Polish developer The Astronauts has something special in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: a first-person mystery that evolves the genre and breaks new ground. While there are elements of Dear Esther and Amnesia in its DNA, it stands out as a real achievement.
After receiving a letter from Ethan, a troubled boy haunted by visions and an unknown darkness, investigator Paul Prospero journeys to his home of Red Creek Valley in search of the missing child, and to also solve the mystery of Ethan’s waking nightmares.
Prospero is no ordinary detective, he is gifted with empathic, supernatural abilities to see past events and memories, and the links between them. These abilities are the core game mechanics as Prospero explores the virtually abandoned town and the surrounding wilderness.
Manipulating objects in the present allows him to access reflections or memories of past events, and sorting these reflections allows him to experience the events as if he witnessed them first-hand.
Each memory sheds further light on the sinister goings on, and piece by piece the mystery is revealed.
Prospero is also able to focus on areas of interest and using his expanded awareness, can catch glimpses of points of interest or important items which in turn can be used to unlock more of these events.
The mechanics can be a little clunky at times, but they generally provide a rewarding and challenging experience. Occasionally the puzzles fizzle, sometimes veering too far in either direction. Some are a little too obvious making them feel like a chore, or just frustrating when the clues provide no obvious solution and instead require repeated trial and error to solve. The number of good puzzles far outweigh the bland, but they feel so much worse when so many are executed so well.
As fun as Prospero’s abilities are, and as enjoyable as the puzzles can be the real star here is the games presentation.
A palpable sadness and menace infuses every corner of Red Creek Valley. Abandoned houses stare blankly through their shattered windows. Long forgotten train cars, overgrown tracks, and deserted husks of crumbling infrastructure haunt the game, and give every scene a sense of foreboding. The surrounding wilderness is stunning, but it too evokes a feeling of loss, and even malice.
It's rare to find this level of detail, and sense of depth in a game world. The Astronauts can be applauded for this achievement alone.
The tale that slowly unwinds as Prospero investigates the town is far more nuanced than the game alludes to early on.
This is no schlock ghost story, nor a gruesome murder mystery. The Vanishing is a quiet experience with flashes of violence, and allusions to a deeper tale. It's expertly delivered by a team with passion and a very clear vision.
The writing is rich and superbly economical. The game’s stunning visual presence is left to do the heavy lifting. The score is pitch perfect, and exceptional voice acting carries the game at pivotal moments.
While there is violence, and sinister undertones to events surrounding Ethan's disappearance, there are also poignant moments that are at times surprisingly affecting, but The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is game that needs to be experienced rather than described.
It’s a short journey totalling little more than four hours, but that feels about right. The final stages of the game don’t quite hit the heights achieved earlier in the game, but even this blip can’t irreparably tarnish the experience.