HIGH The visuals are fantastic.
LOW Not being able to move the camera in free-look fashion.
WTF The story.
Etherborn is the product of a successful Fig campaign, and comes to us via a small team with an artistic vision combining beautifully abstract puzzle worlds and an appealing art-house vibe.
Full disclosure: I personally backed this with my own cash when I saw an early trailer, and was thrilled when the team met their goal and moved ahead with production. Now that I’ve played through it, I can only shake my head and wonder how something so promising went so wrong.
It starts well, at least. An enigmatic voice suggests a philosophical mystery to be unraveled and the player’s character, a transparent outline of a human with a visible nervous system, is eye-catching.
In practice, Etherborn is a 3D puzzle/navigation game that plays with gravity and perspective. The character must find white orbs that act as keys, but these orbs are scattered across the faces of various surfaces. By traversing gravity-shifting ramps that go up, down, to the side, or any other direction, floors become walls, ceilings become floors, and so on. It’s not possible to jump from one surface to the next, but as long as a ramp between planes exists, the world shifts as the player moves and a path to each orb can be found.
This formula grabbed me immediately. There’s no combat in Etherborn, just chill exploration of each world, and I’m a fan of Escher-like games that bend the rules of real life. The graphics go a long way towards selling the experience, as well – the pastel tones, smooth lines and otherworldly feel are all right on the mark. Unfortunately, once past the opening section, things start going of the rails.
Far and away, Etherborn’s biggest problem is that there’s no free-look camera. The perspective can pull back a bit and the player can look to the left or right, but the camera is always locked to predetermined angles. Since each area is an abstract series of shapes where any surface can be a floor, wall or ceiling, it’s easy to get disoriented and it’s difficult to get a good look around in order to plan a path.
Worse, Etherborn wants players to not only find and use the key orbs, but to remove and re-use them to trigger changes in the already-confusing environments. In the worst section, the red-and-black level, there are several chunks of terrain that can be added and removed to the landscape, and if the player triggers them in the wrong order (incredibly easy to do since it’s impossible to look around) paths become blocked and it’s frustratingly unclear how to progress.
I’m on board with Etherborn’s aesthetics and gravity play, but when the difficulty comes not from clever puzzles, but from not being able to see thanks to a camera that’s maddeningly locked in place, it loses me. It’s a cheap, unearned way to ‘challenge’ a player, and was profoundly unsatisfying – instead of feeling like a genius after putting pieces together, I was just aggravated and glad to be done when I rolled credits, and my guess is that Etherborn could be finished in half the time if it was possible to get a good look at things.
After the disappointment of the camera’s artificial difficulty, I was hoping that the story would pull things together, but it ends up being a lot of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that didn’t amount to anything but hot air. Even after seeing the final cutscenes, I still have literally no idea what the point of the narrative was.
It’s tough to see Etherborn as anything but a misguided project and a missed opportunity. It’s frustrating to play without the ability to look around, the story has zero weight or impact, and apart from some wonderful visuals, it’s got little to offer.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Altered Matter. It is currently available on PC, PS4, XBO and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E and contains No Descriptors. No sex, no violence, no salty language. This is 100% safe for anybody.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There is very little story, and it all comes to the player via text that can be resized. There are no audio cues necessary for play. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.