The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a murder mystery after my own heart. Although you could place it in the supernatural exploration camp alongside Outlast, Amnesia, or other ominous walking simulators, the terror proves to be nonexistent instead of expected. And as an exodus from the over-the-top shooters (Bulletstorm, Gears of War: Judgment) that they helped create, the team at The Astronauts (former People Can Fly employees) evaluates your mind, not your trigger finger.
Players control Paul Prospero, a paranormal private eye working one last case after contact from a desperate Ethan Carter. Something called the Sleeper has awoken in Red Creek Valley. Ethan appears immune to the creature’s power, but whatever this being actually is, it has turned the boy's relatives into pawns, making them massacre each other in morbid patterns: severing somebody’s legs with a train car, offering a person as a ritualistic sacrifice, etc. You must resolve these murders, though whatever order in which Paul does so rests with you. You may crack the codes of each corpse as you discover them, or beeline it straight to the end. Your choice.
Every synapse in my brain told me this house was haunted.
How Paul catches killers requires a certain novelty. Paul’s abilities allow him to commune with the dead, like Murdered: Soul Suspect without terrible cat-and-mouse specter battles. By positioning stones, lanterns, elevators, ornaments, or additional clues as they were before an execution occurred, the detective reveals flashback images of the event that he later arranges in the proper chronology. Solving these ghastly riddles is the pinnacle of the narrative. Did a victim perish from blunt trauma to the head or bleed out due to dismemberment? Some cases expect fair trial and error, but that keyword “fair” applies to every dilemma. I never felt lost in the game's logic for long, even when I deciphered dying messages through process of elimination. After reenacting the scenes a few times, I resumed the search for Ethan, one step closer to his whereabouts.
Where the story ultimately stops may agitate several players, especially after a modest four hours. The developers pull some real St. Elsewhere shenanigans, but I will leave possible spoilers at that. Rather, the way the team topples expectations gave my inner sleuth the run around. I followed a cosmonaut through the forest, strayed upon a spur-of-the-moment vision quest, and avoided an undead guardian to release a Kraken. What the hell is going on in Red Creek Valley? And how did Prospero learn he can interact with the deceased? If you spent Saturday mornings firmly glued to the couch, watching reruns of Scooby Doo, these occult capers were made for you meddling kids.
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For enthusiasts that want a new PC benchmark, too, Ethan Carter's visuals would nearly substitute for Skyrim, Far Cry 3, or any title that stresses extreme render distances. The developers organize an autumnal nature hike through a sequestered mountain village, an open environment that poses no personal risk but constantly feeds on concern and curiosity. The soundtrack is more than mere white noise. Composer Mikolai Stroinski knows what notes force the mystery of the valley to your intellect's forefront, or when to relax the lyric-less melodies to emphasize the scope and tranquility of the pristine woodlands. On occasion, I stopped, stared, and absorbed the scenery, reluctant to finish what Paul started.
But Gone Home this is not, nor will it ever be. The character portrayals belong in a high school theater. Ethan’s relatives have all the energy of patients under anesthesia, and Ethan is not the least bit appalled by the executions he witnesses. “You’re all sick,” the boy declares. No, child, they are dead, done, finito. While the tepid performances do tie in to the conclusion, I was never invested in who these people were or why I was trying to save Ethan. His disappearance is just a vehicle for spectral tidings; Red Creek Valley's magnetism placed me under its spell instead.
You will indeed visit that estate in the distance eventually.
Even so, the absence of voice overs would bog the experience down. In subtle thrillers such as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, I pit my answers, right or wrong, against the heroes'. If someone attacked Ethan's father, where are the signs of a struggle? When did he receive the puncture marks on his neck? Was the culprit his nephew, clearly brandishing an axe in the flashback? The developers discard the final illusions of normalcy during the ending's abstract revelations, yet for all the apathetic acting, Red Creek's unassuming backdrop grounds the imaginative story. I salute The Astronauts' premiere endeavor.
Publisher: The Astronauts
Developer: The Astronauts
Release Date: September 25, 2014
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4
Review copy provided by publisher.
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