When the police refuse to help and priests don't believe in you, then you turn to me: Paul Prospero.
If you're a child, like Ethan, maybe you'll write me a letter, as many have before. Ethan's many letters were at first like any other fan mail, but soon they included things small children should not be aware of. There are places and things in this world no-one should see. Yet Ethan was able to draw a picture of them.
I had not yet arrived in Red Creek Valley, but I could already feel its darkness reaching out towards me. Finding Ethan Carter would not be as easy as knocking on his front door. It was too late for that. In order to find Ethan I had to find out what this place was hiding from me.
It wasn't my first case by a long shot, and I was well aware of the dangers and surprises in store for me. Still, the welcome I received upon reaching Red Creek Valley was far more dangerous and surprising than anything I would have expected. The gorgeous and quaint valley in Wisconsin was deceiving in its looks as I barely made it out alive from a dangerous trap.
Yet there's more to me than meets the eye, allowing me to investigate the trap I just triggered, even if it'd been well hidden as it was, hanging from a tree above a path that ran alongside abandoned railway tracks I had walked along. Who was it meant for? Me? Hardly. No one could have known I was coming, much less that I would have walked down this very path, but I felt the presence of something else, something more. As I touched the trap during my investigation, I saw a picture of a clearing. Less clear picture, more fragment. I could barely make out the human remains spread across the ground, but judging by the that snap image I should expect more traps. If I found them all, perhaps I would be able to see the full picture, but I had to keep my eyes open.
My name is Paul Prospero and I'm not like other detectives. I specialise in the unexplained, the supernatural, the non-human, and at my disposal I've got something other detectives can only dream of: a sixth sense. I can actually see past events and stories play out in front of me, if the circumstances are right. Something that would soon come in handy.
Barely 15 minutes after solving the mystery of the traps I was unfortunately forced to make use of my abilities. I had crossed a bridge, stopped a short while to take in the beautiful vista, when the first gruesome case revealed itself.
I spot frayed ropes on train tracks and, further down the tracks, a pair of legs without their owner. More than enough for me, but not enough to see the entire story of the crime scene. I need to find the remainder of the body and return the crime scene to its original shape in order to see the dead person's last moments. I go about my task, scanning the environment for clues and fifteen minutes later have a collection of past scene fragments memorised, which I just need to reorder correctly to get the full picture of how the murder happened.
But then, something happens. The immersion is shattered. I'm no longer Paul Prospero, master detective with a sixth sense. I'm Tobias Garsten, game reviewer, up until recently completely immersed in one of the most atmospheric games ever. What went wrong?
The game prides itself on being different, unusual, even unique (in many respects). But there's one convention of the adventure genre that's not dressed up or altered to fit sublimely with this masterfully designed world. A game that is subtle throughout offers up the most fundamental of puzzle game clichés and the contrast is just too strong. The illusion is broken. And it's a recurring problem. And yet, despite this, the debut title from Polish outfit The Astronauts is pure magic.
Aided by photogrammetry, artistic vision, a tremendous attention to details, a brilliant soundtrack, and a sophisticated minimalistic design, The Astronauts have been able to create the most convincing game world I've had the privilege of getting to know. It tells a story on its own. The gorgeous nature speaks of tranquility, sadness and decay, while the abandoned buildings and the items inside of them speak of death, prior lives and an unknown darkness - an accomplishment that means that a player who pays close attention can trace the story, backdrop and themes without listening to Paul Prospero's monologue or see any of the murder mysteries.
As is the case with its genre colleagues Journey, Dear Esther, and Gone Home the user interface is non-existant, but unlike these games The Vanishing of Ethan Carter manages to combine gameplay, atmosphere and slow paced storytelling in one neat package. Where the first of these elements has been criticised by some, by neglecting some of the distingushing characteristics of the video game medium The Vanishing of Ethan Carter breaks new ground.
As you may have noticed I've not touched on much beyond the basics about the game and its contents. As with The Stanley Parable, this game is as much about the quality of the work as it is about the surprises found within. Crime scenes line the great outback that Paul Prospero and I roam freely as we search for Ethan Carter, each one of them takes us closer to the answers we seek, leading us to Ethan Carter and explaining the reasons for his disapperance. If you allow yourself to be swept away by your newfound lust for exploration... you will no doubt come across surprises.
Those surprises appear at times as the most interesting puzzles the game has to offer and at other times it's something far different, and offers moments that I will no doubt carry with me for many years to come. Ones that future games will be measured against.
The one thing that holds back The Vanishing of Ethan Carter from perfection is something as mundane as a couple of ill-advised gameplay mechanics, the odd mediocre voice actor, and a sub-par checkpoint system. Tragic pitfalls for a game such as this. When a game manages to immerse you so completely as is the case here, then it is all the more apparent when that immersion is broken. In a way The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a victim of its own excellence.
But it is soon forgotten. Only seconds later, after a moment to look around at my desk, I'm back in Red Creek Valley. I've just solved my first murder, and I know where I'm heading next. To the right, the lake with its rocky shores, the open skies and the peaceful desolation. To the left, a forest darker than any I've ever seen. How can I resist it? Fear grows inside of me, but I know that every step in the forest takes me closer to the next discovery, the next mystery. Now matter how scared I get, how much the darkness in Red Creek Valley seeks to hinder me I know must persevere. Ethan Carter needs me.
My name is once again Paul Prospero, and I'm not like other detectives.
9 / 10
Unrivalled atmosphere, Visually breathtaking, Subtle mechanics, The right amount of scary, Surprising, Highly detailed game world.
Inadequate checkpoint system, At times not very challenging.