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    The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: Review

    The Vanishing of Ethan Carter makes a point of saying it's not going to hold your hand. Having just finished it, I’m pleased to report it stays to true to its word. It's a lonely, difficult game, bereft of design conventions we've come to rely on: objective markers, self updating quest logs, mini maps. Progress is entirely dependent on your initiative and common sense. If you were a detective investigating the disappearance of a little boy in a creepy secluded hamlet, where would you go, what would you do?

    Red Creek Valley the aforementioned creepy secluded hamlet is a strikingly beautiful location and it’s obvious that The Astronauts has invested a huge amount of time and energy into making it just so. It’s not a large place but its openness can be intimidating. From the moment you arrive in the town’s shadowy backwoods, you’re free to go and do as you please, the only goal being to piece together the circumstances surrounding Ethan’s disappearance. And even that’s not made explicit. 

    But as you make your way across the gorgeous landscape, the game’s underlying structure begins to emerge and you’ll discover the first of many gruesome crime scenes, each one a self contained mystery and piece of the larger puzzle. Like Murdered: Soul Suspect’s Ronan O’Tattsghost, psychic detective Paul Prospero can reconstruct scenes of trauma using his amazing mind powers, but also like Ronan, he can only do so once he’s found the right objects and solved a few puzzles.
    The game doesn't tell you that, of course: you just sort of have to intuit it from playing around with the mechanics. This was a source of frustration for me because I couldn't figure out exactly what Prospero’s powers are meant to be or how to use them, and so it was ages before I realised that crime scenes are there to be “solved” an oversight that necessitated a fair bit of backtracking later on.

    CSI: RCV
    For the most part, though, the game does a solid job of communicating your affordances and telling you what to do without actually telling you what to do. Once you’ve got a grasp of the basic procedure, solving crime scenes becomes a fairly routine matter of finding all the evidence, putting it where it’s supposed to be, and then reconstructing the sequence of events. It’s seldom challenging but infrequent enough that it avoids becoming tedious, and the cut-scene payoffs are generally worth it.

    There’s a lot to like about Ethan Carter but I can see how you might end up hating it, what with it being deliberately abstruse and all. If you can stick with it, the ending which you will not see coming will make all the frustration worth it. But only just.

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