Etherborn Review

There’s something just right about sitting down and getting yourself lost in the process of figuring out this game’s logic and rule set. Sometimes, these can be more obtuse than necessary, but Etherborn has got that balance just right. I could’ve done without the overly pretentious story in between levels, but – much like the game as a whole – these are at least kept short.

You play as a sentient being of sorts, running around abstract looking low-poly levels with the simple aim of getting to the goal. Simple aim, but not so simple in practice. See, Etherborn’s puzzle hook is a manipulation of gravity of sorts. As you move about the levels, it’s a simple case of platforming your way about the place in order to collect glowing white orbs that act as keys to unlock doors or extra pathways.

Along the way, you’ll need to find a curved surface, running up and over which will now make what was previously a wall your new floor. It’s a straightforward idea, but each of the handful of levels are masterfully crafted in a way that will have your head spinning as you try to keep track of what plane of gravity you can use at any one time. This on its own is hard enough to keep on top of, but the need to find said keys to progress just amplifies the challenge.

Often, you’ll see one that seems impossible to reach, only for you to stumble upon it after traversing around the complete opposite end of the level. Each stage twists and turns in satisfyingly fluid ways, with once hidden ledges suddenly swinging into your path as you round a corner. There are leaps of faith, as well as a multitude of hazards to avoid too that keep you on your toes. Occasionally I found myself stumped on where to go next, but it all boiled down to not quite thinking about my orientation in quite the right ways.

Some later areas have pillars that appear or disappear depending upon your current orientation, and using these almost against themselves is key to progressing. I’m reminded of the levels in Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, in that each area is a self contained diorama, meant to be prodded, explored and manipulated in order to get the most out of them. There’s not quite the level of detail as found in that game, but the basic premise follows much of the same beat.

You’ll be re-treading ground here a lot, though. The unlock keys will need to be used multiple times, which means traipsing back and forth between points to collect and redistribute them. While there are a few moments where this is used in quite clever ways, I did feel it dragged the pace out, almost artificially elongating the run-time. Your movement speed is also quite slow – if you place a key in the wrong place, the run to get it can border on tedious – though there is a handy option in the menu that defaults your movement to running rather than needing to hold a button to do so.

The button press then reverses, so you’ll need to press to slow down, which is a much easier way to play, I think. But even with all this, I cleared my first run in about 3 hours. It’s a very brief experience, albeit rather cleverly put together. After completion, a new game plus mode is unlocked which hides the keys in harder to reach places. The problem I found is that this often just boiled down to hiding them in bushes, or round corners the camera obscures from view.

The actual puzzle solutions and level layouts remain identical, so I was able to whiz through the mode in a little over an hour. Achievement hunters will lap it up (the full 1000G is gained simply by beating the game twice) but anyone looking for something with some replay value might feel a little short changed here. I really like the central concept of Etherborn. The use of manipulating gravity leads to some very clever and interesting level designs and puzzles. There’s a real A-HA! moment when you adjust your thinking to the games rule set and get past a tricky bit.

Presentation-wise it’s pretty good too. The minimalist art is colorful and crisp, while the soundtrack is hauntingly beautiful. It’s just a shame that it’s all over with so quickly. The new game plus adds little to a repeat playthrough, though those wanting to bolster their Gamerscore will no doubt appreciate the mode. And, those overly dramatic cutscenes are… well… not quite as interesting as they aim for. But those looking for a well put together puzzle game for a quiet evening, can do far worse.

Conclusion

Whilst short and somewhat overly dramatic in regards to its writing, the game’s core loop is thoroughly well designed, putting forward engaging, clever mechanics that rarely grow tiresome. This is further upheld by solid visual and audio design, both of which collectively set the vibe of the game remarkably well. Puzzle fans looking to fill a quiet evening will no doubt enjoy what’s on offer, it’s just a shame it’s all over with far too soon.

This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.
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Good
  • Engaging and clever core mechanic.
  • Lovely visual and music.
  • Well designed levels.
Bad
  • Overly dramatic writing that doesn't hit the spot.
  • New game plus doesn’t mix things up enough.
6.6
Okay
Gameplay - 7.5
Graphics - 7
Audio - 8
Longevity - 4
Written by
I've been gaming since Spy vs Spy on the Master System, growing up as a Sega kid before realising the joy of multi-platform gaming. These days I can mostly be found on smaller indie titles, the occasional big RPG and doing poorly at Rainbow Six: Siege. Gamertag: Enaksan

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