Red Creek Valley is a place of duality. It’s home to both great beauty and abject horror. One minute the soft, warm light of the sunset reflects off placid water, instilling a sense of serenity. The next you step into the shadows and are filled with unease. Traps litter the entrance to the valley – are they keeping people in or out? The scenery fools you into thinking you are welcome here, but the darkness within soon makes itself known.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter tells you right at the beginning that it is a narrative experience that will not hold your hand. It holds to that. As you walk into the Valley you’re not told where you’re going or what to do, just that you need to find Ethan Carter. This is quite refreshing. I’ve become so used to waypoints, detailed maps, hints, and having objectives listed on the side of my screen. Ethan Carter urges you to explore and rewards you for it. The game mechanics also aren’t spelled out, but they’re easy enough to pick up.
Ethan Carter is a beautiful game. Every five feet I wanted to stop and take a screenshot but at the same time the screenshots don’t really do it justice, as the combination of visuals, sounds, and music really make the experience. The soundtrack is exquisite, haunting, and often ominous. It adds to the sense of wonder during exploration and keeps you on edge as you anticipate how Red Creek Valley’s secrets will present themselves next.
This game really excels in creating atmosphere. There was a major sense of foreboding any time I needed to leave the beautiful country backdrop and go inside. It didn’t matter if it was a Church or a mine, just seeing a doorway made the hairs on my arms stand up. At one point I stood frozen at the entrance to a crypt, knowing there was something to find down there, but dreading descending into the darkness. Tension is maintained through the whole experience. Even just walking through the lovely environments, listening to the haunting music, I was often startled by sudden narration or other sounds. It maintains constant eeriness, without getting overwhelming. There is only one sequence in the game where you are in any real danger (though death has very little consequence). On one hand, it seemed a little out of place to have an immediate, rather than psychological threat. But on the other, it did amp up the game’s intensity and added a sense of urgency that was otherwise missing.
Gameplay is very simple. This is a first person exploration and mystery game. You can walk, run, crouch (though I found only one place I needed to crouch in the game), and examine or pick up objects. I really enjoyed the puzzles. You weren’t given much direction but everything was logical and the solutions made sense. The major puzzles involve solving murders. You examine the scene, which usually involves the body, the weapon, and a few other key elements. Once you’ve examined everything and put things in their rightful places, you can ‘communicate’ with the body of the victim, which sparks a new puzzle. Vignettes will appear around the crime scene and you need to put them in the correct order so you can reconstruct and watch what happened. Every murder you solve tells you a bit more about the story. There are also some non-murder puzzles to solve, and I found these even more compelling. A favourite of mine involved discerning truth from illusion as you explored an abandoned house. As you solve these puzzles you discover things like Newspaper clippings and stories written by Ethan, which flesh out the narrative.
The overall story is well told – this isn’t about simple murder, there are hints of a greater darkness everywhere. The game raises a lot of questions but doesn’t answer them all. I’m okay with this, as some things are best left up to our imaginations. The voice actor for the main protagonist does a solid, if not exceptional job. He conveys the paranormal detective aspect well, but his lines are a little one-note.
In a few ways, Ethan Carter reminded me of Murdered: Soul Suspect. Solving the mysteries and inspecting clues can be similar, and stylistically there some overlaps. However, unlike Murdered, Ethan Carter isn’t confused about what it is. There are no tacked on action sequences. The game promises exploration and mystery solving and that is what it delivers.
I have very few complaints about Ethan Carter. Sometimes parts of the game world felt a little too large – going from one end of the map to the other required a fair bit of travel time. This was a good thing while I was first exploring, but if I needed to backtrack it felt like a bit of a time sink.
My playthrough of Ethan Carter lasted between 4-5 hours. Given the price-point and the story being told, this seemed just about right. I was tense through the whole game, if it lasted any longer it might have been overkill.
Rating: 9/10 – The vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the most attractive and atmospheric games I’ve played. It maintains an amazing amount of tension throughout, without going into full horror game mode. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys exploring and narrative gaming experiences.
Content warning – A couple instances of bigoted language.
I have a copy of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter for Steam to give away. It’s one of the pre-order editions, which includes some bonuses like the soundtrack, wallpapers, a making of album, and a map of Red Creek Valley. If you want a chance to win, just leave a comment and tell me what your favourite mystery story is (from a game, book, movie, whatever). On Friday October 3rd I will randomly choose a winner.
I’m making video walkthroughs of the game. If you plan to play it, I’d suggest you skip them and play for yourself though (unless you’re stuck, then check them out). Here’s the first one.