Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to host a panel on video games and art at a local convention. While the convention is home-grown and fairly small (and the venue was even smaller), it was a truly enjoyable experience. It’s not very often that a fan of video games (such as myself) gets to sit down and talk about the artistic merit of video games as a medium, short of resorting to online discussions on forums, which tend to lack a certain intimacy.
Granted, these opportunities can be rare and far between (at least for me). Most of my other conversations about video games are relegated to water cooler talk at work, and if you didn’t already know, the general public focuses on a few key genres and franchises, namely any sport or shooter game. As an ardent supporter of titles like Bastion and Journey, I’ve become known as “that guy who reviews weird little indie games”; which is not only a little disappointing, but indicative of gamers at large.
As much as I love games, I’ve always said that gamers are the worst fanbase any artist could hope for. We aren’t easy to please, always expecting what amounts to insane levels of polish, and we’re harsh critics to say the least. We constantly complain when games don’t do enough that’s ‘new,’ but we often ignore games that truly try to stand out or innovate, especially if those games don’t fall within our purview of what is ‘fun.’
I can think of plenty of games that many would pass on after a cursory glance, but The Vanishing of Ethan Carter immediately springs to mind. Released late last year exclusively on PC, it is just now seeing a release on the PlayStation 4, with this re-release also marking the game’s jump from the somewhat-dated Unreal Engine 3 to the newer Unreal Engine 4.
Speaking solely about the technology behind it, the transition to Unreal Engine 4 has set this re-release apart from the original PC outing, though it’s important to note that owners of the original PC version will receive a free update, bringing that version up to date with all the Unreal Engine 4 trimmings you’d expect. The biggest change comes in the form of a new lighting model, which centers on dynamic lighting and physically-based rendering, which are at the center of Unreal Engine 4. With higher quality lighting effects, motion blur and sharper foliage (along with plenty of other effects), The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does at times look like a completely different game, especially when you compare screenshots side by side.
Touching briefly on performance, the game runs at an unlocked frame-rate, which can fluctuate anywhere from the mid-30s to a full 60 frames per second refresh, with dips under 30 being fairly rare. It’s a method that has been employed in other Sony first party titles (such as The Last of Us Remastered and InFamous: Second Son), and it works well in motion. Granted, some may not like the judder and unevenness that accompanies a dynamic frame-rate, but a patch is set to be released which will offer an option to lock the frame-rate to 30.
As expected, the game features the same content and gameplay that made the original PC release stand out, which we covered in our review late last year. You take on the role of Paul Prospero, a paranormal investigator who heads to the idyllic Red Creek Valley in Pennsylvania, after receiving a fan letter from 12-year-old Ethan Carter. With the town seemingly having been abandoned, you begin to piece together what happened by exploring the game’s lush environments and finding key pieces of evidence.
With Paul’s ability to look into the past, the game eschews traditional linear narrative structures, instead encouraging you to explore the environment at a more methodical pace, piecing together the story as you see fit. It’s a very novel approach to adventure and mystery games as a whole, and even though the player runs the risk of getting stuck or piecing things together out of order, I for one would rather play an innovative game with a few rough edges than a polished, dull one.
It might seem like I’m being purposefully vague when it comes to describing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but that’s simply because I am. With other reviews, I’ve taken the opportunity to spell out exactly what makes a game so special, but this time around, I think I need to let the game speak for itself. Sure, I’m running the risk that you might ignore Ethan Carter completely, but all I can say is you’d be doing yourself a huge disservice in doing so.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with for review.
What was perhaps one of the best games from last year makes its console debut with style, complete with a visual overhaul that only makes this re-release more appealing.