The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an exploratory narrative game with some puzzle aspects that was developed by The Astronauts and originally released on PC and PS4 in 2014. In 2015 the game underwent a dramatic makeover to update to the Unreal 4 engine, and fans of Xbox were still left out when the re-release (dubbed The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Redux) was released. The Astronauts have been pretty forthcoming about the reason behind the late release for Xbox, citing issues with their being a smaller team that would have to outsource the port and also their desires to move on to their next project (upcoming first person shooter, Witchfire). Roughly a year ago The Astronauts finally teamed up with SPIN Software, a Polish studio, to complete the process of porting The Vanishing of Ethan Carter to Xbox One.
Thankfully, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter proves to have been worth the wait. Players get a first person perspective while playing as Paul Prospero, a detective with ties to the supernatural and occult that allows him to see both the past and the present. Paul has received a letter from the titular Ethan Carter, and realizes quickly that the young boy is in danger. The game begins with Paul arriving in the scenic town of Red Creek Valley where it is up to players to guide Paul through the town, sleuthing out clues in hopes of saving Ethan and solving some pretty grisly murders along the way. As players uncover clues relating to the mysteries in Red Creek Valley, Paul’s supernatural abilities allow him to glimpse into the past and relate those clues to the mystery at hand. In some cases, this means players must organize clues relating to a grisly murder in chronological order, and in another the player may need to determine the layout of a burned out home by switching between the past and the home’s current state.
One of the first thing players will notice when they launch The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a disclaimer at the beginning stating that even though the game is narrative driven, it does not attempt to hold player’s hands. And for the most part, this is very true. Every aspect of Red Creek Valley can be explored at the player’s discretion. There’s a complete absence of loading screens once the game is launched, and the entirety of the world is available from the very beginning. While there are plenty of puzzles to interact with, there is no implications that players must complete them in any specific order to progress. Should a player find they’re struggling with any one puzzle, it is plenty easy enough to simply walk away from it and return later after giving it some thought.
The game does hold your hand, however, when it comes to finding items that can be interacted with in the world. While this is welcome in most regards – like finding a rogue scrap of paper in some bushes that contains important backstory – it does become excessive at times. Some puzzles, like the one involving a rail car at the very beginning of the game, may require Paul to locate key items. In the case of the puzzle with the rail car, the game immediately draws players attention to the front of the rail car with the word “crank?”. If the player attempts to interact with the missing crank, the word prompt multiplies and begins swirling around the screen. A little hint here and there can be helpful, especially in the such a large exploration and narrative driven game, but hints should never go full blown “pop up ad” and multiply while swirling about the screen.
While not what one would typically consider a horror game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s mysteries do leave behind their mark on an otherwise beautiful world. Some areas of Red Creek Valley are marred by blood splatter, severed legs on railroad tracks, and occult symbolism left behind in a church cemetery. None of it is ever enough to be truly frightening, but it can leave players with an uneasy feeling that adds to the game’s mysterious ambiance perfectly. Nevertheless, the team at The Astronauts recognized that some players wanted to simply explore Red Creek Valley without all the muck, murder, and malaise. To appease those players, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter ships to Xbox One with an exclusive Free Roam mode. Screenshot enthusiasts and casual fans alike can take advantage of this mode to see the game in all of its Xbox One X enhanced glory. For those who might be playing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter on a Xbox One X, there are options available to adjust between 1080p and 4K resolutions, as well the ability to toggle between 30fps, 60fps, or an uncapped frame rate depending on the player’s preference. Players that are still limited to the basic Xbox One are locked in to the 1080p resolution. The ability to set frame rate preference is still there, however, and players will find that 1080p at an uncapped framerate on a basic Xbox One will still afford them a breathtaking experience.
For all of the visual shock and awe, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s narrative experience is equally tantamount to the game’s experience. The world we’re exploring, lovely though it may be, is a backdrop for the spectacular story hidden inside of it. Paul’s journey to uncover the truth behind Ethan Carter’s disappearance – and the shocking twists that the truth reveals – leaves behind a story that will linger with players long after the credits roll. The Astronauts may have taken their good old sweet time bringing their game to Xbox One, but it is undeniable that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was well worth the wait.