There are a lot of critics who praise The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and quickly label it as 'Lovecraftian', and while we can understand that reasons as to why, they are not quite correct either. There is nothing maddening or too surreal about the game, though it certainly does not do anything to hide its very supernatural themes, it is not exactly what we would consider a Lovecraftian story. What it is however, is a wonderful mytery game game that will consume a good deal of your time with interesting questions and clever puzzles and then pay you back with a dazzling playing experience. No fast paced action here, just a lot of great visuals strung together and more than enough time to let them all sink in.
The whole point of the game is for you to seek out and find Ethan Carter. You play the role of a detective who has the unique ability to make use of supernatural powers to help him investigate. With your skills you are able to recreate moments in the past or quickly identify items of importance without much effort. The reason you are on Carter's trail is simple, he sent you a fan letter and it was enough to make you curious. However, when you arrive in town, you quickly find out that things are not what they seem to be.
In some cases, the start of the game has a lot of similarities to an old Japanese PS3 title called Folk Soul (released as Folklore in western regions). But while Folk Soul fully embraces a more fantasy-ish approach to the supernatural, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter keeps it all tightly wrapped with a shroud of contemporary modernism. And this is what sets the overall mode and tone of the game: it tries to put you, the player in the real world. But despite that, you have to deal with ghostly visions and flashes that appear in the form of super-imposed details or literal cuts in the center of your screen. In many ways, the game does a great job of providing a firsthand experience at what it might be like to be the kind of person who experiences things that normal people cannot.
This is actually something of an open world game -though unlike other open world games, there really is not much to be done in places where you should not be exploring. There are no side activities or optional quests -everything is truly geared toward the solving the mystery of Ethan Carter. This is more than just a gameplay limitation, but an intentional move by the developers as the single-mindedness of the player is actually critical to the eventual outcome of the story.
The game does not have much in terms of length. Even with all the possible detours you might end up having (looking around town and the different sights is an experience in itself after all), it will not take more than a few hours to fully resolve the game's mystery. This is a little bit disappointing as one cannot help but feel the need to spend more time in this game world. And while you could opt to dilly dally for as long as possible, not having any other minor objectives to deal with will eventually steer you back towards the main story track.
As you get through the initial parts of the game, you learn that Ethan Carter accidentally summoned a being known as the Sleeper, which serves as the big bad for most of the story. Ethan was supposed to be sacrificed by his mother and brother in order to appease the Sleeper, but his father managed to get him to safety -at a rather tragic cost. The rest of the game is all about you trying to track down where Ethan may have gone off to, the actions of his family following the events, and of course, understanding what the deal really is with the entity they call as the sleeper. These initial mysteries are pretty big and naturally will require the use of your supernatural talents in order to unravel.
The puzzle solving mechanics are quite fun actually -there is a good mix of old fashioned pick-up and figure it out approach to putting items in your inventory. But sometimes, the things you need to do get to be pretty obvious (in some cases, it is not as easy to figure out). Of course, you can always try the good old trial-and-error angle, which works for almost all the game's puzzles. In terms of being a challenge, nothing that this game presents will make you feel clever or particularly satisfied (even the mine maze was rather easy to solve). But as part of a larger story, it all jives well together, and you get to focus the game's narrative more than anything else.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a visually gorgeous game from almost any angle you can view it at. The voice acting fits the atmosphere so well, and the choice of music for many dramatic parts is done with careful consideration. Controls and challenge-wise, the game is easy to get started on as it feels more like an interactive storybook than a game-y kind of game (which is great for the audience of Ethan Carter). Overall, this is a great way to spend an afternoon if you were hoping to play a game with a truly unique and interesting story. One thing though, while most of the game is nicely written, the ending is a little bit divisive. While it certainly is anything but predictable, it may feel a little unsatisfying for those hoping for a more content-dense conclusion. In this case, whether the ending is good enough or not, the experience of playing the game is more than worth it.