As I stumble through the overgrowth outside of Red Creek Valley I suspect I’m not a welcome visitor. Within five minutes of getting off the train tracks I’ve stumbled upon a series of gruesome traps, and not the sort you’d leave for any wild game. Flails and springs and pits. No, these traps are for curious outsiders. And intuition tells me it’s claimed more than a few of the less observant ones… intuition and the shattered bones that litter the forest floor. This little hamlet has a dark secret, one tied directly to the disappearance of one Ethan Carter. And I intend to uncover the truth.
After a few (seemingly) close calls I stop in a clearing to appreciate the sheer beauty of this pristine place. The trees sway lazily; some have made the transition into their fall colors, and some remain stubbornly verdant. The grass has grown high and unruly, claiming patches of neglected road, working in tandem with a blanket of primeval ferns. Freight cars sit unused, decaying on the tracks. It’s at that moment I realize I’ve encountered no people, no wildlife. The world around me suddenly grows still, anxiously waiting for me to move, to stop dawdling, to leave. But I can’t. I may not be able to see it, but I know something is watching me, this clumsy outsider. Something malevolent, old, and hungry.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter can best be described as a mystery horror exploration narrative. While it isn’t overtly frightening, it has an overwhelming atmosphere. The community of Red Creek Valley is a lot like iconic Silent Hill – except with an older, more sinister vibe. The decrepit setting slowly being swallowed by nature, the eerie crime scenes, the soft music, and excellent, grumbly narration all marry together to form a very unsettling, hypnotic surrounding. This is a town where Lovecraft’s ancient, twisted gods rule. And you are most certainly unwelcome; you will feel that from beginning to end.
But like any good paranormal detective you’ll press onward in spite of traps, murder scenes, and inexplicable, disembodied narration. You’re Paul Prospero (Shakespeare’s The Tempest anyone?), and this is your last case; you’re roughly two weeks from retirement. And this kid Ethan, with his special gift… he’s relying on you. To find him. To save him. And to find out what’s happened to this place and its colorful denizens.
As you explore you’ll find clues and piece together what happened at certain locations. You’ll spot abnormalities, anomalies, and the like. Sometimes something will be missing and there’s a mechanic in which the item, for instance a crank, will show up as scattered text. If you look in the right direction the text will come together and you’ll be able to see where the item is located using your occult powers. Finally, if there’s a victim in the vicinity and you’ve gathered enough clues, you’ll have the opportunity to piece together what happened by “communicating” with the dead and reliving their final moments. And when you gather evidence and set the chronology of actions in order, man does it feel rewarding. There’s enough variety to keep these paranormal encounters fresh, and, while the game is linear, you’ll have the freedom to explore and solve puzzles in whatever order you like.
This is a slow, methodical, meticulous sort of game. The sort of game you should play by yourself with your favorite comfort drink and no distractions. Really immerse yourself. It’s one of the best looking games I’ve ever played – near photo realistic. The story is riveting, bizarre, and unflinchingly violent. This is an exploration game done right, with gameplay that challenges you to be observant and thoughtful. It’s short, sure, but every hour is worthwhile and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Ethan Carter is a love story; to Lovecraft and all things weird, and to classic detective stories. This is easily one of the best indie titles released in 2014.
So what are you waiting for? You mustn’t keep the old ones waiting too long. Sure, they have time. Time means nothing to them. But for you… that’s a precious commodity you’re fast running out of.