The air is crisp and cold. The wind rattles the crunchy leaves beneith your feet. In the distance you can hear the sound of rushing water, you can hear the moaning of the tree branches as they sway. You knew this place wasn’t very close to any major towns, but as you exit the train tunnel it becomes clear something is very wrong.
You’ve seen a lot in your career, but never before has a case tugged at you like this. That itch under your skin grows as you notice one of the powerlines is falling, the wires snapped. The train tracks you’ve been following since you left that town three miles over are so badly rusted it’s evident no train has passed through here in a long time. Yet, you’re sure this was the way as told to you by the lady in the information booth at the train station. The one who raised her eyebrows so high when you mentioned the address…
During a Steam sale recently I bought a bunch of games with a Lovecraftian vibe to them. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (Redux) was one of them. The original game was simply entitled The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but when I bought it I also received the remastered version redone on the Unreal 4 engine. I decided to play and review that particular one as it seemed like it would be a smoother engine and nothing relating to the story was supposed to be different. From what I’ve read online, it wasn’t, thankfully!
The original game came out on September 25, 2014, and Redux came out on July 15, 2015. Both were developed and published by The Astronauts, a game development company from Poland. The game was distributed by The Adventure Company. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a psychological horror set in a first person, puzzle solving, narrative story type of game. There are no villains to kill, only mysteries to solve and a boy’s life to save.
The game takes place in Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin. Supernatural Detective Paul Prospero takes on the case of a young boy named Ethan Carter, who was a huge fan of the detective. Immediately entering the game you notice things are off when using Detective Prospero’s sixth sense he sees things that have happened in the past by interacting with objects that are from the real world. Going through the story you learn the boy had accidentally woken up an ancient and powerful being called The Sleeper. Ethan is in grave danger from his family who are trying to appease the creature.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has had mostly positive reviews, and I can see why. The positives, to me, far outweigh the negatives, but to understand why some things are negative it’s best to go over what I liked first before I do a summary.
To start off the pros, the scenery was beautiful. Walking through the woods and town I was really awed by the detail in the environment. It’s clearly autumn by the colorful trees, and the wetness in the mud and on the pavement was very well defined. The broken down houses and factories of the town are gritty and weather-worn but echo an allure of times past. It also hints at the chaos that has taken place since The Sleeper’s awakening.
There was also a lot of unexpected detail in the environment. The old, rotted bridge across a steep gorge looked weatherworn and in disrepair. The paint was cracking, faded, and chipped off buildings and machines. Wallpaper was peeling and dirty. Dust was everywhere. Metal was dull and rusted. As I said before, the pooling of the water and general muck on the ground was done in a realistic style to show this was probably the rainy season for that area.
One of the best components of the game was the way it unsettled you from the beginning. Jump scares and ambiance are the main features of this mind-twisting tale. There is an allusion to death and some gore, but I feel it wasn’t too over-the-top. It’s nothing like a lot of the games I play; everything had a meaning. Even the typical horror elements like the witch in the woods stood for something other than face value. There was just enough to disturb. No psychotic clowns hiding in the gutters here, kids.
I loved the way the music and atmospheric sounds played into the feel of the game. The music was soft but lovely and yet creepy at the same time. Going through some quests I didn’t even notice it at all. This could be a minor point, but sometimes the music choices are too much (looking at you both, Fallout 3 and 4) and become more of a distraction. The special effect sounds only add to the ambiance.
The game uses the concept of reconstructing crime scenes by having you touch objects and place them back to their original places. Detective Prospero “thinks” about them, often showing words on screen or snapshots of where the item could have originated much like the modern BBC adaption of Sherlock Holmes. In addition to figuring out what happened with the crime scenes, there are also other small puzzles that need to be figured out to obtain additional information and are solved in the same way. I’ve never played a game with a character having specifically this ability, so it was great fun. I felt like Mr. Holmes for a few hours.
The supernatural elements in the game aren’t over the top. You do have to use Detective Prospero’s sixth sense to solve the crimes, but it’s to develop the story, not to show off his abilities. The Sleeper, a primordial being and one of the antagonists, can control some people’s minds, but Ethan is able to resist it. There is also a zombie. Just one. Just one bane of my exhistance, thankfully. Tallying it up here can seem like a lot, yet the weight of what’s going on isn’t about the paranormal and the writers did a good job of not letting it take over.
Even though the game came out in 2014, the following few paragraphs will contain spoilers, so I am hiding them unless you want to highlight the area and read it. I don’t normally like to do spoilers, however it’s hard to explain the story without giving some things away.
There is only one “physical adversary” and that’s a zombie miner down in the mines. You don’t even fight him, you have to avoid him while traversing a small maze and discovering clues to open a door. If he catches Prospero, all that happens is you get transported back to the beginning of the maze. Thankfully, you can avoid him because you can hear him coming. This can seem like a strange thing to like about a game, but I have so many games that are heavily dependent on killing as many enemies as possible to be powerful, this is an extremely nice change. I could focus on my tasks, but the macabre nature wasn’t lessened in the least.
The story is also exceptionable. It’s basically told from the perspective of a young boy who is trying to make sense of the world around him. He is influenced by a lot of what he’s read and has a big, active imagination. At first, things seem strange, even completely random when you meet the astronaut, but once you discover the items that have shaped his creativeness you see how he was able to weave it all together in a very fascinating tale.
I will admit the ending was incredibly sad. I was expecting something akin to a supernatural horror, and for the most part in the game, my thinking never deviated from that. So it was a huge shock at the end to see what was really happening and to see how horribly bullying and passive-aggressiveness can eat a family from the inside.
The work was a Lovecraftian horror, but not in the way one might expect. Yes, there was an ancient creature threatening to take over the world. Yes, it seemed that fate was fixed from the start. Yes, there was occultism, strange beings, and a sense of despair everywhere in this small town. However, the real story that the developers told was more terrifying than any fiction.
One of the things I’m on the fence about within in the game are the characters. I liked how they looked like real people in the fact that they were all different weights, weren’t pretty, and wore dirty and worn-out realistic clothing for the area. The voice acting and expressions (when I could see them, since most of the time they were seen in ghostly flashbacks) weren’t bad, either. It’s just that they were stereotypes. The big brother was a bully. The mom had a huge temper and yelled a lot. The dad was meek and scared all the time. The family was disfunctional, and that has a lot of weight to the story, yet it’s hard to feel sorry for anyone when there’s only two characters (Missy, the mom, and Ethan) we see have any kind of explination as to why they’ve become who they are. I get that the game itself was short, but I would have liked to see something different in terms of who had what personality or in how the people were supposed to react given what was happening to them.
The reason I’m in the middle with this issue on their personalities is that Lovecraft himself is not known to go into much detail with the personas in his stories. They’re short stories meant to shock and make you uncomfortable with just enough explaination to make you wonder. I like Lovecraft, but I like the way other authors deal with characters better.
Some of the cons to the game were that the story was rather short and the puzzles weren’t that complex. I wasn’t expecting something grand because of the sale price considering it’s age – only three years at the writing of this article. It was $2.99 US when I bought it on the 4th of July Steam sale and is still at its original price of $19.99 US when not on sale. Compare this to a much bigger, yet far older game called Fallout 3 Special Edition (the main game and all five DLCs). Fallout 3 is $19.99 US in 2017 and came out eight years ago (2009), at $59.99 US.
It took me exactly five hours to complete the game and that was with me running around and taking pictures a lot, or generally seeing what I couldn’t do. I’ve done everything in the game. Doing the research, taking and organizing pictures, and writing for this review has taken me more time than the actual game.
The first thing the game says is “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”  Despite this warning, only two times did I have actual difficulity with a puzzle and both times were because there was little instruction as the above quote hints at. The maze in the mine wasn’t that bad when I figured out undead miner and what the red “x’s” meant on the maps. That did take me quite a bit to work at, though! I also got lost in there a few times. Good times, good times… (I hate zombies) The hardest puzzle for me was the one with matching up the two houses. It’s a bit odd to explain unless you’ve played it or come across it in the game, especially because I don’t understand the meaning behind the quest itself, but it was interesting. I admit I had to go online to see what was going on, but once I did I realized what I had to do with no further details.
Overall, I do recommend this game. The story was highly enjoyable for the short time I played it, it has some of the best creepiness factors, and it is visually stunning.
Because there is some graphic content, homophobic slurs, and cussing, the game is rated 18+ or Mature. I do understand this rating and agree with it, however, I have seen major cable TV shows with worse in them. In this game, the story itself and the meaning behind it are reason enough to get it. On sale. For $2.99 US.
My flickr with more images of the game is here: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (Redux)
1. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, 2014