The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a port of the PC open world murder mystery title by Polish developer The Astronauts. Originally made using Unreal Engine 3, the game has since been rebuilt with Unreal Engine 4, much in the same way that former PlayStation Plus freebie Ether One was a couple of months back.
To make it through the experience, you'll assume the identity of paranormal detective Paul Prospero. Set in the 1970s, the inspector receives a fan letter from a young boy named Ethan Carter. This letter profoundly moves the private eye, inspiring him to venture out to the child's home town in Pennsylvania. Upon arriving, though, our hapless detective finds that, while once a thriving mining town, a collapse of tunnels has stymied the area's economy, resulting in its (almost) total abandonment. While trying to discover more about his surroundings, it's up to Prospero – and, subsequently, you – to discover just what has happened to poor Master Carter. Caution is recommended, however, as not all is as it seems.
Right off the bat, it should be noted that this is not your average type of adventure. As a matter of fact, one of the very first screens upon booting up the title states: "This is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand." And boy is the developer right about that.
While the press has often touted this as a horror title, we're not convinced. There are certainly some elements of terror at play, but we reckon that labelling it as a supernatural puzzle game would perhaps be more apt. It's not a puzzler in the traditional sense, however – rather one that focuses on piecing together crime scenes. As such, it has more in common with L.A. Noire than, say, Outlast.
Across the release's rather expansive open world you'll uncover a series of puzzles and crime scenes. The meat of the experience revolves around the latter, as Prospero uncovers the bodies of members of Ethan's family lying about, butchered in a variety of manners. It's up to you to explore the surrounding environments, finding clues and objects that will solve the conundrum. Upon finding all of the necessary evidence, you'll see flashbacks, and will need to order the events in order to fully complete the puzzle.
The really interesting thing about all of the game's challenges is that there's no specific order in which you need to complete them. If you desire, you can go and do the 'final' puzzles before anything else, and work your way backwards. You won't miss any of the plot this way either; instead, you'll just see it in a different order. This lack of linearity helps to make the environment feel much bigger than it is, and it offers a sense of freedom that few other games possess.
Of course, just because you can tackle the puzzles in any order doesn't make them all good. Many are interesting and help to greatly expand the lore and back-story of the title. However, there are two challenges in particular that stand out as unnecessary and tedious. The former is actually the very first one, which serves the purpose of slowly easing you into the title – but the latter sticks out far more obnoxiously.
This particular puzzle is a maze of sorts that is essentially like the original Slender game. Bizarrely, though, it includes the only fail-state in the title. Now, if you were able to die elsewhere in the game, this wouldn't be such a major issue, but your mortality is only called into question during this single sequence. And you can't skip it either; to get the proper ending for the game, you have to solve all of the head scratchers.
Still, at least you can soak up the scenery while you get to work. The autumnal foliage and incredible textures make this a game that's luscious to look at. In fact, we'd go as far as to say that it probably has some of the best textures that we've seen on the PS4 to date. And this visual feast pairs nicely with Mikolai Stroinski's stellar soundtrack, which makes some of the more laidback parts of the experience truly serene.
Everything comes with a cost, however, and the amazing texture work is offset by some framerate problems in this instance. We did have similar issues with the PC version, but we were hoping that the transition to Unreal Engine 4 would clean up many of these setbacks; sadly, that's not the case. Still, this is quite an easygoing game in general, so it's not like the performance hiccups will prevent you from progressing or anything like that.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was already great when it released on the PC in late 2014, and the PS4 version succeeds in re-purposing that same experience for a new audience. While reworking the title in Unreal Engine 4 hasn't brought about a drastic number of changes, it performs adequately barring some framerate hiccups. For the most part, though, this game delivers an intriguing and thought-provoking detective experience that – in its own words – doesn't hold your hand.