The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Review

By Rebecca Smith,
Last year, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was released on PC to critical acclaim. A month before the game's release, developer The Astronauts confirmed that the game was also coming to the Playstation 4. The console now seems to be on its way to becoming a favourite haunt for story-driven adventure titles where exploration and discovery play a vital part in the gaming experience. Has this title done enough to earn its place as part of a growing genre, or is this one best kept by the wayside in anticipation for the titles that will be arriving in the future?

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Players assume the role of "occult-minded" detective Paul Prospero. Having received a plea for help from a young boy called Ethan Carter, the detective finds himself in the deserted Red Creek Valley to try and save the boy's life. The problem is that Prospero needs to find him first and things in Red Creek Valley are not always as they seem to appear, but then Prospero is not your conventional gumshoe detective. With the ability to flash back to the past or enter an alternative universe, the game offers a supernatural touch to the standard detecting skills that would be offered by fellow sleuths like Sherlock Holmes or Cole Phelps.

While Ethan's fate is uncertain, the fate of several others is more certain. As players explore they will stumble across objects that need to be investigated and documents that beg to be read, usually leading to the discovery of a body. Players must find all of the clues and recreate the scene, something that is simple due to the game’s fairly obvious visual clues that alert you to an object of interest and the visualisation of Prospero’s thought processes. Once all of the clues have been found, players flash back to the events leading up to the death of that person. Here, the challenge manifests in the somewhat clunky method of putting the events in order. The events can’t be visualised fully until they are put in the correct order, meaning that trial and error is the only way to finally discover how the person died.

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Players will be glad to learn that not all of the puzzles take this form; in fact, the game would be very boring if they did. Exploration will also reveal puzzles and events that seem to have arrived out of nowhere because of their bizarre subject matter. This is until you realise that they are based on stories from the youthful imagination of Ethan, who is inspired by pulp fiction and tales of the macabre that were written by authors such as Algernon Blackwood, Stefan Grabinski and H.P. Lovecraft. Dreamed up as a means for Ethan to escape the tumultuous relationship that he has with the rest of his family, they provide the player with a brief but meaningful glimpse into the issues that plague the troubled Carter household.

The problem is that those issues seem to have been caused by something supernatural and it is apparent that things are spiralling out of control. Despite this, those hoping for true scary moments that will test those nerves of steel will be left disappointed. Instead, the game relies on a sense of unease created by the events that you will uncover and by the eerie deserted wilderness of the valley. Exploration is coupled with caution as you’re never certain what you may uncover next. What is certain is that you will spend a fair amount of time staring at it. Red Creek Valley is beautiful. From the rusting, blood-spattered rail cart to the seemingly peaceful but overgrown woodlands, The Astronauts’ attention to detail makes it difficult to avoid being distracted from the task at hand and players will often find themselves admiring the view instead.

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Players are left to explore Red Creek Valley as they wish. As the opening cutscene appears on the screen, players are told that "this game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand”. While the valley is fairly linear with open areas dotted about, there are very few barriers that limit the player’s travels and you can go anywhere at any time. It is entirely possible to travel from Prospero’s starting position to an area near the valley’s final location without finding or solving any of the puzzles that are needed to progress through the story.

Despite the emphasis on exploring at your own pace, the game still feels a little short. A single playthrough clocks in at around 3-5 hours, depending on how much you stop and stare at your surroundings. The good news is that the game leaves you with more questions than answers. Not only are you left to explore the game on your own terms, you are left to place your own interpretation on the game’s deliberately ambiguous conclusion. Whether you have completed all of the puzzles already or earned all of the game’s trophies, the chances are that you will head back into Red Creek Valley to see if there are any hints that you had missed.

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Speaking of trophies, this game doesn't carry a Platinum. Of the 14 trophies that it does sport, none are likely to provide much of a challenge. Some trophies are attached to the deaths that Prospero needs to solve, while there are others that are linked to the stories that were created by Ethan. The remainder are taken up with missable events that players will find if they explore well enough. All in all, though, this game is easy to complete.

Summary

With a feeling of general unease rather than the jump scares that we have come to expect from a title inspired by horror, players explore a beautiful valley that is filled with secrets at their own pace, rather than a pace provided by the developer. How much of the back story and puzzles you choose to experience is up to you, but you're missing a treat if you decide not to head away from the beaten track. This short but engaging storyline will have you questioning your own assumptions — do you dare to take the plunge?
4 / 5
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Positives
  • Engaging storyline
  • Exploration and puzzle solving at your own pace
  • Beautiful environments
Negatives
  • A bit short
Ethics
The reviewer spent five hours getting distracted by the scenery as she tried to locate and save a small boy. After finding and solving all of the puzzles, she earned all 14 of the game’s trophies but is still trying to work out the game’s ending. Extensive research has created more questions than it has provided answers. This copy of the game was provided courtesy of the developer for the purpose of the review.
Rebecca Smith
Written by Rebecca Smith
Rebecca is the Newshound Manager at TrueGaming Network. She has been contributing articles since 2010, especially those that involve intimidatingly long lists. When not writing news, she works in an independent game shop so that she can spend all day talking about games too. She'll occasionally go outside.