The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (Review)

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.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter scenery

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.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter cemetary

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.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter ghosts

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.

Edit (October 3rd) – I have randomly selected a winner, and that winner is Dahakha! Code has been sent. Thanks everyone for entering!

24 responses to “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (Review)

  1. Hey! Great review, thank you. I guess my favourite mystery story is The Call of Cthulhu by HP Lovecraft ;).

  2. Wonderful review! I was on the fence about purchasing this one, but you’ve convinced me to do so (unless I happen to win the giveaway, of course). I love a lot of mystery stories, but Rear Window is my all-time favorite.
    Tzufit recently posted..Episode #63 – “Monetize It”

  3. A short story by Lovecraft, called Pickman’s Model. To this day it remains my favourite.
    Astalnar recently posted..One Year of Cogitationes Astalnaris

  4. Fantastic review! My favorite mystery story is And Then There Were None, written by the great Agatha Cristie!

  5. Hello and thanks for the review. I have a lot of mysteries I do like, but more than anything, I love the kind that have something more to them than just their solution.

    The latest one that stuck with me was a playthrough of ‘Cryostatis’ I watched. The game did not exactly function great and the story took a good while to kick in, but I found the atmosphere and build up to what had happened very well done.

    I also felt the fairytale the whole thing was based on had a message, about camaraderie, about appreciating what we are given, about compassion and understanding and I believe having some form of a moral or a message just makes mysteries even more rewarding.

    When you are given something more than just a goal to reach, that is when stories really go above and beyond their genre.

    • Thanks Orion, I hadn’t heard of Cryostasis before. I also like when stories give more than just a goal to reach and especially appreciate it when it happens in games, since it seems somewhat rare.

      • It seems the game is pretty buggy and since the story and action take a while to build up, I assume not many showed interest in it. But I feel the story that was formed by the end was worth at least watching a playthrough, if not playing. I am glad more and more games of all kinds put more effort into the medium’s potential for storytelling.

  6. My favourite mystery is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John LeCarre

  7. Great review.
    My favourite mystery is True Detective. I can’t wait to season 2.

  8. I always get torn on endings. I like being “told” what happened to the characters. The Harry Potter ending worked for me that way – they win, you see how the rest of their life would unfold, there is closure.

    My favorite mystery is the Usual Suspects (movie). Enough mind-messing in that one to try and see what was fact and fiction. Can’t say much else without spoiler warnings =)
    Isey recently posted..I Switch Teams

    • I love usual suspects. I like a good twist that there are clues to, but which remains secret until the end. Going back after watching Usual Suspects you could see all the hints so clearly, but they were so easy to miss the first time around.

  9. “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. ”

    Yes yes yes! I’ve actually grown irritated at some games – usually first- or third-person-over-the-shoulder games, where they give you a minimap, map, and/or directional markers without there being some kind of in-game justification. Sci-fi shooters are easiest to justify, obviously, if you are in a high-tech suit/frame/whatever or are linked in to some comms network. Learning the world should be a part of the fun!

    I am keen on playing this game (eventually), so I almost skipped the whole post – glad I didn’t!

    I’m not a big fan of mystery, but the always brilliant David Brin wrote a great murder mystery (sci-fi setting, of course) called Kiln People.
    Dahakha recently posted..WIP: Steam Challenge – Analogue: A Hate Story

  10. Nice review ! Seem to be a really nice game

    My favorite mystery short story is “Disappearing Act” from Richard Matheson. Really a great one !
    I’ve been hesitating with Shutter Island (movie) but this one is not well known

  11. I love Stephen King books and my favorite mistery story is “The Shining”.

  12. Very nice review to an interesting and beautiful game. My favorite mystery story is an Anime, entitled “Hyouka”.

  13. I was already very intrigued by this game and this review definitely cemented that! My favorite mystery story … I would say is probably “The City & the City” by China Mieville.

  14. Great review Jasyla! I remember seeing the trailer for this during E3 and was definitely intrigued by the combination of lush, colorful countryside next to this “spectral” realm of sorts to help tell the story.

    One of my favorite “mystery/thriller” stories of recent was the movie “Prisoners”. Though the story was dark and kept you on the edge of your seat, they did a good job of not making it blatantly obvious who the culprit was too early in the plot. I find the best mysteries are ones that resolve right as the story comes to a close, rather than heavy hinting and then you’re just waiting to see how so-and-so gets what’s coming to them.

  15. Thank you everyone for entering. I’ve randomly selected a winner – Dahakha!