The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (Video Game Review)



Though it looked suspiciously similar to this year’s supernatural sleuth-’em-up Murdered: Soul Suspect in trailers, in reality The Vanishing of Ethan Carter skews far closer to Gone Home than anything else. That’s also probably the best indicator whether this is the game for you; as in Gone Home, the focus in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is on delivering a narrative experience framed by a gorgeously designed, immersive setting rather than endless hours of action-packed gameplay. If you’re a patient gamer who’s a sucker for a good story-driven experience though, Ethan Carter rewards you with one of the most beautifully rendered games you’re likely to find.

You play as Paul Prospero, a private investigator with a knack for weird and supernatural cases. Like Haley Joel Osment, he sees dead people and his ability to peer into the past to see the events surrounding their death can help him solve many a mystery. As Prospero, you’re called to the creepily tranquil town of Red Creek Valley by a letter from a frightened young boy named Ethan Carter who’s in need of your help. With Ethan now missing, you’ll have to put your gumshoe skills to work unraveling the root of all the grisly murders around town and track down the wayward kid before it’s too late.
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For the most part, the first-person gameplay found in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter comes in the form of crime scene investigation puzzles. You’ll stumble across the location of a murder and – with the help of your Soul Suspect-style spirit powers – you’ll be able to see glimpses of the past alongside the present aftermath. You’ll have to see which objects have been moved from the scene, collect them from the surrounding area and put them back in their rightful place. You’ll see blue-hued ghosts from the past, frozen in time at different points during the murder and will have to tag each event with a number and shuffle them around to put them all in their correct chronological order (so the killer grabbed the axe before he chopped down the door with it, for instance.)

The core investigation segments aren’t especially taxing, but welcome attempts to keep things fresh are made gameplay-wise with some more involved, intelligent puzzles along the way, while a later cave section adds some great nail-biting tension to an otherwise eerily serene game. Inbetween, in tried-and-true survival horror fashion, you’ll stumble across unsettling hand-scribbled stories, notes and newspaper clippings to shed creepy light on the increasingly Lovecraftian weirdness unfolding in the game’s 4-5 hour story. The game really excels at those unnerving, inciting tidbits of story and does a fantastic job at hooking you from the get-go.
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The first thing that’ll strike you when starting The Vanishing of Ethan Carter though is just how astonishing everything looks; this is an absolutely gorgeous game, and almost no other title you’ll find can match the amount of jaw-dropping texture detail put into every aspect of its open world. The amount of detail that developer The Astronauts have pored into every location and object gives the creepily deserted town of Red Creek Valley a tangible sense of place and character and the result is a phenomenally immersive experience. It’s a masterclass in visual design, and the rustic beauty on display in the game’s open-world environments make travelling from scene to scene an absolute delight only helped by the wonderful, subtle score.

When your game is as visually stunning as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, it’s only natural that you’d want to openly encourage players to explore the environment, but though the beautifully realised backdrop does wonders to immerse you in the story, the freedom afforded to the player sometimes undermines the actual pace and reveals of the narrative. There are several different story event mysteries dotted all over the game’s surprisingly expansive landscape and though you can start and finish them in any order, you won’t be told that you really need to complete them all to see the story’s actual resolution, ideally in a particular sequence.
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The open world and lack of strict direction makes it almost impossible to avoid playing story segments out of their intended sequence, which can mean getting an awkward ‘soft’ ending, then having to backtrack across the world without a map, struggling to remember which locations you need to revisit in order to wrap up side quests and unlock the ‘real‘ ending. Naturally, it means the plot doesn’t feel as tight as it could, while the twists and turns of the story are rendered less effective as a result.

That’s unfortunate for a game that places such a heavy focus on its story, but while the plot’s somewhat disjointed structure and use of some overworn tropes make the conclusion arguably less than satisfying, the effectiveness of its smaller moments and the stunning environments and atmosphere you’ll experience along the way help make up for the narrative’s shortcomings as a whole. If you’re craving a fast-paced, combat-heavy game that’ll last you days on end, this won’t be for you, but if you’re disappointed by the lack of well-realised story-driven single player games out there, then The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a mystery well worth exploring.

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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is available now for PC priced £14.99/$19.99