Every once in a while you come across a game that just looks completely different to everything else. It can be the art style, the game structure, the story approach, or the concept – there’s something to it that makes it stand out amongst what can be a very crowded landscape. It can also defy comparison with other titles because it seems so original. I’ve had that feeling about Etherborn since I first saw it, and now I’ve been able to get hands on with the first few levels of the game it’s just reinforced that. It’s a unique take on the puzzle genre and one that absolutely throws your sense of what’s up, down, left and right out of balance.
Etherborn is a third person environmental puzzle game from Altered Matter that uses moving to different planes of objects as a way of redefining which direction gravity acts in so that it anchors to that surface. It sounds complicated but in practice it’s not. Walk off a sharp edge and gravity will act in the normal way and pull the character to the next surface. Walk off a curved edge and the character will follow the shape and change the plane they’re able to walk on. Still sound complicated? Think of playing an Escher painting and having to use the different surfaces and angles to find a way to the exit. The architecture is not just there for decoration, it’s the actual path forward, and sometime forward isn’t in front. Without something to compare it to it’s a tricky concept to visualise and even though I’m reminded of Echochrome in the overall principle, that’s still not the mechanic here… maybe Gravity Rush gets a bit closer? It’s one of those games where it pays to think in three dimensions whilst remembering there is more than one side to every shape.
Cementing the abstract concept are the ethereal surroundings where a mis-step means drifting off into the void, the bold structure design, misty and unfocused areas in the distance, and a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. It builds a sense of mystery that’s fleshed out somewhat in exposition that comes from a disembodied voice at the end of each level. The developers are wanting you to explore the theme of discovering and shaping an identity by forging your own path and challenging the established physical rules of the world. From what I’ve played so far it’s not clear if there is only one solution to each puzzle, or whether there’s a free form element on hand. It certainly feels like it’s all down to the choices you make, yet is it a case of really clever subtle guidance? As with any good puzzle game it should be about prepping the player with the knowledge and skills needed and then letting them go ahead and figure things out, and Etherborn does this without much more than a “push to jump/run/interact” style tutorial in the very first minute. It’s brilliantly conceived that way. There’s a gentle nudge with the way the camera works – it’s in a semi fixed position that reorients with a gravity shift – so it can swing to reveal new pathways or give an alternate perspective.
The most stunning part of Etherborn though is the way the levels are constructed for not only providing a playground to explore, but also stop you from hitting a dead end. By prototyping them in LEGO in real life, Altered Matter were able to physically examine what they were proposing before building them in Unity. They’re also keen to point out that whilst the same mechanics are used throughout there’s very little recycled from one level to the next, meaning that each feels distinctly different and a new challenge. Some will be solvable in 10 minutes, some might take up to an hour, and this bears out from the few that I’ve had hands on with. They estimate the entire game will take between 4 and 5 hours to complete depending on how quickly your mind adapts to the spatial management, and there’ll be a form of challenge mode to extend the experience beyond the initial puzzle set.
It’s easy to see why Etherborn has won a load of awards over the 3 years it’s been in development: it’s interesting, fresh and works out parts of your brain that don’t get used that often. From the design of the level select that takes the form of The Endless Tree to the implementation of the music that’s uniquely tailored to each puzzle, there’s an attention to detail that belies the abstract look of the game, and it meshes seamlessly to give a compelling experience. It’s shaping up to be the most unique puzzle game we’ve played in years and we can’t wait to see what the full release does to our minds when it comes out soon.
A Steam preview code was provided by Altered Matter’s PR team, and the game will be released in Spring this year on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Switch.