Etherborn is a new title brought to you by Altered Matter. It has garnered up enough anticipation for its release, and I can see why. Etherborn is an experience. I can happily say that when playing it, whatever was going on in the real world at the time, I didn’t know about it. I was that immersed in the first playthrough.
It plays like an M.C. Escher piece. At one moment, you’re walking along a pathway with a wall to your side, then you walk up a ramp and your character is now walking along that same wall as if it were the floor. It isn’t a camera trick as gravity affects your positioning. What was a safe area can now result in you falling to your death. Well, you can’t die for good, but you can trigger a respawn. Etherborn is a mixed breed of environmental platformer meets puzzle game. Your character doesn’t articulate or have any distinguishing features. They are a sentient being, driven by a voice who narrates their path as if in a dream.
The star of the game is the environment. And the puzzles, of course. These landscapes are simply stunning, and you can explore almost any part of them through a series of deceptive angles and interaction with objects that change your position on the 3D stage.
I said at the beginning that Etherborn is an experience, but that explanation doesn’t do it justice. I believe it’s something you need to explore for yourself rather than be told by someone else – hence the lack of story in the game. There is one present, and it refers to humanity, but I’ll leave that for you to find out for yourself.
Your physical goal in the game is to obtain orbs of light to place on switches and unlock new areas. These switches release new platforms for you to progress on your journey. There is a tree of life theme that is the hub of the game. Each time you complete a level, you will unlock another area that appears in the shape of an orb and located on that very same tree.
While somewhat ethereal at times, it’s a puzzle game at heart, and there are no pointers on what to do next – you need to explore and figure it out. Perhaps that’s what you’re looking for, and for me, a lot of the time I enjoyed it. There are moments when your brain packs up, and you just aimlessly stare at the screen, walking around plateaus numerous times and trying to figure out how to get to the other side. It got to the point where I didn’t know what to do. I would attempt to jump off platforms or apparent gaps, carelessly believing that was the way forward. Clearly, it wasn’t, but I spent plenty of time wandering around. The solution’s usually apparent once you know it, but most things are easy when you already know the answer.
The visuals aren’t next generation high-res imagery, but the scenes are just gorgeous. They are vibrant and enticing – the opening of the game where you begin in a pool of water sets the mood immediately. I found myself just walking around the levels just for fun. They aren’t limitless open worlds, but with the added twist of gravity shifting, it opens up new opportunities. It reminds me a little of Fez to some degree.
The camera follows the protagonist pretty well but sometimes has a mind of its own. There are a few moments when it doesn’t keep up or seems to stray, and you have to use the right analogue stick to balance it out. It corrects it well though – things have improved since Super Mario 64 and getting stuck behind a tree.
Other than the narrator, there isn’t any additional dialogue, nor are there overpowering sound effects. Instead, it is the music that matches the visuals and carries the game forward. When experiencing your surroundings, the music is calm and relaxing. When wandering around aimlessly, the music maintains that calm and prevents you from throwing a tantrum because you don’t know what to do next. Well, that’s my excuse.
To get ahead in this game, you have to look at things differently and not on face value. I’m not teaching you a moral lesson on life but just about perception with each level. The time I spent on some areas for it just to be a case of jumping off a ledge then flipping the whole level around was annoying. That’s on me and my limited thinking though, not the game design.
There are a lot of decent physics-based puzzle games out there, and the Switch is suited to this genre – especially with the Joy-Cons and portable play. Etherborn doesn’t make use of this the way it could, but then again, it isn’t a Switch exclusive but a multi-platform release.
Developer: Altered Matter
Publisher: Altered Matter
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch
Release Date: 18th July 2019