Who doesn’t want a supernatural murder mystery centered on a driven narrative built on puzzle solving and unraveling the mystery of a missing boy? In the case of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, please sign me up. Twice. From Indie developer The Astronauts, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is two parts intense story and one part puzzle solving, creating a hybrid that kept me hooked until the bitter end.
Set in the fictional town of Red Valley Creek, players take control of Paul Prospero, a detective with special abilities that helps him solve all kind of tough to crack cases. Supernatural abilities, actually, that help him delve into the spirit world and solve more than just the case of a missing boy. Prospero charges himself with finding Ethan Carter, a boy missing in Red Valley Creek. Arriving to small, rundown remains of a dam and the surrounding area, you charge into the mystery headfirst to solve the case of Ethan Carter.
Ethan Carter literally throws you headfirst into the game, letting you get a feel for the controls and what exactly must be done at your own leisure. There is not much in terms of tutorials, in some cases that is not a bad thing, but there are times this is a hindrance. Completing puzzles and progressing the story is sometimes tricky and time consuming, especially when using Prospero’s Sense ability is not always completely obvious. I will not lie – one of the early puzzles left me scratching my head,as I tried to hunt down a crank. For the life of me, I could not figure out if I was missing a clue or just clueless myself. I ended up standing and staring at a train and moving my mouse around before I realized Prospero can sense the location of items by using visual clues. This requires players to inspect an object, realizing they need an additional item to complete the puzzle. Words will swirl around the screen and as you move your mouse, they will center in as you center your view closer and closer on the direction of the object. Once there, clicking and holding to Sense creates a scene, showing you where the item is located in that area. Perhaps I missed a tooltip during the initial puzzle, but without it, I was almost completely lost early on.
Speaking of using the Sense, expect to use it more in-depth to understand the mystery at hand. After “solving” a puzzle, you will use your ability to shed more light on the mystery at hand with scenes playing out right in front of you. Piecing the story together with these scenes is integral up until the very end where everything is finally laid out for players. These scenes, while short, are engrossing to watch. They feel ripped directly from the pages of Lovecraft and old 40’s mystery stories, smashed together and presented in such a way that will drive you to continue.
Trudging through the game can be a bit of a chore, however. Ethan Carter is completely open world, allowing players to traverse around the different “scenes” present within the game. Each scene is a puzzle or side story that plays into the overarching plot of Ethan Carter, feeding Prospero and you the player details as things go on. These scenes directly or indirectly tie to the main plot as well, but they build into the overall narrative of you searching for Ethan in the spooky burnt-out remains of buildings and caves.
Ethan Carter is also an extremely well-designed game. The landscape and graphics are beautiful (though the character models look odd at times) and exploring was one of my favorite pieces to the game. While I did have some frame rate stuttering, even on my older PC, I could easily run the graphics on High settings without many issues. Combining the graphics with the game’s amazing score really sets the mood and made the long walks between scenes not seem like as much of a chore.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a fantastic game. My only true complaints are the short length and lack of replayability, but I can easily stomach that after enjoying it so much. I’d love to see more games in this vein from The Astronauts since the story really grabs the players and pushes them to continue. It is definitely worth playing for those that enjoy a bit of suspense in the middle of supernatural mystery.
Note: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter review was written based on a digital PC version of the game.