Following that railroad track seemed like the logical thing to do. It was a path. A direction. Somewhere to go. Against all logic however, my exploration instincts kicked on, and I was only a few feet down the track before I veered off to the right, into the woods — into the unknown. A giant spiked trap swings down in front of me from the trees, then allows me to hold X to sense it. What I’m doing here, I have no idea, but I intend to figure it out. The game makes it very clear right at the beginning that it will not hold your hand, though there’s a difference between not hand holding and actively forcing barriers to artificially increase the difficulty of an experience.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s presentation is one of mystery, discovery, and wonder, and it manages to impress on every one of those levels. Emerging from the forest to see a setting (or is it rising?) sun, trees playing softly in the wind and the continuation of those train tracks across a dilapidated bridge is enough to make one just stop and soak in the view for a moment. Where I was once scared of the unknown, I was now briefly distracted by the sheer beauty of the world around me. It is this juxtaposition of the fear of a looming figurative darkness, and the stunning visual beauty that causes The Vanishing of Ethan Carter to draw so much intrigue.
That sense of wonder and beauty quickly turns to apprehension as I near an old train engine near the end of the bridge. Is that blood on the front end of it? A little further down the track, I get my answer as I gaze upon a pair of severed legs and a thick trail of blood dragging off down a path towards the lake, which ends in a body devoid of both life and legs. The whole scene is surreal and striking against the otherwise beautiful setting of the tiny mountain town.
At this point, I am given the opportunity to find out what happened to the legless individual. I am Paul Prospero, Supernatural Detective, after all. By finding various pieces crucial to the scene, I am finally able to recreate the original events, though this is where one of my big problems with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter comes into play. The puzzles are not so much puzzles as they are “find a bunch of hard to find objects in the surrounding area.” Some areas of the game (called stories) change this formula a bit, but the main murder mysteries boil down to this basic task.
While that by itself isn’t a bad thing, the game doesn’t hold your hand, but it can also impede you finding the objects that you need to locate. For the legless man mystery, I needed a rock. I didn’t know this, but I wander the area for 20 minutes or more looking for any piece of this mystery that I may have missed. Even after looking up that I was supposed to be finding a bloody rock (literally bloody, though using it as an British curse works there too) alongside the rail track, the game didn’t highlight the object with its signature “inspect” icon until my fifth or sixth time up and down the rails. Even when I knew what I was looking for, the game was impeding my ability to proceed by hiding a mundane object in a spot of the environment that I know I had scrutinized numerous times.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Review - Eerily Beautiful, Beautifully Eerie (PS4)
It’s perhaps most frustrating because this artificial difficulty is meant to pad the length of the game, which I completed in about three and a half hours without using any kind of guides (for the most part). Once I understood how the game worked, and its method of hiding objects from me, it became easier to grasp, and the mysteries were made a little more fun than frustrating, if not overly easy to solve, and the length is revealed to be relatively short.
That’s the thing about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter though. It’s not about that portion of the gameplay. It’s not about whether the puzzles or mysteries are hard or easy to solve. It’s not about how long it takes to “beat it.” There’s no real punishment for failing to solve a case or solving a puzzle incorrectly. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is about mystery. It’s about discovery. It’s about those “aha!” moments when something about the story or world clicks into place. And it’s about eliciting a certain feeling from players as they make their way through a serene, quiet mountain town that is full of bodies and a dark presence. It has all the air of a twisted Stephen King-eque story and the conflicting emotions between the beauty of the world and the grisly scenarios taking place create a fascinating sense of immersion.
Enjoy the Simple Things
Even after I completed the game, I took some extra time to just explore the world. Though it is fairly linear in nature — I wouldn’t really call it “open world”– there are enough small details in the world that can simply be missed if you are rushing through the game. While exploring the rail bridge, the dam, the church graveyard, and many other places, I got a sense that this game would be perfect as a VR experience. The eerie beauty of the environment is such that the deep level of immersion offered by a VR headset would be a perfect match, being the final piece of the puzzle that could complete the experience the developers were going for. Perhaps support will be patched in next year?
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter sets out to achieve a very specific goal and despite some slight missteps along the way, it largely succeeds in offering players a sense of spectral wonder through simplistic gameplay and stunning visuals, all wrapped in a well written mystery that leaves its mark.
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