Back in August of 2015, our very own Scott Clark reviewed The Vanishing of Ethan Carter on Playstation 4. You can listen to the discussion and his impressions of the game on our previous podcast episode here. As one of our resident “walking simulator” fans, Scott walked away from the game a little sour, yet with appreciation for what developer The Astronauts was trying to accomplish. I held off on playing the game due to Scott’s review, despite my love for the genre as well. Now a few years after release, The Astronauts finally released The Vanishing of Ethan Carter for the Xbox One on January 19th, complete with Xbox One X enhancements to boot. Now seems like the perfect time to give the game a spin.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter takes place in a backwoods mining town in Wisconsin where a series of murders took place. A young boy named Ethan has disappeared in the process. Players will fill the shoes of a private investigator named Paul Prospero who explores the village searching for Ethan while trying to solve the mystery of what occurred to the family that once resided there. In the process, Paul finds himself looking into some strange paranormal phenomenon and other odd occurrences that lead him on a mission to discover the truth.
Taking a cue from popular games like Gone Home and Dear Esther, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter aims at delivering a compelling narrative that requires players to explore the environments around them. Aside from exploring the wilderness, players will engage in some light puzzle solving that reveals pieces of the mystery as they progress. You won’t find any combat or brain teasing puzzles here. It’s all about the narrative ultimately driving the experience.
Unlike similar titles such as Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter doesn’t do a very good job at pulling the player into its world and giving them good reasons to explore it. In order to make these types of adventure games work, it’s crucial that the developer delivers a compelling story that makes the player want to push forward and explore the environments introduced to them. Instead, Ethan Carter’s narrative feels flimsy, not very engaging and devoid of emotion. For a short amount of time, the paranormal elements peaked my interest, but I felt the game never really utilized them in a way that made the narrative feel meaningful or satisfying. By the time the game ended, I felt just as confused and uninterested as I was when I started it.
Most of the puzzles consist of examining an environment, finding some missing item and placing it in the correct spot. Once you accomplish that, players will spend a lot of time constructing a crime scene together by placing a series of actions in the correct sequence. Aside from that, Ethan Carter throws in a few puzzles where players must find a specific number of objects in order to proceed. The game doesn’t stray away from this formula much at all throughout the three or four hours it takes to reach the end. I found a quirk with the controls too that made interacting with certain objects or puzzles difficult due to having to find the sweet spot before button prompts would appear. This became very annoying in the ‘match the sequence of events’ puzzles.
Developer The Astronauts have built a gorgeous open world environment that gives the player complete freedom in how they want to explore it. The mysteries hidden within the game can be discovered in any order and the game does not hold any hands. Thankfully, most puzzles are fairly obvious to find due to standing out within the environments. If you reach the end of the game without finding everything the game requires the player to find, the game will not allow you to finish it until you do. Luckily, instead of obnoxiously backtracking throughout the entire game, you can pick points on a map and warp to the locations of the puzzles you missed.
Even though the gameplay and story didn’t grasp me as much as I would have liked, I have to admit that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one beautiful game. The attention to detail in the environments are stunning here. Thanks to the power of the Xbox One X, the game can now be played in full native 4K Ultra HD resolution. The framerate hovers around the 30fps target in 4K mode, and does a fairly good job at sticking to it. If you fancy performance over image quality, a 1440P and 1080P mode are included as well – both of which target 60fps and mostly achieve it. Right now, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is best played on an Xbox One X if you want to play through it on a home console, but even the standard Xbox One fares well here. I played through the entire game in 4K on my Xbox One X and was thoroughly impressed, even though there was some slight judder here and there in the more expansive areas.
In terms of the gameplay itself, my opinions on The Vanishing of Ethan Carter do not differ much from Scott’s review back in 2015. It’s a beautiful looking game that simply failed to hold my attention due to a less than impressive narrative and uninspired puzzle design. While I know many people who adore this game, I feel as if the story just couldn’t hold the experience together. Upon finishing the game, it felt as if the journey really wasn’t worth taking. For anyone who is interesting in checking the game out, the new Xbox One version is a great way to do so. I just hope you enjoy it more than I did.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was reviewed on an Xbox One X via a digital copy provided by the publisher.