Composed of developers from People Can Fly (creators of the crazy FPS BulletStorm),The Astronauts’ first game is very different from what they are known for. A calm adventure, without the slightest trace of fighting and at the limit of being a contemplative experience, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one great experience now available on Xbox One. A mix between an adventure game, Point and click and Myst-like riddles, the title is the story of Paul Prospero, an occult detective who, after receiving an alarming letter from a young Ethan Carter, travels to the near-abandoned Red Creek Valley to discover a series of bloody murders and witness the disappearance of the same boy calling for help.
Red Creek Valley is a typically isolated part of America, home to a dam, a old-school railroad and a few scattered houses. Wild and decrepit, it is nevertheless a sublime place, taking advantage of the work of hard work of The Astronauts who took up the challenge of aiming for photo-realism, by combining a large variety of 3D modeling and textures.
Before even being an investigative game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is what we also call a walking simulator – such as Perception or Layers of Fear – in which you’ll regularly stop to admire the autumnal panorama bathed by the glowing light of a late afternoon sun. As a player, you’ll hike through forest roads that are probably the most credible I have seen, almost without seeing twice the same pebble on the floor, before reaching a rocky cliff that takes us back to an abandoned mine. An impeccable graphic rendering that animates a semi-open area, with no intrusive loading time, accompanied by a remarkable set of sound effects like water movements of the lake, or chirping of birds turns into a perfect harmony. that is rarely disturbed by the thoughts of Paul Prospero. This silence, where no living soul apart from Paul is what makes Red Creek Valley such a strange place, as beautiful as it is distressing, which is reminiscent of the Twin Peaks TV series.
The game is technologically very well made, with a stable framerate locked at 30fps. You can also unlock the framerate, making The Vanishing of Ethan Carter reach 60fps, but with some rare drops depending on the location. Another thing to note with the release of the game on Xbox One is that it supports both 4K and 1080p, with the first really giving proper credit to the work the team did, with full HDR support. This is also due to the fact that the game was redone by the developers with Unreal Engine 4, as opposed to Epic Games’ older generation engine which helped add a new save system, faster load of areas, reduce backtracking and more. Not only does the Xbox One version of the game feature all the improvements present in Ethan Carter’s Unreal Engine 4 version, but it also features a brand new Free Roam mode. For those of you that have the game on PC, you’ll be getting a free update that will appear as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Redux, so you can play the game in either UE3 or UE4.
But The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is not just a technical and aesthetic demo, as it’s also a narrative experience, played in a first-person view, streamlined as much as possible, without any HUD display, inventory, log quest or even linearity imposing to solve certain riddles in a precise order. Immersed in this pastoral atmosphere, the player progresses in a semi-open environment to find riddles and puzzles that will allow him to get closer to the truth of what’s going on in this town. If some details are well hidden and require a thorough search of every nooks and crannies, you will often be stopped by places inviting your curiosity, including abandoned houses, a church and its cemetery, the blocked entrance of a mine and more. The Astronauts will never explain anything to you, preferring to let the player understand by his instincts what is expected of him. Nevertheless, the game mechanics are clear and the open and vast environment is a very clever (and effective) illusion, so you’ll never truly get lost.
The main gameplay mechanics of this vast investigation, with the exception of some side-quests which are more strange and closer to mystical, is mainly to solve the riddle between different crime scenes. There’s traces of blood, displaced object, a body, etc… Each examination of a clue causes the appearance of laconic and ephemeral messages. This allows the player to have a first understanding of the events and help him in the next step, which is the reconstruction of the scene, such as repositioning displaced objects. By touching the body of the victim, Paul Prospero also begins to have visions, still images of “ghosts” as a sequence of illustrations of the murder.
All that remains is to restore the chronology of the actions, assigning each scene in the timeline, unfolding the action which will be wrapped up by a short custcene. Overall, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s enigmas are not very difficult, as it is relatively easy to spot the clues, and the deductions displayed on the screen are often clear enough to reach to a logical conclusion. If I sometimes had the feeling of being assisted, there are other moments when I though that without this system, I could have gone around in circles for a quite a while.
One of the original points of the title is to leave the player free of his movements and the order in which he wishes to solve the riddles, where usually a more classic adventure game imposes a logical progression to the narrative. Each puzzle solved is a one step in the overall plot, which thickens bit by bit as you get closer to the end. Sadly though, this freedom also means that you can reach the final point of the game, and realize you are missing quite an important piece of the puzzle, and will have to track back in the valley to solve it.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was reviewed using an Xbox one downloadable code provided by The Astronauts. The game is also available on PlayStation 4 and PC via Steam. We don’t discuss review scores with publishers or developers prior to the review being published.
• Magnificent on a technical point of view
• Photo-realistic graphics
• Storytelling via puzzles
• The visual and sound mood
• A strange and intriguing scenario
• Puzzles can be a bit too simple
• Short lifespan