The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the first title out of independent Polish developers The Astronauts. This new development house is made up of several members from the original team at People Can Fly, the studio at the front of the recent surge in small Polish developers and behind the cult favorite Painkiller series and Bulletstorm. Instead of their former home’s full on destruction, blood and guts, piles of bodies and empty shells madness they have opted to go for a different route with this new venture and embrace more games as art titles.
Paul Prospero is a private investigator with strange paranormal powers. He can sense the location of important clues and psychically recreate the events that lead up to a death. He’s been around the block a couple thousand times. A fan letter from young Ethan Carter, which shows that the boy is far more familiar with the evil that can go bump in the night than he should be, brings him to Red Creek Valley. Paul has to explore the valley to find the now missing Ethan and hopefully stop The Sleeper who seems to have taken a hold of all those living there.
Taking a cue from a few of genre fiction greats the story can best be summed up as a Lovecraftian horror forces itself into a Bradburian childhood reminisce centered on a kid who could sit at the center of any King novel. These influences are worn on the sleeve. Without question it all melds incredibly well and in the hands of the right author the same story would long sit on a list of great horror. It works even better as an interactive experience. The voice cast all do capable jobs. All of the performances fit their character and none of them are distracting. Ethan sounds like a normal kid, Paul is your standard weary investigator.
Red Creek Valley is absolutely gorgeous. The outdoor environments are crafted with attention to detail that should be held as the standard from now on. Just walking through them is worth the price of admission alone. The old graveyard is a stunning set piece. It’s so praiseworthy that you will learn how to read the world because instead of glaring signs pointing your way, the subtle hints look right and natural. The details in the buildings offer many fantastic touches from the chipping paint to the layers of dust, though they never equaled the outdoor view. Character models, on the other hand, are not on the same level. They work and would be praised in another title. Here though they look… off. Just a hair too cartoon for the environment. One in the mines especially.
At the very first we are greeted with a title card that should give hope to many who long of new and different experiences. In no uncertain terms we are told that this game will not hold our hands. This world is completely up to us to explore and in what manner we approach the presented content. You can completely bypass events and areas without noticing. Never are we told explicitly what to do next. There are no markers from points A to B. The valley is completely open from the start to explore and roam at your personal speed and driven by your own path. Of course- that’s not strictly true as you do have to complete every event to finish, at the end you are even presented with a handy fast travel map to things you may have missed. There are no real fail states.
Most developers would probably have taken Ethan Carter in a different direction. One with more action and less contemplation. Without doubt it would still work with that approach, though I doubt it would sing like it does. Wondering the valley and searching for every clue with only the score and an occasional thought of Prospero’s makes for a very focused experience. You can not help but ponder on the greater mysteries and events as you pull at the threads.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter holds 10 puzzles in its acres of exploration. All are perfectly serviceable if a bit too easy. Often the answers are just a matter of observation. There is no need for Sherlockian levels of thought to form connections that require specialized knowledge or old adventure game nonsensical abstract thinking. None will offer much challenge with just a little patience and examination.
I have the problem of wanting to talk about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter at length but also not wanting to spoil any of it and that’s a difficult balance for this. A firmly indie mystery horror art game with the skin of a large budget blockbuster. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will long live on with several new releases coming soon, everything from PS4 to a PC re-release with a brand new engine to a virtual reality tailored version. That it’s getting these presentations is a great thing for gamers and horror fans. There’s a way for everyone to access it and without reservations I heartily say they should. A must play for pretty much everyone. Those who only focus on one subgenre to the spurning of all others should probably avoid but they already knew that. I wait for the next releases of Ethan Carter anxiously and will be on board quickly for whatever The Astronauts have next up their sleeve after this amazing debut.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter- 9/10- A great experience that could only be improved with more puzzles and a bit more challenge to them.