It was not surprising in the least when veterans from FPS developer People Can Fly started leaving the studio after being so mishandled by their owner, Epic Games. What was befuddling though was the game that they decided to make when some of them regrouped to form The Astronauts. The game turned out to be The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a First-Person Adventure game. It’s a more subtle, narratively-focused title than the shooty-bang-bang games (Painkiller, Bulletstorm, Gears of War: Judgment) that People Can Fly were famous for. I’ve been covering First-Person Adventure games for a long time here at Hidden Audio Log, and even though I wasn’t sold on the genre, it was exciting to see a group of former AAA developers actually take a stab at adding their voice to this rapidly growing subgenre of games.
But perhaps unsurprisingly, if you know how reviews of First-Person Adventure games turn out on this website, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is ultimately a very well-produced yet incredibly boring and frustrating game. Stunning visuals, a powerful soundtrack and promising opening hour create a magical and fascinating world. But after that first hour, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter offers very little of substance to fill it with.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter begins with, well, a vanishing. You play as supernatural detective, Paul Prospero, who receives distressing pieces of mail from one of his young fans, Ethan Carter. The boy writes about profoundly dark and disturbing and unnatural things that have been happening to him and his family in their home of Red Creek Valley. One day the letters stop coming altogether, and Paul decides to investigate and hopefully find the young Ethan Carter, if it isn’t already too late.
What makes the opening salvo of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter so impressive is the aforementioned exquisite production values. Technically it is a very impressive looking title that renders a gorgeous woodland and dilapidated urban estate to explore. And the strong score and audio design creates a haunting tone that fits in very well with its pulp setting and premise. But the story does a rather poor job of bringing this world to life.
A rather unbalanced, blunt and base script that is read with very little enthusiasm by the cast kills all drama with flat and bland characters that do not develop in the slightest. And with a bizarre ending that transforms the narrative trappings into a form that I have long despised that only further disconnected me from The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s already unappealing, and ultimately disappointing narrative.
And with being a First-Person Adventure game, there’s very little in terms of gameplay systems or mechanics to keep you engaged or satisfied if the narrative fails to do so. Inside the open world are “scenes” that you stumble into which have some sort of mystery that you have to solve. And you do so by exploring the surrounding environment for clues until you gather enough which allows you to recreate the crime scene and determine the order of events. It’s all simple and mundane, and also easy despite that game warning you at the beginning that it isn’t interested in holding your hand, as the game will show you exactly where the clues are hidden.
Indeed, for being a supernatural detective, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter doesn’t do a good job of making you feel all that unique with very limited special gameplay mechanics to support this important character detail. Games like Murdered: Soul Suspect did a great job in making you feel like a paranormal detective; The Vanishing of Ethan Carter wastes such an opportunity. There are a couple of puzzles that try and take advantage of Paul's powers, but these puzzles are very, very few and far between.
Touching back upon the world of Red Creek Valley, the game is an open world experience where you walk around the environment and tackle cases in no particular order. It was a unique concept as it seemingly allowed me to move past scenarios that I found boring or missed altogether. But as I arrived and solved the final scene, the game then forced me to go back and solve every single scene before I could finally see the end of the game.
By itself this is a frustrating concept, but it becomes even more annoying when you have to backtrack across the relatively large world that has no fast travel and only one unlockable shortcut. This is terrible progression logic, and killed the relatively naturalistic pacing of the game up until that point. What’s the point of an open world if the game also doesn’t support an open structure? Questions like these kept entering my mind as I progressed through The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, questions as to why the experience was so determined to constantly undermine its own potential time and time again.
It’s disappointing that the opening hour of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is so promising, as unrealized potential is always supremely unfortunate. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has a lot of possibility with its intriguing premise, strong production values and open world format. But with a weak narrative, soulless characterization, frustrating progression system, and untapped gameplay potential with its supernatural protagonist, The Astronauts debut title feels like an experience that is tripping itself up the entire way. And for a game that some would describe as a walking simulator, that’s no way to get anywhere very effectively.
TWO OUT OF FIVE
(A bad game with an abundance of flaws which outweigh its positive aspects)