A good journey with a satisfying end.
The evolution of the first-person adventure continues with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter from developer The Astronauts. Originally released last year on PC, the mystery game is now an affordable digital download for the PlayStation 4. Like 2013’s Gone Home, there’s no real “action” to speak of which is as it should be. Even when you equip an item like a crank, it’s not used to kill the undead. Unlike Gone Home, which was set solely in a suburban home, this takes place mostly outdoors in a stunning forest town, the fictional Red Creek Valley in Wisconsin.
So out of the home and into the woods we go! Your journey begins as you exit a train tunnel and the voice of Paul Prospero says he received a letter from a boy named Ethan who is now missing. Prospero tells you he’s a private eye of sorts who deals with unexplained phenomena. Within the first few minutes you come across a body that’s been torn in half. Evidence from wounds point to the victim having being run over by a train. So far, hardly unexplained.
However, Prospero’s gift of piecing together what exactly went down includes spooky blue and white reenactments, which give the crime scene investigation a supernatural feel, only more so when he takes a trip to a witch’s hut. Strange things are afoot. Was Ethan’s family afraid of their son? Or was it the other way around?
Structurally, the player starts on the aforementioned train tracks and keeps moving forward more or less. In fact, with few exceptions you could skip whole puzzles and just keep moving towards the game’s final destination, doing all ten missions in about four hours. But where’s the fun in that?
What struck me most about the game was how the script nails what worked so well a few years back in Alan Wake: having a guy in a rundown town narrate like he’s read a lot of Stephen King books. Luckily, Vanishing wisely ditches the pointless action scenes that plagued Wake. As mentioned earlier, you won’t be using items you find to kill baddies. There’s no dumb “use this flashlight to keep the monsters at bay” mechanic. Objects and environments are far more intuitive. Even when you do come across murderous weapons, your goal is to figure out how they were used, not use them yourself.
Nearly every scene follows a pattern: look over a dead body and try piece to together what happened and, more importantly, in what order. Figuring out the timeline will unlock a cut-scene that reveals the crime as it happened firsthand. Essentially, you walk around, highlight certain items, and once you’ve done that, small flashes of light illuminate a blue and white filtered moment frozen in time. If you’ve played last year’s Murdered: Soul Suspect—which as far as I can tell has no relation to this game—you’ll be in familiar territory. Upon finding a bloody crow at a grave, for example, tiny text comes across the screen: Ritual sacrifice? Hastily performed? Weapon missing? The key is to analyze the data and then figure out the order of events from those clues. It’s a really simple construct that never tires out.
Although there is a formula to this, the game has enough variety to keep you invested. One of the best sections involves two house—one small, the other large. Inside the small one are mystical portals that allow the player to change rooms, which points to the small home being quite bigger on the inside (like Doctor Who‘s Tardis). The owner of the small home had it cursed so that only the purest of character could figure out the house’s “true intentions”… or something like that. You’ll need to figure out the dimensions and make sure everything is in order: kitchen on the first floor, attic on top, etc.
What lingers within these clever puzzles is that something bad happened to Ethan. Along the way, you’ll get to know members of his family. Again, akin to a King novel, the residents of the Red Creek Valley do not take kindly to things they don’t understand.
Along with the strong voice work in the flashbacks, there are plenty of letters, news clippings, and other oddities to be read. All of this is par for the course for a mystery game. Vanishing just does it in one of the most organic ways I’ve seen. We’ve come a long way from the random “insert the Lion key here” antics of the Resident Evil series. If there’s a flaw to the puzzles—and somewhat to the plotting of the story—it’s that every beat for the most part makes logical sense so there’s not a lot of difficulty. The bloody rock you found ten feet away from a bludgeoned head is probably the murder weapon. Not to say there aren’t any twists. I actually didn’t see the big one coming.
Visually, the game is stunning even by PS4 standards. There’s something to be said for graphics that mimic the real world. As a Midwesterner who’s traveled to Wisconsin, I am a little skeptical that mountains are in such great supply as they seem to be in this fictional area, but I’m willing to overlook that since everything else looks so darn real. The image of a puddle of water after a rainstorm or the warm light that hides within a forest feels just right. As with most games like this, there’s little to no interacting with living beings. Isolation is a key factor in the story, so I knew that this would be a lonely jaunt for the game’s length.
There are a few annoying but minor tech things. The load time is nearly two minutes long (!) so I would advise putting your PS4 in rest mode, so you don’t need to boot it up every time. Also, while the game for the most part runs at a smooth 30 frames per second, panning an area too quickly can cause the occasional stuttering moment. But since precision is not important, it hardly matters to the experience as a whole.
It should be noted, though. that once you’ve done all the puzzles, there is zero replay value. That being said, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a must-play for those who love these types of experiences.