The Vanishing of Ethan Carter – PC
Publisher: The Astronauts
Developer: The Astronauts
Release Date: September 25, 2014
Nerd Rating: 7.5 out of 10
The year is 1973. Paranormal Investigator Paul Prospero walks about the abandoned town of Red Creek Valley, in search of a little lost boy by the name of Ethan Carter. Ethan has been a huge fan of Prospero’s work, writing several letters to Prospero over a long period of time. Ethan’s latest letter, however, disturbs Prospero and prompts him to travel to Ethan’s hometown. As soon as Prospero sets foot in Red Creek Valley, he immediately feels the malicious, satanic, and vile darkness that consumes the town and its once-living inhabitants.
I’ll start off this review by saying immediately that I feel very split down the middle with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. I was drawn in by the cool title and prospect of a challenging, gritty horror narrative. What I received, however, was one of the weirdest gaming experiences of my life. In one of the very first title screens, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter presents itself as a narrative experience that “does not hold your hand.” When I read this, I became super-pumped, still in the belief that this game was going to throw me into a horrifying maze of terror and mystery, dangle me in front of the enemy like a helpless worm, and make me weak with fear. What I soon came to realize, was that when this game said it would not hold my hand, it meant that there’s almost no guidance whatsoever.
What Ethan Carter promotes is a lot of independent exploration with no clear objective or order. I wandered for what felt like forever, growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of any clues, begrudgingly pressuring myself to find something to be a catalyst of my understanding of how to play this damn game, and just plain cursing myself for purchasing a game that had no tutorial whatsoever. I was ready to give up very early in the game, but for the sake of Nerd Bacon‘s month of Halloween games, I didn’t have the heart to let this one slip away. It takes a lot of patience, but after exploring every inch of land, things start popping up to help you discover what happened to Ethan and his family.
What the game doesn’t tell you right away is that our hero, Paul Prospero, can speak to the dead through visions that the disgruntled deceased send to him via glowing spirit-things. It’s up to you to gather objects that have to do with the crime scene and return them to their original places, resulting in the murder scenes being played out before you. Each location requires you to do this in some form. As you get closer to the end of the game, more and more disturbing backstory is revealed as you are forced to watch members of Ethan’s family sell each other out and kill each other off like the Salem witch trials. You quickly learn that Ethan’s mother, father, brother, uncle, and grandfather have all been possessed by a spirit called The Sleeper, a spirit that is after Ethan. His family will not stop until they see Ethan dead. As the game progresses, the clues lead you to farther away places and the imagery becomes scarier.
One particular location sticks out in my mind that I believe is the scariest part of the game: The Coal Mines. Prospero is led deep into the mines where another family murder is played out before him, and eventually leads to a maze that is beyond sacrilegiously decorated and terrifying. Tortured corpses and candles line the halls, a subtle soundtrack echoes the filthy dirt walls, and an unrested spirit, The Cursed Miner, stalks you. Akin to Slender Man, the Miner will appear out of nowhere, and if you don’t turn a corner or find some way to lose him, he will grab you, scream in your face and place you back at the beginning of the maze. My hands were sweating uncontrollably as I hid in the corner and watched him lumber about, groaning painfully and holding up a lantern with a shaky, decomposed hand. It was at that point in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter that I knew the game deserved to at least be finished.
Despite unorganized gameplay, the aimless wandering around does allow you to take in the visuals, and by the sweet breath of baby Jesus are they incredible. Red Creek Valley is stunningly gorgeous with sparkling bodies of water, green grass, and scenic buildings and bridges. The graphics are so wonderful that it made me feel like I was there. With this game, there’s absolutely no need to go outside ever again. I can’t get over how much of a visual stunner The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is. When I think next generation gaming now, this is the imagery I see:
The graphics are so amazing that I feel ashamed that I couldn’t enjoy this game more. Even though the soundtrack is decent and when Ethan Carter wants to scare you, it scares the living hell out of you, I just felt like the story was too weak for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, this type of material has a lot of potential to be something truly terrifying, but the writing was very awkward and the dialogue between the family members was unnatural sounding. The biggest tragedy of the story, however, is the M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist (that I won’t give away, of course) that doesn’t serve anything rewarding to the plot. Much like how M. Night Shyamalan does…
Maybe, if the game was longer (if you subtract how long it took me how to figure out how to play the game, it took about two hours to complete), and took the time to flesh out these characters, what exactly The Sleeper is and what its motivations are, and hell, even more time to get to know the character of Ethan Carter himself. I would care more about what’s going on with this disturbed family if the game took the time to help me get to know them. Unfortunately, everything is cut short and ends with disappointment. To The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s credit, it still has some creepy ideas, weird visuals, and can be terrifically terrifying. I can see it someday finding its crowd, a more devoted audience, and maybe even another game. The game didn’t entirely hit the horror G-spot for me, but I’m glad I played it. So, consider The Vanishing of Ethan Carter a nice little grab on the next Steam sale purely for its breath-taking graphics and settings.
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