Game Review: Ether One

Dementia is a horrifying thing. Mental illnesses that take a person away from themselves and turn them into an autonomous creature unable to recall memories, faces or voices are probably the one thing in this world that really scares me. Turning even mundane life into a mystery, having to pick up the pieces of something you’ll never quite understand. It is one of those things current medical science just can’t do anything about. The idea of what essentially makes up ‘me’, various functions of the brain operating as they do and not strictly the physical body I reside in, becoming shattered like a broken mirror and having to put my loved ones through the downward spiral as it proceeds to get worse and worse is my biggest fear.

Ether One puts us into the shoes of a Restorer, a member of an elite science team dedicated to delving into the brains of patients with degrees of dementia in an attempt to reconstruct their memories from the fragments which still exist in their mind by filling in the gaps and restoring things to the way they were. As you begin to explore the mind of your current patient, details slowly but surely work their way up to the surface about the person you’re restoring’s life in a small port mining  town Pinwheel.

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White Paper Games understands that there are some people who really enjoy a good set of brainteasers and there are some people who don’t enjoy having their progress blocked by a puzzle that may just be incompatible with their way of thinking. In Ether One, you never have to be stuck longer than you really want to thanks to an interesting approach to the game’s design. In order to progress with the story, all you need to do is activate red ribbons whenever you come across them to move further towards the end of the game. For those who want the full story, every area is drenched in puzzles that range from putting a key you found in that room into a door while others require pulling bits and pieces from the notes and well-integrated environmental clues to complete the memory. Completing a puzzle in an area restores a projector which gives  us further insight into the psyche behind the patient we are treating.

This leads us to the game’s unorthodox inventory/note keeping system called “The Case”. In game it is explained as being a way for you to retract from the situation for a moment, take a breather and have a look over all of the important notes you’ve found and store any items you wish onto a series of shelves. At any time you can teleport back and forth from The Case to whatever area you were just in and vice versa. In a way, it reminds me of the way Fable 3 handled its living menu system, only with a lot more tact. This comes at a bit of a cost however – in order to access items and information you need to navigate an additional map instead of easily accessing what you want by more traditional means. This is going to be a very divisive feature for many players. I personally found it relaxing and helpful to pull myself away from a pesky puzzle from time to time, others may not want to have to run around The Case to try and find a saved note that may contain a clue.

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Unfortunately, the lack of traditional menu and inventory also leads to some unfortunate circumstances. With the other titles, mission critical items were always kept on hand and only brought out when you understood the context it was required for. Ether One’s system forces you to hold on to one item at a time and either swap the item with whatever you have in hand or take it back to The Case, place it on the shelf, and return to where you were to grab the other item. It may not seem so bad but there is no small amount of objects to pick up and the relevance of an item may not be completely realized when first coming across it. While there is often a common sense tactic of “if it looks important, I will most likely need to use it nearby” this is not always the case. In one instance, I found that an item had completely vanished or had gotten totally lost and left me unable to complete a puzzle which further led me to be unable to complete another puzzle. With the puzzles seemingly getting more entwined as the game continued I worry this may be a problem others will run into as well. White Paper Games has commented that they are aware of some of the issues that existed so they may be fixed some time after this review has been posted.

The lovingly crafted areas are massive and labyrinthine at times. Whole chunks of the village are almost completely explorable and all speckled with tiny little details which give every home, business and public area a unique feel of their own. The painterly look suits well. The world looks realistic but the way colors and details practically leap out give the whole experience a dreamy aspect. The scenery jumps back and forth from slightly futuristic technology-laden hallways to a cozy early 20th century village. Accenting the lapping of water against shore and clinking of chains holding boats to their docks is a beautiful and understated soundtrack. It is fairly haunting to hear the sounds of an old city and the mines nearby completely devoid of human life.

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In the end, Ether One turns out to be a rather heartwarming look into a character’s past and slowly filling in the gaps where their memory has failed in order to understand what happened and what they are trying to communicate while being buried under years of mental fragmentation and decay. You are going to be walking through abandoned memories of small-time seaside village life in the UK, peering into the lives of those who lived there to discover the truth about what happened. It is a drama at heart. Comparable to Myst, Dear Esther & Gone Home. Borrowing elements from each and refining them. Issues with the inventory and menu system aside, it never stands in your way of moving forward which is extremely refreshing. Ether One is a beautifully written, memorable journey and I can only hope I won’t forget it anytime soon.

 

Final Score: 5/5

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Published in: on March 31, 2014 at 7:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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