It can’t get much better than making an impact with your very first title as a studio. Etherborn, from developer Altered Matter, is an environmental puzzler that makes impressive use of its simplicity while looking good in the process thanks to a neat visual aesthetic. It’s a great example of our initial statement, and so we can’t help but wish there was even more of it.
Gravity, its pull, and positioning are the three biggest factors you’ll need to consider while attempting to solve the slew of puzzles on offer here. Your objective is simple - reach the end of the level where a portal will transport you back a hub world that scales a tree - but reaching that closure is what provides the challenge.
Taking advantage of gravity is the name of the game as you work to continuously shift the direction at which it will pull you from in order to get about. Falling off a sharp edge leads to death, but should you navigate a curved corner, your feet will stick to its surface and you’ll be able to run about its face. It’s this mechanic that allows you to drop, fall, and jump onto different areas in order to get about.
The end of a level could be staring you right in the face from the moment you spawn, but you’ve still got a ways to go before you can actually access it. The game explores its creative nuances by constantly switching up how you should go about solving its puzzles. Whether its great leaps you’ll need to take on the sides of cubes or introducing a different perspective that turns a brain teaser on its head, it’ll always have you doing something new. The literal definition of what gravity is doesn’t change whatsoever, so it’s how a handful of puzzles work around it to create imaginative situations that make things all the more impressive.
Introducing further complexities are balls of light you’ll need to collect throughout levels that will open up new paths to take to the finish. Some are very well hidden and so you’ll need to think outside of the box on numerous occasions as you work out how to correctly orientate yourself in the first place. Once that’s done, you’ll then need to work out the series of jumps you need to take in order to access the correct surface, or dip in and out of gravitational pulls if the objective is a ways off. It’s admirable design that’s simple at first glance but is sure to have you stumped and baffled before too long.
Once you’ve gotten your hands on a couple of those balls, transporting them throughout the area can activate switches that cause more chunks of the level to literally fly into the scene, constructing more paths and opportunities. It’s visually exciting to bear witness to another bit of land making its way into the environment as you ponder what secrets it could hold. One particular level will even have you swapping these pieces in and out in an attempt to work out the correct sequence.
Every level has something new to offer as it presents new mechanics and then throws them out to make sure things stay fresh. One introduces thin blocks that protrude out of the ground as you draw near and block your path, while another requires the use of a bridge as you move it back and forth so that new areas can be accessed. They’re nothing game-changing, but it’s more than enough to keep you on your toes.
One aspect that provides consistent pleasure is a lovely visual art style that prioritises bright, bold colours over pretty much everything else. Pinks, blues, and reds are a constant as even if you do hit a bit of a brick wall in the brain-teasing space, you’ve still got some beautiful scenery to admire. Combine that with a soothing soundtrack that relaxes the mind and you’ve got the makings of a rather tranquil experience.
It was all going so well, but then we reached the end. Four hours is more than enough to see the game through to its conclusion, and thanks to the rate at which it was innovating and throwing a curve ball into the mix, we assumed there was still quite a few more areas to go. Completing the title does unlock a New Game+ mode, but this only changes the places where you’ll locate the all-important balls of light. It was over all too quickly, which we have to chalk up as a minor letdown.
Etherborn is well worth checking out if brain teasing is your thing. As it toys with gravity and shifts surfaces to the forefront while you traverse them, mechanics come and go to keep the experience fresh at all times. This environmental puzzler doesn’t last particularly long, but it’s sure to provide an afternoon’s worth of challenge and enjoyment.