"Developer The Astronauts have crafted a hauntingly beautiful journey filled with riddles and tales of macabre."
Let’s get one thing straight. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is nothing like Dear Esther. Yes, in theory it’s structurally very similar; Players wander through mysterious landscapes while uncovering mysteries with no guidance or direction, but unlike the dull and pretentious world of Dear Esther, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is captivating, enigmatic, beautifully written and oftentimes terrifying. Dear Esther failed as a game because it completely ignored the player and presented itself as an entirely audio/visual experience. As a short film, it might have been beautiful, but asking its audience to press forward for an hour made the already sloppy storytelling feel like a complete drag. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter gets it right. It goes for that artsy and ambiguous angle, but asks players to be wholly present. Developer The Astronauts have crafted a hauntingly beautiful journey filled with riddles and tales of macabre. Turn off the lights, close all doors and curtains, put on a pair of headphones…and prepare for one of the finest adventure mysteries on Steam.
The best way to experience The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is to know as little about it as possible. That, of course, makes my job very difficult. As a detective with paranormal powers, players set out to investigate the fictional Red Creek Valley after receiving a letter from a boy whose life may be in jeopardy. Who is this mysterious Ethan Carter kid and what is going on here? The game throws players into the world with no guidance and instructions. With each step, the environment starts guiding players to uncover the gameplay mechanics on their own. The controls are simple, consisting of only walking, running and the ability to interact with clues. But like the finest titles in the genre, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is all about narrative build-up and specific item placement.
"It’s up to players to figure out how the game functions, and the developers have done a superb job of building tension without frustration."
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an open world game, but not in a traditional sense. The setting is made up of large seamlessly connected areas (no loading screens) and each environment holds clues to Ethan Carter’s disappearance. Every area is brimming with secrets, big and small. Bigger secrets are basically pieces that make up the main story, while the smaller clues provide further background information on the characters. It’s difficult to talk about the gameplay mechanics without ruining the joy of discovery. It’s up to players to figure out how the game functions, and the developers have done a superb job of building tension without frustration. The Astronauts give their audience full control and expect a certain level of patience and intelligence. This level of freedom and openness makes The Vanishing of Ethan Carter inexplicably engaging and satisfying.
"The problem seems related to texture loading when entering sections of the map, but that shouldn’t be an issue with 3GB of VRAM."
Unfortunately, the game isn’t without faults. Several annoying technical shortcomings and odd design decisions mar the experience. Our rig (GTX 780 with an i7 CPU at 1440p) can run the game at full settings with a fairly steady 60fps, but there’s constant stuttering while running. The problem seems related to texture loading when entering sections of the map, but that shouldn’t be an issue with 3GB of VRAM. Setting the SmoothFramerate to TRUE via the .ini file remedies the issue slightly, but the stuttering still persists. But the bigger problem is the poor save-system. It’s impossible to save manually and the game supposedly auto-saves during key moments. The problem is that it doesn't tell you when it’s saving. There’s no on-screen indicator or anything, which makes it easy to lose massive junks of gameplay if quitting too early. A recent patch now apparently saves right after players read one of Ethan’s letters, but it’d still be nice to have a more functioning system. Let’s hope this gets resolved with a future patch.
"The game’s presentation excels in every area and anyone who still claims that video games aren’t art after walking through this fascinating world shouldn’t be allowed to ever play another game again."
Stuttering aside, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an aesthetically breathtaking title. The scenery carries a gloomy Alan Wake vibe, while the later underground sections feel as terrifying as Amnesia’s dark corridors. The level designers have done a superb job of making the world feel much larger than it really is. This is no Elder Scrolls by any means, but Red Creek Valley has as much secrecy and lore as the icy cold mountains of Skyrim. Walking through abandoned houses while ominous screams of distant animals fill the air is mesmerizing and chilling. The game’s presentation excels in every area and anyone who still claims that video games aren’t art after walking through this fascinating world shouldn’t be allowed to ever play another game again.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the most successful adventure-mysteries to date. It’s immersive from beginning to end and, in a way, redefines the genre. Like any good mystery, the ending leaves more questions than answers. It’s the type of experience that haunts your dreams and stays with you long after it’s over. I can only hope that The Astronauts continue crafting their storytelling skills and that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter brings back the adventure genre into the spotlight. Even if you’ve never cared for these type of games, you’d be making a grave mistake by skipping this genuinely unique tale.
Review by: Tin Salamunic | Reviewed on: PC