Lost and Found
A boy is missing and a dark and macabre force has infected the very bones of Red Creek Valley. Paranormal detective Paul Prospero arrives to an eerie and empty silence and a string of gruesome murders. Using his supernatural senses, Prospero must solve the valley’s mysterious deaths and find young Ethan Carter before it’s too late.
The developer has gone for a game that is heavy on atmosphere and they’ve nailed it. The abandoned township is as creepy as you would imagine any abandoned township to be. No sound except the wind and the flowing water and no people except the ones dead on the ground. For a game that’s all about narrative with no combat and minimal blink-and-you’ll-miss-it conflict, the ambience needed to be spot on. While narrative-driven games are becoming more commonplace, open world narratives are something a little different. The story isn’t handed to you by repeatedly striking X until your thumb cramps. You’re a detective, you’re in a massive valley and you begin with only one piece of information – a child is missing. From there you are on your own. There’s your valley, mate, off you go. You can explore wherever you want, no restriction. You can make discoveries in any order, no restriction. The valley is your oyster and don’t expect the game to hold your hand. It’s up to you to discover how your powers work, how to put together evidence and listen to what the dead have to say. No hint system, no tutorial, no time limits, just a missing kid and an entire valley to search. It’s Sunday morning gaming at its finest.
This kind of non-linear exploration and story-telling is risky. It would be easy to lose interest or become disenchanted if you’re forever hopelessly lost in a forest or walking in endless circles around identical houses and streets. It’s fortunate, then, that Red Creek Valley’s landscape is brilliantly intuitive. The different areas are diverse enough that, unless you’ve got the memory span of an unconscious goldfish, getting lost is near impossible. Even when the valley was properly populated it was only home to a select few, and the buildings are all very different from one another. Bodies aren’t hidden in the furthest corners of a bushy field behind a hidden rock that only luck or a walkthrough can find. New areas are distinct and if you’re in a new area, chances are you’ll soon spot a gruesome clue.
Of course, open world does mean a fair amount of foot work. Aside from a brief minecart adventure, you’ll be glad your boots were made for walking. Luckily you’ll be hiking around absolutely stunning environments. The developers really are talented little monkeys and I’d like to formally invite them round for tea and a Victoria sponge. The level of detail is amazing. The grass, the leaves, water you want to paddle in, distant mist and a jaw dropping draw distance. The environments are incredibly real and are enough to turn any indie hater’s cheeks tomato red. What really struck us, though, was the beautifully still ambience and the horrific contrast of what happened here to make it so peaceful.
A missing child and a bunch of dead people – clearly something awful happened in Red Creek Valley. It’s a nightmare H. P. Lovecraft would be proud of. Yog-Sothoth worshippers, Cthulhu fanboys and those looking for a three-bed semi in Innsmouth, rejoice immediately. I admit a twisted soft spot for anything remotely Lovecraftian and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has absolutely caught his and the genre’s creeping brand of storytelling. Where is Ethan Carter? Why is everyone dead? You won’t be able to put your controller down until you find out. Wow. What a story.
Hopefully you’ll all be glad to know that gameplay doesn’t just consist of trudging about picking up clues. You have work to do and puzzles to solve. Some are easy, some are of normal difficulty and one is an absolute bitch. I could have done without it, in all honesty, and when you’ve played the game you’ll know exactly which one I’m talking about. It was so frustrating it upset the chilled ambience the game was going for. I’m not saying the puzzle was a bad idea, but an easier version of it would have been more fitting. Other than that, the puzzling aspect of the game is pretty much flawless and is always in keeping with the story. There’s no combine cucumber with glue pot in Red Creek Valley. Puzzles are logical and you are never left feeling you’re doing something weird. As a veteran of old PC point-and-clicks-with-no-internet-walkthroughs I know all too well of insane collecting, combining and pulling three hidden levers on a full moon and only after a spitting competition. Rest assured, there’s nothing illogical here and not a gobbing contest in sight.
The really fun puzzles are in the form of your paranormal detective senses. Once you’ve found a corpse and discovered enough clues you can touch the body and use your senses to reconstruct events. It’s very Murdered: Soul Suspect meets BBC’s Sherlock. It’s fun, it’s engrossing, it’s disturbing and, most of all, it just works so well. Again, there’s no tutorial so it’s likely you’ll spend some time working out the mechanics, requirements and limitations to your sensory powers, and that in itself is great. We have all become accustomed to hand-holding so it’s refreshing when a game respects the player enough to drop them in a valley and ask them to figure out for themselves who they are, what they can do and where they can do it.
Performance wise, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter plays from beginning to end with no hitches, glitches or nasty surprises. No crashing, no bugs, no unresponsive mechanics, no getting stuck in corners and no graphical farts. The framerate drops occasionally but when it does it’s barely noticeable. My own framerate drops more when I stagger out of bed in the morning. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker and it’s a teeny tiny price to pay for some of the most beautiful environments and textures the PS4 has seen so far.
If, like me, you’re a chronic sufferer of motion sickness and you eye every first person game like it’s a sleeping rattlesnake, you’ll be pleased that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has specific options for lessening any dizziness. The menu will guide you to alter field of view, turn off head bobbing and add a glorious centre dot to give your poor eyeballs a focal point. It may seem a small thing to many, but to those of us apt to chuck up on our slippers, it’s a lifesaver and worth knowing that the game carries these options.
A small but respectable cache of trophies is on offer, most of which will ping as you solve the game’s mysteries, but a couple will leave you trophy hunting after you’ve completed the story. One of those can be worked out straight away if you were lucky enough to simply turn around at a certain point in the game and one is comically random and will give you the option to seek a walkthrough video or spend the next six months searching.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a beautiful and atmospheric game with a story that’s both horrific and tragic. Lovecraft would be proud, as should the developers. A stunning combat-free and narrative-driven indie that graphically outshines just about every other game on the PS4. Lost: Ethan Carter. Found: a brand new classic.
S J Hollis Rating – 9/10