There’s something here. You just have to find it.
Recently, I put on the shoes of Paul Prospero, a gravelly-voiced detective and medium, and joined his search for a young boy, Ethan Carter. Paul had entered Red Creek Valley in response to a letter he received from the child speaking of something dark going on. As I delved into the mystery, peppered with old spirits and supernatural occurrences, I often questioned what I was getting out of the experience. The immediate answer is a visually arresting walk through an all-but-abandoned world, and the later answer is an ending that subverted my expectations.
Although I am of the mind that hyper-realistic graphics in and of themselves are not praiseworthy, this is an experience where it works ably. In terms of pure adventure gaming, strolling through Red Creek Valley is engaging and beautiful. In contrast to the boom and pizzazz of action games, notably those military-themed like Call of Duty, this land encourages pause and reflection. This is a huge help for staying connected during the few hours you’ll spend in the game. And it’s not just that textures up close are technically impressive, which they are, but the story requires an extra modicum of believability to work.
While perusing the lonely areas, you’ll encounter puzzles which are fantastical and utilize Prospero’s strange, otherworldly abilities to solve. Solving one kind of puzzle teaches you more about murders that have taken place. You will find bodies and around them lay clues to what transpired. First, you must find objects and put them back where they were. Then, using your “Sense” abilities you’ll uncover a number of events leading up to the death, represented by still scenes scattered through the nearby area. Put them in chronological order and you'll learn more about the darkness overtaking Ethan’s family and where he may have disappeared to.
To an extent, these puzzles are mundane but not the blessed kind I praised in Ether One. Like that game and possibly Papo & Yo, it’s apparent that they aren’t meant to actively impede players from solving them—quite the opposite actually. Lacking any challenge to complete, these puzzles are not satisfying on their own. Although there is the obvious expositional reward for figuring them out, allowing you to progress with the main storyline, they just feel like roadblocks in that story. I also sensed that the developers ran out of steam or time as they went, because it’s not long before you need only replace one object at a given murder scene… or the scenes you must reorder are literally in order already.
The other puzzles appear like side-quests one can pursue and the game introduces the first one almost immediately, seemingly to establish that they are there. They require some extra exploration, but nothing too demanding. The environment, though it appears lush and expansive, hides its own walls, both visible and invisible. Prospero must perform different actions and use situational abilities in order to pass these trials as opposed to the main set mentioned earlier. These offshoots were my favorite parts of the experience because they gave reason to leave the beaten path and subscribed to different rule sets. You also learn more about Ethan by completing them.
For much of my playtime, I wasn’t very invested in the story. For a fantasy, it seemed completely uncomplicated and it was only told through successive murders coupled with some mythical antagonist. However, the ending revealed a lot more about my time in Red Creek Valley. The game saves almost all of its payoff for the finale which is a risky design choice. I mean, I’ve played role-playing games for 30 hours before beginning to like the story before, though generally that’s because the gameplay is engaging well before then and keeps me plugged in. Thankfully, this story is brief, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome before the big reveal.
I’ll just say this much: The side-puzzles are necessary to understanding the conclusion, both in terms of narrative content and your natural desire to see the end credits. I don’t want to ruin it much more, but I didn’t realize what truths they held until it was all put together before me. And the end result is actually an emotionally resonating narrative, believe it or not. You’ll develop questions that you already have the answers to and didn’t realize they were there all along. The story, the full narrative, is relevant to a lot of children like Ethan Carter and is steeped in sobering realism. For that, I would encourage you to discover it and find him.