At their very best, video games can take all that is sacred in film, art and storytelling and wrap it into one compelling, interactive package. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter did just that last year when it appeared on the Steam store front. Feast your eyes folks, for nine months later, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has finally arrived on PlayStation 4. Replete with a few aged wrinkles, this is the same spectacular puzzler that PC fans have long enjoyed, complete with a few hiccups old and new along the way. While this PS4 outing may not exactly be the definitive place to experience Ethan Carter, it is still as fine a place as any.
Ethan Carter’s story is one best devoured piece by piece. For the unacquainted, this is a uniquely mystical explorative adventure. You are Paul Prospero, an ageing, retirement-minded detective hot on the heels of his very last case. Said case will see you attempt to track down the game’s eponymous youth, Ethan Carter. Proceedings soon career into mysticism as Prospero delves deep into Carter’s brilliant mind. All you truly need to know is that this is a delicately written, impressively acted and thoughtful tale; one that you need to experience intravenously. Ethan Carter’s ability to authentically surprise and charm is genuinely outstanding.
Contrary to its ambitious appearance, Ethan Carter is the progeny of development team The Astronauts, an eight man indie outfit. You’d be forgiven for frequently forgetting this throughout your time with their maiden project, I certainly did. Though the environment we are given may be short and notably compact, it is nonetheless impressive, something easily mitigated by a budget price tag.
Ethan Carter’s visual design reeks with intent. the most iconic of American Landscape painting. Sprawling green backdrops sway back and forth in decadent detail; water shines moist with rhythmic beauty. The sheer heft and finesse of Ethan Carter’s visual design is such that you can’t help but feel utterly entranced: it is magic in motion. Screensaver worthy panoramas frequently present themselves. The studio flippantly demonstrates a panache for delicate and artful environment design; the way in which the same environments look both radically different and equally impressive from multiple perspectives speaks powerfully to the team’s creative prowess. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter remains as compelling a case as ever for video games as art.
Graphical fiends might be pleased to hear that Ethan Carter for PS4 has been rebuilt under the new, updated Unreal 4 Engine. Personally, I couldn’t identify all that much difference here. Colours do feel deeper, but it’s as minimal as minimal goes. Much of the immediate environment has indeed been marginally reshaped or reshaded, though the jury’s out on whether it’s a noticeable improvement.
Curiously, the PS4 transition also seems to have come at the cost of a reliable framerate. While it’s certainly not omnipresent, there’s nothing like a single, impromptu stutter in time and space to make you realise you’re just sitting on a couch caressing a controller.
It’s also worth noting that this game stands as the only one I have ever played to give me motion sickness. Motion blur and a shaky first person perspective colluded to run rings around my weary eyes. This seems to be something The Astronauts are fully aware of: a friendly hint in the options menu lets you know exactly how to circumvent any future problems. Mercifully, this is easily surmountable.
For all the re-upholstery, Ethan Carter will show its age from time to time. Textures lack a noticeable sense of depth, sometimes even appearing a little muddy. Games like the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt have since spoiled us with even more technically proficient realisations of densely lush forestry. Worse still, character design leaves much to be desired. Not only are the denizens of this enigmatic territory blandly realized and visually uninspired, but respective character models are anachronistically blocky in ways that contradict the game’s artful aesthetic.
The hunt for Master Carter will necessitate Prospero to don his detective’s hat and embrace the occult. Gameplay wise, what this necessitates is some good ol’ puzzle solving proficiency. One thing this game immediately declares is that it will not “hold your hand”. This is no lie, gamers will be expected to find their way towards the end credits on their own steam via exploration and peeled retinas. The collection of mysteries smattered across this small world can be approached in any order that pleases, and the payoff is all the sweeter for it. Conquering this scarcely tamed slab of nature becomes your victory in a far more personal way.
The majority of these puzzles can be boiled down to simple exercises in go-fetch, albeit ones dressed up in some fancy, spectral mechanics. While serviceable, these offerings can look somewhat paltry in comparison to the one or two stand out puzzles on offer. These will surprise you and truly challenge you to think differently; they are what puzzle games are meant to be. Hard-core puzzle fans might find themselves wishing for more examples of this by the time credits roll.
New Unreal 4 foundations don’t just offer cosmetic improvements. A far more rigorous saving system is now in play. This functional touch means you won’t ever have to worry about losing any progress if you want to take a break. Moreover, one particularly divisive puzzle segment has been considerably streamlined. Whether this is a welcome change will depend on your tastes as a gamer, but to me, this feels like a a hearty improvement.
A phenomenal score works hand in hand with Ethan Carter’s organic level approach to make even the most mundane of puzzles feel interesting. Rarely has any soundtrack played puppeteer with my emotions this effectively. One track efficiently melted me into a wretched wreck of mental instability throughout a particularly traumatising underground segment. Thoughtful design ensures instrumentals will strike home or slowly mount at just the right time to elicit maximum emotional destitution.
Ethan Carter’s exploratory creed, however, might well be said to clash sourly with its tight world design. I couldn’t help but feel compelled to steam roll down pathways until I reached every single invisible barrier. The thought of missing a quest item was just too painful to resist. These barriers never failed to serve as friendly reminders that I was just playing a game.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter for PS4 is a serviceable port of an excellent game. It’s every bit the spirited woodland caper which captivated PC gamers nigh on 10 months ago. In spite of some mud and a few chops here and there, Ethan Carter for PS4 remains an effective reflection of why this game was a big deal in 2014. Though plodding patience might well be a prospective buyer’s best friend right now, day one is still a fine time to grab a copy.
What we are left with is certainly not a perfect game. You can expect to be crudely torn from the game’s evocative mystique more than once. Yet every single tear just left me hungrier than ever to jump right back in again. It would have taken a whole many more inconsistencies to make me even think about putting this near-masterful exercise in art and storytelling down. I still feel as compelled as ever to find Ethan Carter.
Verdant vistas and vicious vagrants.