Puzzle games that play with physics aren’t new, there’s a huge amount that have hit the market over the years as game engines have become more sophisticated. Whether it’s been playing with objects, perspective or fields of view there have been multiple uses to make simple environments very complex. Whatever form these games have taken in the past they’ve probably never been like Etherborn. Coming from Spanish developer Altered Matter, this is not only an exploration of the use of space and shifting gravity, it’s a journey of reflection and introspection.
Etherborn is a third person environmental puzzle game that uses moving to different planes of objects as a way of redefining which direction gravity acts in so that it anchors the player to that surface. It sounds complicated, and it is to try and describe, 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. 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 path forward, and sometimes forward isn’t in front… or behind. 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 or hitting something hard and unmoveable. The bold structure design, misty and unfocused areas in the distance, and a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack all combine to build a sense of mystery that’s fleshed out somewhat in exposition that comes from a disembodied voice bookending each level. There’s a running theme of discovering and shaping an identity by forging your own path and challenging the established physical rules of the world we know. Fortunately, the rules of the puzzles aren’t obscure. Etherborn makes sure the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the landscapes are explained from the off through a contextual tutorial – it’s not much more than a “push to jump/run/interact” section yet it’s brilliantly conceived to convey everything without words. Throughout the course of the game there are no prompts or clues to how to solve anything, simply a gentle nudge of the camera so it swings 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 to stop you from hitting a dead end. Interestingly, they were prototyped with LEGO in real life, and Altered Matter were able to physically examine what they were proposing before building them in Unity. This also helps with the flow of the game so 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 can be run through in around ten minutes, some will take up to an hour (as well as causing you to pull your hair out). The time it takes to get through really depends on how quickly your mind adapts to the spatial management. It’s a shame then that once it has adjusted itself there are only four real levels to master.
For everything that Etherborn does right – the design, the audio, the philosophical posing – it just doesn’t last long enough. Once the main game is complete there’s a challenge mode that changes the location of the orbs that are used as switches and triggers, and there’s no denying that it becomes much more difficult in this mode. It’s like the developers have punished you for completing the game in the first place and want you to fail the second time around. Because the levels are still the same though and there’s a familiarity with the objective, it becomes more of a hunting exercise than figuring out alternate routes through the exquisitely presented stages. Whilst it might suit the story telling, not having any more to play definitely leaves you feeling a little short changed.
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. However, it’s over way too quickly. Of course, you can argue that perfection doesn’t mean it has to last forever, and the time with the game is one of the most frustrating and rewarding experiences I’ve had. This is definitely one for those that love being mentally taxed in a tranquil world.
A PS4 review copy of Etherborn was provided by Altered Matter’s PR team and the game is out now on PC, PS4, Switch and Xbox One for around £16.99 depending on the platform.