I had hesitated on trying The Vanishing of Ethan Carter because a lot of the early reviews and feedback I had read about the game discussed that it was "obtuse" and while it does warn you (at the very beginning of the game) that Vanishing is a Narrative game that "Does not hold your hand", there was a lot of discussion of the obtuseness of a few of the sections, and the difficulty of a few sections, and all of that added up to me being hesitant....Understand, dear readers, that I do really like the Narrative/Adventure/Puzzle genre that has gained more steam reently, but I cannot say that I have a pile of fond Myst memories (a game where I seemed to spend hours trying to figure out why the swan statue wasn't sunward...or whatever--I am not someone to ask about things like The Witness): I'm in it for the narrative, and some tough, but fair puzzles.
However, on a recent PSN sale, I was able to grab Vanishing for practically nothing, and thought "well, it's worth a shot", as the story description does appeal to me, and the worst thing that could happen is I stop playing it, shrug, and pretend those few dollars were spent on another sale game that was dope....
Well, I've now finished The Vanishing of Ethan Carter in a couple of evenings of play (I'd say under five hours total), and here's the thing: this is a drastically underplayed game, whose critics (while justified in some small cases) have undersold an incredibly cool game.
For those of you unfamiliar with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the game is essentially an open-world Lovecraftian mystery set in the small town of Red Creek Valley, wherein 16 year old Ethan Carter has written to Paranormal Detective Paul Prospero for help. You play as Prospero, where, upon arrival in the town, you start to experience some strange events, and start to unfold the mystery surrounding several murders: essentially it appears that Ethan has accidentally awakened a dark monster known as "The Sleeper" and everyone around him has been corrupted by the monster, with only Ethan left to try and stop it.
The game really played out like a novella--as the player had full agency to move through the complete game world in any order, it was interesting to slowly start piecing the story (and stories) together. This called for a bit of meticulousness, as you were essentially dropped into the world with no sense of the rules, or what you were to be doing other than helping Ethan, so I felt particularly rewarded by being thorough, and thoughtful through the entire game.
This was particularly helped by the fact that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is absolutely gorgeous to look at; I do not often stop and take a lot of screenshots while I am playing a game, but I definitely have a few from this. The level of detail, the serene, natural setting (juxtaposing the horrifying, murder-filled story), the light effects...I literally stood in the town's old church for a few minutes, just changing the angle my camera was at to see the light come through the windows...
The sound design was beautiful: it was sparse, and gave you a sense of isolation, but when the music punched in it was spot-on perfect, and really helped elevate this game for me, plus as a man who lives in Canada, and likes camping, listening to those birds I've grown up with, and the lapping of a lake brought about a pile of good memories (very few of which involve solving murders).
Now, as with all narrative/mystery/puzzle games, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter can get a bit frustrating; there was a section in the mines that felt different from the rest of them, which was (for some strange reason) filled with a few jump scares, that after a couple of hours of moody, atmospheric horror, were jarring, and (to me) a bit unwelcome. This was probably the only puzzle/section that I did not take to, and thankfully it had a tremendous, Lovecraftian payoff at the end of it, which helped gloss over my grumbling.
It's also completely possible to miss complete sections of the game, due to it's true, open-world nature, however it has a very clever system of allowing you to go back to get anything that prevents you from finishing the game quickly, and easily, which was a definite bonus. I did, however, end up completely missing a murder to solve...at some point (based on trophies that did not pop), and while that makes me a bit sad, it did not alter my enjoyment of the game, it is just something to be aware of.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a game that I think all fans of narrative or mystery games should play, especially if you are anything of a HP Lovecraft fan. The puzzles never get too crunchy (though do know that I have a fairly high puzzle tolerance), and one of them "doors of confusion" quickly became one of my favorite environmental puzzles I've played in a long time. Going into this game though, you do have to be OK with a pace that is deliberate, meticulous, and a bit slower, because if you rush through this, I can see Ethan Carter losing a lot of its charm. especially with the roughly four hour game time
For me though, while I do not think this would have unseated Everybody's Gone to the Rapture for narrative game of the year in 2015, it would have been close, and I believe The Vanishing of Ethan Carter would have been in the conversation for my Top 100 Games of All-Time.
Try it. It's worth it, especially when on sale, and is available on both PS4 and Steam...