Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Review (XONE)

For a game originally released in 2014 and finally landing on Xbox One in 2018, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter feels surprisingly current in the walking sim / narrative adventure / strollplaying game genre that has taken some fairly massive steps forward in the last couple of years. Ethan Carter isn’t just a walk slowly around and look at stuff game like most of its contemporaries at the time of release (like Gone Home or Dear Esther) and actually features decent puzzles and things to do similar to more recent games that have become the kings of the genre like Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch. If you’re a walking sim fan and haven’t already played The Vanishing of Ethan Carter it is well worth a look. Continue reading our full review of the Xbox One version.

Game Details

  • Publisher: The Astronauts       
  • Developer: The Astronauts
  • ESRB Rating: “M” for Mature
  • Genre: First-Person-Narrative-Adventure
  • Pros: Gorgeous visuals; fascinating world to explore; investigation segments
  • Cons: A little bit of handholding would have been nice
  • MSRP: $20

Ethan Carter is a kid from Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin who wrote a fan letter to famous paranormal investigator Paul Prospero. The letter starts out innocently enough, but subtle hints at some dark and disturbing stuff leads Prospero to pay Ethan a visit. What he finds in Red Creek Valley, however, are long abandoned homes and multiple sites of grisly murder. Using his special skills as an investigator – that basically amount to being able to see into alternate dimensions and time periods to see what really happened – Prospero is able to piece together what happened in the hope that he can track down Ethan Carter.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter starts off with a message from the developer saying that the game won’t hold your hand and provide hints as you play, and they really mean it. You’re just sort of dropped into the game world and left to figure things out on your own. There is a main path to follow through everything that will take you right to the end of the game, but unless you venture off the beaten path and explore you won’t get all of the story or do any of the side missions. You’re required to do everything in order to see the full story, though, so I really wish the game gave you a little more help now and then.

Instead you have to wander around through acres of wilderness and randomly stumble upon important stuff to help you solve puzzles, which isn’t exactly fun. Important objects are not highlighted in any way, so you really do just sort of randomly find them. This is one of the few areas where The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s age is most apparent as other games in the genre released since do a much better job with environmental hints and subtle signposting that help you along the way without resorting to holding your hand.

The actual gameplay in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter consists of walking through a large open world and exploring. Along the way you find evidence of murders and have to piece clues you find together in order to figure out what happened. For example, you’ll find a body with head trauma, and the rock that caused it, and the train that cut off the person’s legs (yeah). Once you find all the stuff scenes with people pop up and you have to put them in chronological order so Paul Prospero can use his nifty mind powers to view the sequence of events as they happened.

There are multiple crime scenes, as well as some other important things scattered around, and they all feature different puzzles to solve and require some creative thinking to figure out. As I mentioned, though, nothing is highlighted or made to stand out to point you in the right direction, so scouring an area for clues can be kind of a pain. With that said, however, the investigations and piecing together the crimes are definitely the best part of Ethan Carter, so you sort of put up with the item hunt because the puzzles are genuinely satisfying to solve.

Giving you actual stuff to do is just one of the things I mean when I say Ethan Carter feels more like a modern walking sim than one that came out in 2014. Other examples are that you can actually run and move at a decent speed, so you aren’t just trudging slowly along like in Everybody’s Goneto the Rapture. Also, once you reach the endgame and need to backtrack to find anything you missed, the game lets you instantly teleport back to key locations rather than making you walk. Granted, this was added after the original release of the game, but it is an amazingly user-friendly feature that I really appreciate and makes the game much better and more playable than most other walking sims from the earlier days of the genre. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was ahead of its time in a lot of ways and I really wish I could have played it sooner as my perceptions of the genre would have been a lot different.

Ethan Carter also looks like a modern release thanks to the switch to Unreal Engine 4 for its PS4 release in 2015. The game is absolutely gorgeous looking and the wilderness you explore is almost photo realistic. It’s really incredibly stunningly good looking. The sound is also very good with an excellent soundtrack that swells and fades at all of the right moments and some well done ambient environmental sound effects. The voice acting is only OK (and the character models are only OK), but everything else is fantastic.

All in all, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is another fantastic walking simulator / narrative adventure that fans of the genre will really enjoy. I would say, however, that because it is kind of hardcore in its reluctance to give you hints I can’t easily recommend it to genre newbies (Firewatch or Edith Finch are better to start with to ease into the genre), but walking sim vets will be able to figure everything out. If you enjoy walking sims and haven’t played The Vanishing of Ethan Carter on other platforms, I highly recommend it on Xbox One.
Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.