Editor’s note: Yes, this is an older game, but it’s still worth a read if you’re wondering if the game is any good.
As The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s opening text suggests, this is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand. However, intelligent world structure, environmental storytelling and an ever-compelling mystery that lures you forth, makes this journey through Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin feel perpetually purposeful.
The brief exposition uttered gruffly by player character Paul Prespero, a paranormal investigator, establishes your seemingly simple goal; uncover the secrets of this small mining town and find the 12-year-old Ethan Carter. Emerging from a tunnel to a dense woodland, humming with tension, Ethan Carter’s atmosphere of unsettling tranquility washes over you.
The game’s stunning visuals bring the desolate beauty of Red Creek Valley to life; the autumnal swathes of woodland, placid bodies of water and weathered remnants of civilization evoking a Stephen King-esque tone of the familiar yet eerie.
Unfolding through a set of individual but interconnected cases, the mysteries of Red Creek Valley begin to reveal themselves in captivating vignettes. These vignettes are each individually satisfying but act incrementally to drive the both the story and your investigation forward.
The game’s elegantly simple investigative mechanics are intuitive, making piecing together each case’s narrative puzzle a well-balanced exercise in intellectual problem solving. Following the train track out of the tunnel from which you emerged, through the woods and across a dilapidated bridge, you find the train cart accompanied by a gory scene and a corpse.
Exploring the surrounding area, you uncover a set of seemingly disparate clues; a rock, a rope, a crank, and, returning to the body, assemble a reconstruction of events. Each of the five key points in the case manifest in shimmering blue snapshots; Ethan tied to the tracks, Ethan’s older brother Travis and Grandfather Ed stood by the train cart, challenging you to figure out the chronology of events to play out the incident in full and solve the case. This process of assembling clues and reconstructing events provides both challenging and rewarding gameplay and an ingenious way of interactive, naturalistic storytelling.
This early case also establishes that something dark, sinister and otherworldly is at play in Red Creek Valley and that Ethan Carter is instrumental in its unleashing. Ethan’s family believe he must be sacrificed to appease the malevolent spirit, known as “The Sleeper”.
With this information you probe deeper into the valley, exploring the sparse shells of former homes, the graveyard of a towering stave church, and the town’s labyrinthine mines. The game’s weird fiction inspired cosmic horror becomes increasingly Lovecraftian with ancient beings and ritualistic cults.
Your progression through the world and each case you encounter is kept fresh with variety; several story-centric cases stick to the clue-reconstruction formula but these are well dispersed and thus remain engaging. Other cases, told as manifestations of Ethan’s stories, offer unique gameplay moments; some find you floating in a space, overlooking a galaxy or submerged beneath the ocean while others challenge you to figure out the interior of a house via a series of blue doorways or open an ancient gate by matching runes.
The solution to this last puzzle, taking place in the mines, proved a little too obscure, resulting in me having to use a guide to figure out the exact order of runes. However, every other puzzle in the game has a logical solution and, when you have that breakthrough aha moment, is immensely gratifying to solve.
Like other great story-driven games -What Remains of Edith Finch, in particular – The Vanishing of Ethan Carter finds ways of dynamically integrating other experiences into gameplay and storytelling whilst remaining cohesive. The melancholy tale of the Carter’s is never lost to Red Creek Valley’s countless other secrets and mysteries and as it culminates toward the end of this 4-5 hour journey, the tragic reality reveals itself.
I found Ethan Carter’s ending deeply affecting; the many facets of this supernatural plot and the connection I had made with characters I had simply observed the wake of all converged in a simple, stirring conclusion.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a masterful mystery, creatively told with engrossing environmental storytelling and instinctive gameplay mechanics. The game’s emotive, human story and enthralling atmosphere is heightened by convincing voice acting, stunning visuals and a haunting score. This narrative experience stands out as one of the finest in its genre, firmly earning its place alongside the likes of What Remains of Edith Finch, Firewatch, Gone Home and Virginia.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter PS4 Review
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter tells a rich and engrossing tale which is equally supernatural and human. Environmental storytelling, stellar voice acting, stunning visuals, and an ethereal score all coalesce to drive forward an ever-compelling mystery which culminates in a touching, revelatory conclusion. For lovers of immersive atmosphere, creative storytelling and intelligent puzzle design, this unique narrative experience is essential.
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Reviewed using base PS4.