There have been many a video game which has tried to ignore science to turn the whole gravity thing on its head, mostly pushing out puzzles that leave us struggling to comprehend exactly what is going on and what is true. Etherborn is another of those games, but it also goes deeper than that, focusing time on self-discovery and the whole reason behind the existence of us humans. While it’s very clever in what it does, it just doesn’t quite do enough to join the biggest of puzzle genre leaders.
After having run down the FIG funding route in order to become a reality, it is now that we get the chance to take a giant leap into a world of gravity shifting structures, in order to attempt to understand our very own existence. And it is here where Etherborn sees you gently dropped into the action, born as a blank mind on a journey to find its own conscience, gathering thoughts in the process. From there, what you do, and where you go, is dictated by an other-worldly voice that beckons you forth, as you navigate your way through five stages of ever-increasingly surreal 3D puzzles.
Brought together by a hub structure – the Endless Tree – you’ll find the early stages of Etherborn a fairly simple walk in the park, as you learn the way of the world; how to leap, how to run, and how to get your mind around the craziness of constantly shifting planes. See, in Etherborn you are able to walk and run on all sides of the puzzle ahead, with slight curves in structures signifying the move from panel to panel. With gravity always running perpendicular to the surface you find yourself on, leaping, climbing and wandering through these stages is a joy and it really doesn’t take long for you to understand the love that has been put into each of the small stages by the team at Altered Matter. That is until you stupidly forget everything you have learnt, make a wrong step, and fall to your death.
To progress you need to make your way through a whole maze of a puzzle, to a glowing light orb which concludes the level, before making your way through the complexities of the Endless Tree hub area to stumble upon the next test. As you would expect, the further you progress up this tree, the trickier the puzzles become and even though there are just five real stages in place before you begin to uncover the full secrets of the Etherborn narrative, it’ll take you a good couple of hours to take in the entirety of what unfolds.
The majority of your time will be spent gathering up orbs, which then need to be placed on specific switches in order to open up new paths, seeing each and every level shift and grow as you become one with it. The first couple of stages see these collectibles pretty much left out in the open, in plain sight, leaving you to work your way across the maze-like structures in order to find the best – and only – route to glory. But then things ramp up in difficulty and orbs will be hidden away on totally different planes, or floating in areas which can only be reached by first solving a different puzzle. It’s a brilliant system that taxes the mind just enough to ensure that Etherborn is a joy to play, with very little in the way of real mental frustrations ever coming to the fore. In fact, once you begin to understand how the minds of those at Altered Matter have worked during the three year development process, will see completion done and dusted within a couple of hours.
Replayability is low with Etherborn though, and the journey it takes you on will probably only really be enjoyed the once. See, whilst there are multiple routes to take – and it’s super easy to get yourself into a pickle, struggling to see the way ahead – the fact that you have to collect and deposit orbs in a specific order for most of your progress to be made ultimately makes this a fairly linear affair.
Once you do reach the end though, then there is also the opportunity to take in the same stages once more in a Game + mode, just with the orbs hidden in a variety of areas. If I’m totally honest, this is a little disappointing and I’d have much preferred to have seen the time and effort go into creating further stages and extra events up the Endless Tree instead of recycling what is already there. Dropping an orb into a bush or hiding it around a hard to spot corner just feels a little cheap. With the amount of effort that has obviously gone into the making of this beautiful puzzler, running through things again with just a few minor amendments is more than a tad disenchanting.
At least by the time you get round to Game + you would have got to grips with the way gravity works in Etherborn though, and it’ll only be through your own lack of skills in which death will ever occur. Thankfully – at least in the early stages – the checkpoint system used is more than accommodating, ensuring that very rarely will you ever not be able to get back to where you succumbed within a matter of seconds. Just occasionally you will find yourself put back in a place you don’t wish to be, on an altogether different plane to the route you were navigating, but for the most part, death has been well considered. You shouldn’t die too often though – particularly if you keep the controls to default and utilise the walk option rather than running about everywhere; that is just asking for trouble. Remember, this is a puzzler in which you are asked to take in your surroundings and consider the meaning of life. Even though speedrunning through is a possibility, you’ll lose all and every ounce of atmosphere in the process.
For as deep as it is, I would however like to see a bit more control and movement over the camera. Even though it swings and sways at a decent pace – and you can amend its speed in the options – pointing the way to your next objective when need be, a bigger overview to proceedings would have been highly appreciated. If anything, I would adore a properly zoomed out view with a free camera to see how this entire ethereal adventure joins to become one larger tale.
Visually though and Etherborn does the job intended of it, with the silenced character coming complete with tree-of-life styled veins pumping through a translucent skin. That is a real highlight and shows the level of detail put into this game. Simple and minimalist it may seem initially, however the use of a variety of hues and detail in the stage creations help not just to understand what is expected ahead, but also to push the spoken tale along. The narration which delivers this is brilliant – always sincere and a joy to take in. This is complemented by an utterly soothing, highly relaxing, hugely atmospheric soundtrack. But that is pretty much where the audio highlights start and end with Etherborn; aside from the simple plod of your footsteps as you navigate your way through the strange world, the soundscape is kept to a bare minimum.
This all combines to ensure that your time with Etherborn on Xbox One will no doubt be a good one; it’ll certainly be one that sticks with you in the weeks and months ahead. Yes you’ll need a certain type of look at life in order to want to push on through the puzzles and story that is told, but should a game that attempts something slightly different appeal to you, and you’ve got a spare afternoon to kick back and put the brain to the test, then you’ll most definitely wish to consider Etherborn.
What is in place with Etherborn is very good, and if you are after a taxing puzzler which will push and pull the grey matter in ways other games can’t, then you should certainly consider a purchase. Just be aware that you may well be left wanting more as the end credits roll.