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Preview: Etherborn

For full disclosure, this preview was conducted with a PC code. However, the mechanics, music, and general experience should be the same when it launches on the PS4. I even used a PS4 controller to play it. Any actual reviews will be with a PS4 code.

I had the chance to preview the gravity-based puzzler Etherborn recently, and it brings some very interesting gameplay to the table. It also has some of the most pompous cutscene dialogue I have experienced in a while. Even with that marring the experience, Etherborn easily managed to keep me hooked and wanting more.

Etherborn is an indie game down to the roots of the giant tree that serves as your path to different levels. Your character is a translucent white human shape with a pink heart, lungs, and some arteries. You can run, jump, and pick up energy balls to solve the puzzles in every level.

As you walk along the branches of the tree, the levels are represented as glowing nodes. Although each area offered a different visual theme, the actual concepts are similar. Gravity is wherever your feet are planted. If you walk off the edge of a path, you will fall to the area below you or even to your death. You can drop to another area, and the perspective may shift to create a path out of what used to be a wall. There are also ramps for you to walk up or down to a different plane.

The preview consisted of three areas. The intro is a great area for teaching you the basics. The other two areas expand on those ideas. The goal is always to move one or more of the glowing white globes to power switches to open a new path. If you reach the end, there is another globe that will take you back to the tree hub. Even though the levels are not particularly long or short, the space inside a level feels massive.

The gameplay is really great. From the top down perspective, you will move your character to try to determine how to position yourself to grab that next orb that’s just out of your reach. This requires going all the way around a level, upside down and on all sides, to grab the orb and return it to a power switch. There are obstacles such as pools of acid to keep you from walking in a straight line, but death is only temporary.

There is an M.C. Escher feel to some of the puzzles and level design, and, although I am not the best spatial thinker, I enjoyed dropping, jumping, and walking my way around a level, changing perspectives, and finding a way to explore a new area. It could be confusing at first, but the solution is obvious once you wrap your head around the correct environmental change. Completing a level is very satisfying.

The visuals in the preview were excellent as well. I would call the color palette full of pastels (actual artists probably know better than I), and it was a dreamy mix of subdued hues with some neon accents and use of blur. Some will probably compare it to Journey, but the design feels very crystalline, angular, and separate. It may be inspired by it, but Etherborn is doing it’s own thing. It’s beautiful, and you need to see it in motion to appreciate it fully.

The sound is another place where Etherborn nailed it’s feel. The music is ethereal (too on the nose?). It’s light and airy and never intrudes, but I enjoyed it very much. I would like to hear the remaining soundtrack in the full game.

As you can see, I enjoyed the gameplay a lot, but there were two things I didn’t love. The first is the camera. Even though you can move it slightly, it’s a mostly fixed perspective. The cinematic angles are normally great, unless you want to swing over an edge a little more to see where you will fall. The camera only fully changes when your perspective changes. It was a minor inconvenience.

The cutscenes were my biggest problem. It may make sense in the context of the full game, but the dialogue seemed to be purposely confusing for the sake of a certain artistic aesthetic and delivered in a very heavy, melodramatic way. I found cutscenes to be extremely grating. It’s 100% personal preference, and I could understand someone else loving it. It is skippable in the preview, so you have a choice.

Does that impair the entire experience? I don’t think so. The levels and puzzles are still great. The visuals and music are good. The ideas are intriguing, and Etherborn is looking like a fantastic indie puzzler. Gravity-based games still feel fresh to me, and it’s implemented well here.

I always want to remind you to stay skeptical of previews and wait for a final review. With that in mind, and even if you share my distaste for the cutscenes, the gameplay, visuals, and music could still make Etherborn a compelling game when it releases later this year.

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