Etherborn Review (PC)
As a fan of unique art styles and puzzle games, I found myself immediately drawn to Etherborn. A new gravity shifting puzzle game from Barcelona based developers Altered Matter.
Beginning with a sense of purpose most of us do not find until our 20s. Etherborn’s protagonist, a mute ethereal yet humanoid looking being, sets out on a journey to discover who or what they are. While guided/narrated by a disembodied voice, he tries to find his way on the “impossible path”. Spread across five chapters, the journey has you navigate sparse, yet distinct and beautiful landscapes. Collecting orbs and activating switches you manipulate the landscapes to find a path through.
The real twist to Etherborn is that the main character is not bound to our laws of gravity. He can navigate on any perpendicular plane as long as there is a curve between them. So what was once a wall impeding your path, becomes the new ground to tread and find a path up. There is platforming to be done and often you will find yourself having to complete jumps while looking at your character sideways. The camera will pan out to give a wider view of what you are doing, and to also give you a visual clue of what you need to do next. Little flourishes, such as showing you the next orb hidden behind a grille with a path going underneath it. Or a path with a chunk missing. When the camera works with you, playing Etherborn can be very inventive and fun.
But in a game where your camera view is restricted, it is also a must to ensure that the position of the player is effectively communicated at all times. Etherborn, in my playthrough, failed to do this at points. Much to my chagrin. Often obscuring the main character behind geometry. Some of this same geometry obscuring the fact there was a platform that I needed to traverse to. Or a ledge I could drop onto. Combine that with the floaty nature of the character’s movement and a slight camera veer meant a simple jump between two columns was often missed. Adding a level of precision that felt at odds with the rest of the games almost mystic ethereal nature.
Also the scale of each consecutive level becomes increasingly elaborate. Some of the steps in later levels felt more like scavenger hunts for the next path and less like a logical puzzle. With large chunks of the level floating in and out depending on what you do. These large chunks affect your route back and forth between key level points. At times it felt more like difficulty by obscurity. Searching for a small gap that had appeared thanks to activating a new switch. Rather than a logical progression that I was working through step by step.
There are a few environmental obstacles that get introduced in each new chapter. Such as the toxic sludge that will dissolve you upon touch. Or sets of monochrome blocks that appear out of a surface as you move towards them. These impede progress on one gravity plane, while opening up a new traversal path on another. When introduced, they hint and tease towards systems that could combine in elaborate ways to make some truly mind-bending puzzles. Sadly, Etherborn ends without ever using any of these systems together in any meaningful way.
Upon completing Etherborn, which was shy of 3 hours, I was left with a sense of dissatisfaction. Not because the game is bad, but because there was so much more potential. Even during its short run time, it presents small flourishes of gameplay ideas that were novel. But these quickly ran their course and didn’t get used in more complex and intricate ways.
In a strange way, Etherborn feels like a vertical slice of a larger project that has yet to come to fruition. Visually the game is fantastic. With each individual world having a unique colour palette and visual style. One favourite of mine resembled a teal and red cubist architecture that has gone awry. Part of the enjoyment was seeing how much a level had expanded and morphed since entering. Every time I completed a level it did actually feel like I had entered and conquered a gargantuan task. Even when the gameplay frustrated me, the sumptuous visuals managed to get me through. The score, which is fantastically composed by Gabriel Garrido Garcia, is relaxing and unobtrusive. Seeking to calm my nerves when the camera tried its hardest to rattle them.
The gameplay is functional, but it could have been expanded upon to great effect. Aside from my grievances with the camera, the main character had a plodding slowness, even when they were “sprinting”. There were great systems that feel like they have so much gameplay to tease out of them. Each level feels like a considerable amount of thought and work went into them. So it’s disappointing to have these clumsy controls take away from that experience.
The bodiless narrator gives an effective and emotionally disconnected performance. Much like you would expect from a celestial being. Yet it gives a sense of purpose to the proceedings. However, the resolution of the story is so abrupt that the it felt like the cold cut to the opening credits of a larger game.
Even the addition of a new game mode, which hides the orbs in different locations, was not much of a draw to me once I had completed the first runthrough. The core systems of the game don’t change, and the same frustrations remain.
Etherborn is a beautiful game that culminates before its ideas really get a chance to flourish. And that is truly disappointing.
6 gravity shifts out of 10