explore a world with intrigue, you’ll meet interesting characters, and you’ll be throttled into a great storyline with clever puzzles keeping you from moving too quickly through it. All of that, in Ethan Carter, is true to some degree or another. But this game was reminiscent more of Myst than Syberia.
What this means is that you’re really, all things considered, on your own. And you’ll have to play the game at your own pace with your own style. That, for better and for worse, is what makes this game what it is.
What Is It?
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was originally released late last year on PC and was met with critical acclaim. That said, it had very limited commercial success. It was shocking to hear it would be re-released on the PS4, PS3, and PSVita for digital download.
That shock was certainly appreciated personally as I had yet to play it myself.
If you’re a fan of adventure games, let’s just get it out on the table right now: you need to play this game. If you’re on the fence, let me express some reservations that might qualify whether you want to spend $19.99 on it or not.
First, this is a game modeled with the Unreal 4 Engine and it is undeniably beautiful. At first, the map seems vast and expansive, with the sort of visual appeal of an open-world game similar to The Witcher 3 or Skyrim. The landscape looks picturesque, but that level of vastness is actually daunting at first.
It’s daunting because, right from the get-go, it tells you that the trajectory refuses to tell you what to do. Right away, you’re just in the mix and are free to do what you will.
Compared to most adventure games, this is a rare phenomenon. Generally speaking, adventure games are linear where you move from puzzle to puzzle or event to event. You don’t typically just go exploring and uncover puzzles or events along the way.
Second, the way the puzzles and events are designed, you can effectively play them in any order (more or less). You’ll learn quite quickly that while you explore you’ll come across a lot of things that are interactive, but rarely is it so obvious what’s connected. This might cause you to think you’re engaging in one event only to find out it’s totally disconnected by way of your actions.
After some time, should you stick with it, you’ll figure out how the game is actually designed. This, in my experience, led me to fall in love with it and finish it completely within nearly one playthrough. But if I hadn’t reached that ‘a-ha’ moment, I may have been totally turned off.
Why Should I Care?
If you’re a fan of adventure games, I sincerely believe it’s worth a try. You need to give it a little while to eventually click, but when it does the pay-off is very much worth it.
The story is mysterious and also provocative, dealing with themes such as youth alienation, identity, and creativity as a means to escape harsh realities. This is told in such a way that each event reveals a little bit more about Ethan Carter, how and why he vanished, and your role as the detective in finding clues through this bizarre and eerie environment.
The way you uncover elements which lead you to story-driven events is by searching the open-world. You might find remnants of something that happened in the past, telling you where Ethan might have been or what he might have been doing. But generally speaking, you’ll just find objects like a rock, or a piece of rope, and then it’s up to you to begin piecing it together.
Without spoiling the key mechanics that drive the puzzles and events, the way it plays out is generally you taking a given area and finding all of the clues related to a specific sequence. Then, when you have found them (by sensing it) you have to determine chronologically what happened. This can be tricky if you’re not limiting yourself to the given area, and you might find yourself confused or checking a guide.
That said, when you get the hang of the game it’s actually quite easy. And the puzzles themselves aren’t even particularly creative. It’s really about being willing to explore the whole environment, which can take a lot of time if you haven’t figured out where you’re limited to in terms of size or space.
What Makes it Worth My Time and Money?
For $19.99 you could certainly do worse. But if you’re not a big fan of adventure titles and can get through the game, you’ll realize it’s actually very short and also has no replay value.
There aren’t multiple ways to play the game outside of the order you engage the events or puzzles and once the great reveal happens, you’ll probably not feel compelled to go back.
But if you think about four or five hours of great adventure gameplay justifies that price-point, I think you’ll feel like it was $19.99 well spent. It is certainly an excellent game in terms of design and also the plot itself is better than the large majority of titles out there. It’s just that this is a game that makes no apology for what it is, or the genre and lineage it comes from, so I doubt it’s going to win any new fans.
If you’re interested in something relatively unique or just a fan of this great and historic genre, I would say buy it. It’s worth your time and money. But if you’re not initiated or really all that curious, it might be worth hoping it becomes a free title on PSN. Given that prospect, you might have to wait a while though the gamble may pay off.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of those games that is a hard sell to newcomers or those on the periphery. On the other hand, those adventure gamers who either skipped it on PC or didn’t have access to it at all really owe it to themselves to try what is undoubtedly a fantastic and well-designed game.
Biases checked, there are few flaws in the game when you take it for what it is. Biases unchecked, it’s one of those games that will stick with you even if you never play it again.