I’m not using inappropriate hyperbole when I say that this game might have the best-damn-looking environments that I have ever seen in a game. ‘Gorgeous’ or ‘breathtaking’ are the only words I could use to describe the results of the clear and detailed effort that was placed into crafting the game’s scenery. Very few natural set pieces are repeated multiple times anywhere on the map. The only gripe I managed to scrape up after a playthrough was that the interior design of two buildings--placed right next to each other--is more or less identical (including minute details within the rooms in each structure). Not a game-breaker by any means, and it’s the only major thing that kept the game from achieving a perfect score on the rubric; through both serene and fantastical settings, the game’s visual assets display a beauty and fidelity that major studios should take note of. This game may very well be setting a new bar.
In this state, you’ll reveal a number of ‘snapshots’ of the crime scene with no discernible chronological order. When you’ve discovered all of them, you’ll use logic to attempt to ‘tag’ the snapshots with a correct timeline, then allowing you to see into the past and get a sense of how the events took place at each location. The whole process is a slick and clever little set of psychic mystery-game mechanics, and the snapshots of the crime will often throw you for a loop with something unexpected.
Outside of these crime scenes, the game also has a few puzzle elements that, while straightforward, require a little excitement or logic on your part to grease their wheels, improving the gameplay experience overall. In regards to the rubric, the core crime-solving mechanics aren’t strenuously challenging and don’t show any particular increase in difficulty over time, but this isn’t a detriment to the game’s score in this regard; Ethan Carter is a story that is meant to be experienced more than it is a challenge to be ‘beaten.’
Again, trying to avoid spoiling plot details, there is one criticism that I’ll level at how the narrative is presented. The game’s description claims that the story is ‘non-linear,’ and how the game is ‘open-world.’ While this is technically correct, each mystery scene is logically encountered in a specific order. Moreover, the dialogue and observations made at each crime scene specifically suggest a particular order. This was made very apparent by the two scenes I accidentally investigated ‘out of order,’ and was made even more apparent when I experienced a kind of pre-ending scene, but had to go back and complete a certain item that I’d left a little unfinished. The narrative really isn’t ‘non-linear’ if its design and structure is best experienced in a particular fashion; that being said, the story itself is wonderfully done, a masterful aforementioned blending of genres, and leads to an almost-unexpected, but still sorrowful, ending.
Now, let’s hit the rubric.
Bugs/Stability: 7. A few jarring bugs, including those mentioned, occasionally interrupted or detracted from play. Some users, though not I, have experienced more severe graphical challenges related to their specific system. Many have already been addressed or fixed, and this score can be considered an 8 or 9 over time.
Mechanics/Gameplay: 8. Some wonderfully original and accessible mechanics complement a style that asks only for logic and observation skills. The major gameplay mechanics repeat themselves without increasing in complexity over the course of the game, but the game isn’t long enough for them to lose their charm in doing so.
Aesthetic Style/Consistency: 9. Only an obvious, previously-mentioned oversight keeps this game from a perfect score. Utterly breathtaking in the beauty and near-photorealism of many of its environments, even the fantastical, makes the game immersive and enjoyable.
Story/Writing: 8. Though it doesn’t live up to some of its claims, the game’s narrative is nevertheless clever, engaging, and genre-savvy.
Overall score and impression: 8/10. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an experience I would strongly recommend. At approximately four hours of gameplay to complete, it is worth its (current) $20 price tag for fans of mystery, narrative-driven, horror, or atmospheric games. Less certain gamers should keep their eyes open for future sales, as it’s worth picking up at some point. The game’s replayability isn’t incredibly high right off the bat, but I won’t be surprised if a desire to revisit the story and the stunning environments has me walking through Red Creek Valley again before long.
If you want to see more about the game, you can visit the studio homepage here, or the game's Steam page here.