The Vanishing of Ethan Carter originally released at the back end of 2014 for the PC, before making its way to the PlayStation 4 some time later, via the Redux version. The game was rebuilt in Unreal Engine 4 to cater for better visuals and all round improvements. Now, over two years later, the game has finally made its way to Xbox One. Not only does this refined experience offer Xbox One X enhancements, but Xbox One fans will enjoy the timed exclusive Free Roam mode too. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is often described as a walking simulator, but the developers believe that this game goes beyond that definition due to the addition of interactivity and puzzle solving.
In actual fact the developers state that it’s a first-person mystery game with a heavy focus on exploration and discovery. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter throws you into the role of paranormal detective, Paul Prospero. After receiving a distressing letter from Ethan Carter, Paul makes his way to Ethan’s home – located in Red Creek Valley. It doesn’t take long to see that the shit has hit the fan. Ethan has upped and vanished in the wake of a brutal murder, and Paul is convinced that this may not be the only local murder that’s worth looking into. With all of the pieces in place, it’s up to you to make your way through this experience and unearth the mysteries within. Just don’t expect this to be a walk in the park.
One of the first screens you witness when loading up the game is a warning message. The message reads that “this is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” Which couldn’t have hit the nail on the proverbial head any better. The kicker here is that without dishing out any major spoilers you soon find that you’re not alone in Red Creek Valley, nor are you the only one that’s seeking out Ethan Carter. What begins as a seemingly simple case rapidly escalates into a race to find the young boy, but is it a race worth the energy? Sadly the answer to that is not a wholehearted yes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a decent game that offers up some interesting elements, but I was hard-pressed to see what all the fuss was about.
Having never played the original version or its Redux version, I went into The Vanishing of Ethan Carter with no preconception. This game literally drops you in the deep end without the aid of in-depth tutorials, tips, or even a modest hint as to what you should be doing outside of some control guidance. It’s immediately clear that Ethan’s family seems to have outcast him and plots to sacrifice him to someone (or something) known as The Sleeper. The story is drip fed to you as you progress deeper into the game, with subtle yet intriguing story threads given in return for your exploration. These stories collectively unveil character backgrounds and motivations that explain their part in Ethan’s life. It certainly pays off to give these moments of the game your full attention, as much of what the game is relaying is formulated and supplemented by this.
It’s not hard to see why The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is observed as a walking simulator. Mostly due to the fact that Paul’s narration and thought pattern makes up for much of what unfolds. The rather large open world can be charted in any way you see fit. The game houses a non-linear design, meaning you can puzzle and crime solve in any order you like. There’s no downside to this whatsoever, as it will just relay the story to you in a different order. The writing is absolutely top notch and is arguably one of the best aspects of the game. The aim of the game is to piece everything together through problem solving, which is achieved whenever you stumble upon a corpse. Yes, that’s right, it seems like the only thing that occupies Red Creek Valley is the protagonist and a bunch of stiffs.
These dead bodies serve as a conduit for the puzzles within, not too dissimilar to the likes of Murdered: Soul Suspect. It’s a shame however that these puzzles don’t do much to excite. Nor do they prove to be particularly brain straining. Players are tasked with simply tracking down a crime scene, seeking out nearby clues, and then arranging the clues into the correct sequence. Most of the puzzles can be overcome by adopting the trusty old trial-and-error technique, which is less innovative than I was expecting for a game that put so much effort elsewhere. The occasional puzzle will attempt to toy with your perception, but again, it’s nothing that a bit of perseverance and environmental exploration wont solve.
I cant help but think that the design choice to make The Vanishing of Ethan Carter a non-linear experience, somewhat hurts the game inadvertently. It’s great to take things at your own pace and solve problems in any order you see fit, but it doesn’t come without its downsides. The game does indeed try to guide you into certain directions, such as with the use of blood soaked grass trails, but I often found myself lost nevertheless. Trekking all the way back to another point on the map just to see if I had missed something, was annoying and frustrating. On the flip side if you enjoy merely walking and exploring, you’ll be glad to know that the Xbox One has the aforementioned Free Roam mode. This mode takes away all of the gore and commands, and simply lets you take in the gorgeous visuals and design. Might I add, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter may well be one of the most stunning games I have ever seen, further bolstered by the excellent soundtrack.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is described as a game that sets itself apart from other walking simulators due to the addition of puzzles and engagement. It’s a shame however that these very additions are easily the weakest points in the game. The story may well be interesting and it’s certainly a stunning experience, but it takes a lot more than that to truly stand out.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.