The first thing that will strike you is how amazingly beautiful the game looks. Red Creek Valley is by far the most realistic and beautiful environment I've ever seen in a game. It's an absolute joy just to wander and get lost in the visuals, and my screenshots key has never seen so much use (screenshots do not do any justice to the in-game visuals by the way).
New indie developer The Astronauts achieved this incredible feat by turning to a new technique for generating game assets known as photogrammetry. They have a blog post on their site detailing the method, with some great examples of how it works. That they achieved this with a team of only eight people (including just a single programmer) speaks volumes as to how a small indie team can beat AAA titles by developing new techniques. It's a stunning achievement. Don't be surprised to see the technique used elsewhere now, as it makes the virtual worlds of many triple AAA games look drab by comparison.
The sumptuous visuals, accompanied by a restrained and atmospheric soundtrack, great ambient animations, and an involving and emotional story make The Vanishing of Ethan Carter a game to wallow in, like a hot soapy bath (ok, a bath filled with disturbing and creepy events and some seriously unpleasant violence, but you know what I mean). It exudes an atmosphere that deserves to be soaked up.
The best environmental graphics ever seen wouldn't mean much without a great game, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter comes up trumps here too, further pushing the boundaries of what's possible in narrative driven gameplay. There is no combat at all, the gameplay elements arising from investigating the mystery and solving the game's puzzles (which are not particularly difficult, but very enjoyable nonetheless).
The visuals really do encourage exploration, and you are free to wander Red Creek Valley and solve the game's puzzles in any order you wish.
You play Paul Prospero (a rather ostentatious name, but one that is kind of explained by what is revealed at the end of the game), a supernatural investigator in the mould of Chandler's noir-ish detectives. Not only do you investigate supernatural events, you have some psychic abilities yourself, allowing you to piece together clues from what you see around you.
For example, stumble across a murder scene, and by reconstructing it back to how it was at the time of the murder you can communicate with the deceased and see a mental image of what happened. You need to locate and place items back to their original positions at the time of the killing, then put the various elements you discover into a chronological order of events. Get it right and you see a memory of what happened, furthering the tale. The puzzles reminded me a little of the kind of gameplay in The Secret World (not a bad thing at all), tough they come nowhere near the fiendish difficulty of some of that game's quests.
And what a tale it tells. Ostensibly you arrive in Red Creek Valley to investigate the disappearance of a young boy who has written to you asking for help. Before long you uncover a series of gruesome murders and hints of something dark and old haunting the backwoods. Along the way you begin to find the imaginative weird fiction stories that Ethan Carter has written, and that somehow are starting to become real. The story goes places I really want to discuss, but because so much of the joy of the game lies in uncovering it I'll put that discussion in spoiler tags below. Seriously, don't click the spoiler tags if you intend to play the game, it will spoil things.
The script is good throughout, though sparse. You can wander for a long while before your character suddenly utters a few great lines in the manner of Rustin Cohle. The voice-overs are all well done, pitched perfectly for the noir mystery of the game.
There are a couple of issues with the game. The major one was the difficulty of telling when the autosave had kicked in, meaning that you could never be sure when you quit how far back you would be next time you loaded up. That issue has been resolved already via a patch however.
The other issue is one of replayability. At the end of the game you find a map that shows you the location of puzzles you might have missed, but other than those there is little to head back for once you have experienced the game. As it only costs £15 and you're getting such a great story with ground-breaking visuals however, it seems a little mean to complain too much.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter won't be for everyone. There is no combat or action. It's appeal lies in more cerebral appreciations, and the pace is deliberately slow. Many won't like the ending, which is open to interpretation. If however you want one of the best Lovecraft-inspired mysteries in video game form, along with the best environmental graphics ever seen, throw your £15 at The Astronauts and reward them for pushing the boundaries. I loved this game and there is nothing quite like it.
Below are some spoiler-free screenshots from my exploration of Red Creek Valley. Believe me when I say they don't do justice to the in-game views.