Dementia is a horrifying illness that addles the minds of those afflicted by it. Weakened reasoning and unexpected changes in personality are two of its effects, but what causes the most sorrow to the victim and especially their loved ones is the gradual loss of memories. Forgetting where you've lived, who your friends are, or what you even did yesterday: these are the sad signs of dementia. So, how does one make a video game about it that educates players of the illness' impact in a serious, creative manner while still being entertaining? This first-person puzzle-solving adventure called Ether One is the solution that you're looking for – even if it is a little rough around the edges.
You are a Restorer, which is someone who enters the minds of patients and cures them of mental illnesses by repairing their broken memories. The patient that you're interested in is dementia-ridden Jean Thompson, and you must explore her past by piecing together her memories and all the main places, events, and people that were part of it to understand her little by little, curing her condition in the process. Much like Gone Home, this is exploratory storytelling, and while you could ignore the meat of Ether One's plot to "finish" it, that's not how you should play it.
Getting through the game can be easy. You find red bows that are scattered across the three main environments, consisting of two villages and a mining facility, with another section being entirely optional. Simply walking around and finding these bows is all that you need to do to reach the end, but the game's joy is found in pushing yourself to examine objects, notes, and small details in every nook and cranny that will not only help you to solve tough puzzles, but also to have a far better understanding of the story.
However, trying to piece together everything isn't as straightforward as you may think. There are side stories told out of order, snippets of trivial and important information uncovered out of sequence, and more. We tried to explore as much of the environments as we could and looked at everything that we came across, but even then, it's tough to make sense of everything upon closure, leaving us scratching our heads about some primary details that we didn't quite follow. For example, while From Software's titles benefit from this type of storytelling since you don't need to study every item description and piece of dialogue to enjoy the game, Ether One banks part of its value on your cleverness and your willingness to invest in it to fully appreciate the story. While aspects of it went over our heads, we did still enjoy it and were incentivized to figure out what we could learn along the way about this title's touching narrative.
As we've mentioned, the gameplay is driven by reading notes and picking up items to examine and/or use, which will help you to solve puzzles to repair broken film projectors, which grant insight into more story details. There's also a lamp that you gain halfway through the experience used to restore damaged parts of the environment. There are 20 of these projectors in total, but we only completed half of the puzzles associated with them since you have to devote time to searching and making sense of everything that you come across, especially since they're often linked together in some ways, too; by solving the puzzle for one projector, it might help you with another one that you stumbled upon earlier. While this contributes to a somewhat tedious, backtracking-like pace, it doesn't bring it down that much.
Some objects and items that you'll need span across the environments, so in order to have them along with you, the game has a hub area called The Case that you can teleport to where you can playback projector clips that you've already found, refer back to pivotal notes in one convenient spot, or store items on shelves to use later on. Overall, we love how the gameplay isn't so much about strategy or calculations, but by common sense and intuition. You're like a detective sifting through myriad trivia, extracting the relevant stuff, and filling in the gaps connected to events, other people, and the like to solve the puzzles that you take on. While there were a few that had vague steps or points where we lost a sense of direction, there were more moments where their ingenuity shined, causing us to smile on occasion. And should you choose to tackle the game's challenges with a fair amount of devotion, you're looking at a four to six hour ride that will definitely bake your noodle more than once.
The quaint British locales and villages are pleasant and relaxing to walk through, packed to the brim with history not only in their interactive aspects, but also in the visuals themselves. The pseudo-photorealistic graphics – reminiscent to BioShock Infinite – have an artsy, cartoonish look to them, but at the same time, look realistically depicted in some ways; it's a balance that strikes an overall beautiful style, especially since the game was remade in Unreal Engine 4 for the PlayStation 4. However, the textures are muddy in places and graphical hiccups occur every now and then with pop-ins and texture loading, which contributed to our feeling of the game being slightly unpolished.
That not only relates to the visuals, but various glitches that we experienced in our time with the title. Indeed, our review is later than expected because we waited for a patch to work out some major kinks, such as us getting permanently stuck in a room, walking out of the normal environment boundaries, Trophies not unlocking, and so forth. Despite the updates, framerate drops, settings being reset, and game crashes among other lingering issues are still present, so be wary that these might be a part of your experience with the game, which slightly mar its otherwise great presentation.
The sound effects are generally fine, with a few sounding great and others not so hot. However, the opposite's the case for the soundtrack, which is consistently great, consisting of mostly gentle tracks with simple melodies driven by the piano, acoustic guitar, or strings. N. J. Apostol seems to take a minimal, carefully detailed approach to his music to give it a sense of emotional weight, with most of the songs simply exuding sadness or mystery.
There's a sincerity evident in Ether One's DNA that really shows the developer's passion and skill. With an attention-grabbing story premise, clever puzzles, and gorgeous music, this game seeks to tackle mental illness in a profound way. While cracks show in the sound effects, technical issues, and convoluted aspects to the narrative and puzzle solving, there's a charm and respect that you cannot help but feel for the game, which will be sure to remain in the canals of your memory banks for some time.