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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Review: A hauntingly beautiful masterpiece

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The vanishing of Ethan Carter is the first game from indie developers The Astronauts. It is a first-person story-driven mystery game which focuses on exploration, discovery and puzzle solving. The game delivers a gripping, mysterious tale, is hauntingly beautiful and creates an astounding amount of atmosphere that brings Red Creek Valley to life.The vanishing of Ethan Carter is not just a game, it is a work of art.

The Story - Welcome to Red Creek Valley, detective

The player takes on the role of Paul Prospero, a supernatural detective. The protagonists job description sound incredible, yet it also speaks to his psychic ability to view the past events as a series of ghostly images and see the “other side”.  

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Paul is urged to visit Red Creek Valley by a letter from Ethan Carter, a young boy who seems to know way more than he should about the supernatural. Ethan’s home is the small town of Red Creek Valley, in which some horrifying events appear to have taken place, leaving the area a proverbial ghost town.

As Paul arrives in Red Creek Valley, he soon realizes that things have taken a turn for the worst, as Ethan has vanished in the wake of brutal murders. Ethan’s only hope now lies firmly in the experienced hands of Paul, who sets off on a journey to uncover the mystery and horrors that awaits.

The overall story is exceptionally well told, right up there with a tale from horror writers such as H.P. Lovecraft or H.G. Wells. However, the game shows amazing constraint in the amount of horror delivered. Instead of scaring the living daylights out of the player around every corner, The vanishing of Ethan Carter employs a tactic that is even more nerve wrecking. It involves giving the impression that something horrific is about to happen, yet only throwing out a big scare in a timely fashion when the player starts to feel at ease. The experience can, therefore, be described more like a tense, clammy unease than a bag of frights, which is incredibly well executed.

Giving any more details on the story would be considered too much of a spoiler, as the game is a narrative driven experience which lets the player uncover the darkness that has befallen Red Creek Valley.

Gameplay – A narrative driven experience

The first thing the game tells you is “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” The Astronauts thankfully keep the promise of an experience that is void of any quest arrows, markers or hints and tips throughout the journey.  

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You can walk, crouch and run throughout the game and interact with objects. These objects are mostly just examined, while there are at times the player has to carry them to another area. Walking throughout the large open area, it was clear that the game is all about exploration and discovery.  

The vast landscape offers an extraordinary range of puzzles. The major puzzles involve solving brutal murders, which is done by first examining the scene. Next, different parts of the murder, such as a weapon or missing body parts need to be found in the eerie environment. When a player has collected all the puzzle pieces, vignettes will appear around the crime scene. The player must then place the vignettes in the correct order. The crime scene will then unfold in all its gory detail.

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There are some non-murder puzzles thrown into the mix as well. These puzzles felt just as, if not more compelling than their murderous counterparts. As the player solves the puzzles, new discoveries are made that flesh out the narrative, such as stories written by Ethan Carter and newspaper clippings.

With the exception of the last few puzzles, these mysteries can be solved in any order or skipped altogether. It is up to the player to find them, solve them or run away like a scared dog with their tail tucked firmly between their legs. I have to admit that even though the scares were few and far between, when they did happen I had to take a break. At times, I even took a walk before continuing the game, it’s a first :S.

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The vanishing of Ethan Carter has no health bar, no item selection bar and not even cursor, which is disabled by default. To have the full, immersive gameplay experience I highly suggest a player keep the cursor disabled and turn off subtitles, so that you can experience the atmospheric brilliance in all its glory.

Graphics and sound – Oozing with atmosphere and realism

The vanishing of Ethan Carter is simply put a beautiful game. It delivers a mesmerizing and highly atmospheric environment the likes of which I have never experienced before. The game’s graphical quality is of such a level that it puts most AAA games to shame.  

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The game excels in creating an atmosphere that is so realistic, so wonderful and frightening at the same time that it should be called a work of art. As I progressed throughout the game, the environments felt real, as if Red Creek Valley exists. The world feels organic instead of plastic or fake, as animations from every single leaf falling off a tree or a blade of grass moving in the wind looks almost real.

There is a reason for this type of realistic feeling. The game uses a new 3D scanning technique called Photogrammetry, which is the science of making measurements from photographs, especially for recovering the exact positions of surface points. In other words, the rocks or even statues one sees in the game are real. They have been photographed and modeled into the game using Photogrammetry. This technology has given the developers the opportunity to create a game that looks and feels as realistic as possible.  

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Traveling through the breathtaking environments the game introduces players to the haunting, exquisite and ominous musical score. The music maintains a constant eeriness to the surrounding environment yet is never overwhelming, as it keeps the player on the edge in anticipation of what comes next.

The game’s environment and graphical quality is so superb that for the first time while reviewing a game I just wanted to stop and take screenshots every five seconds. The screenshots shown do not even do the game justice. The combination of graphics, sounds, background noises and musical score form an atmospheric, eerie and downright nerve-racking experience that is second to none.  

Closing Thoughts

The game is simply brilliant. Never have I experienced such unease, fear and awe all at the same time. The story is gripping; gameplay is wonderfully simplistic in nature and the graphics, as well as sound, are of the utmost quality.

The only critique I can throw at the game is that it only took around six hours to complete. With the freedom to skip more than half the game’s mysteries, players should be able to finish it in less than four hours total.

You can purchase The Vanishing of Ethan Carter via Steam for the low price of $19,99 right now. The game is well worth the price and puts most AAA titles to shame in terms of overall quality, the raw atmosphere and the enthralling experience it delivers.

A review score out of ten would almost be disrespectful to such a masterpiece, as the game deserves multiple gaming awards instead of a numerical number attached to it. Simply put, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the best game I have played in recent memory and it would be a shame for anyone to not experience it. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves from the gaming community.

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