I don't consider this review to contain any huge story spoilers, but I do describe elements of the game including specifics of the first puzzle and areas in the game world. If you want to go in with no knowledge of those things, maybe skip to the first header.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter opens immediately with a screen saying "This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand." The game isn't kidding, it starts with just a few lines of introduction that sets up your character as an unknown person named Paul Prospero with no backstory. And that's effectively all you get, I was immediately dropped on a rail line in the middle of a beautiful forest.
Following this trail leads you to a run-down bridge that presents us with gorgeous vistas, a river leading to a reservoir capped by a dam in the distance. The sun shines down on the sparkling water as I make my way over the bridge, wondering the entire time if a board is going to collapse, dropping me into the river hundreds of feet below. Wondering, because I know literally nothing about this game or its mechanics.
Continuing on leads me to a train engine and the game shows me that it's missing the crank that I'll need to start it, but doesn't give any hints to its location. For the first of many times, I push forward, confused but assuming the game will eventually reveal its intentions. I continue across the bridge and head back into the forest on the other side. That's where I find my first body.
It's a teenager whose legs have been chopped off, presumably by a train engine. He's dragged himself off the rail, leaving two trails of blood behind before succumbing to his injuries. The game prompts me to touch the body, which I do reluctantly. I'm rewarded with a strange floating circle that pulses, but not explanations what that means.
I search around the area, finding clues and re-assembling the crime scene. With each clue, the circle that appears when I touch the body keeps getting bigger and bigger, but no matter how much I search, I can't find the last piece of the puzzle. For the second time, I push forward, assuming that the game will eventually make its intentions clear. I eventually find a second body and a second set of clues, but I still have no idea what is going on. Then a third body with a third set of clues. And finally a fourth body with a fourth set of clues.
At this point, I've explored the entire game world, explored strange haunted houses and an underground mine where I got my first, and thankfully only, jump scare. But I still had no idea what to do and I was getting close to halfway through the four hours the internet implied it would take me to beat the game. I decide to backtrack because obviously pushing forward hasn't gotten me anywhere.
Now I'm back at the first body. He's still covered in blood and missing his legs. Touching him still just gives me the pulsing circle and it's definitely bigger, but I can't figure out what the last step is. Finally, after wandering around in the woods for five or ten minutes, I come across a rock I can pick up! I have no idea how many times I must have walked past it, but I had it now. I find the pile of rocks it came from and go back and touch the body.
Finally, I have figured out the secret to how this game actually works! A series of ghost-like vignettes appears around the crime scene. They play one of a time, but once I ordered them correctly it showed the entire scene and I finally found out how the dead kid lost his legs. The sense of victory was huge, I praised the developers for not holding my hand and giving me the agency to figure out how the game worked myself, instantly forgetting the frustration I'd felt minutes before. I ran off to the second body because I now held the secret!
Well, I thought I did. I searched and searched and couldn't find the last clue to finish out the second body. Finally, after a half hour of searching, I broke down and looked at a walkthrough. And even then, I couldn't find it. Turns out that at the default settings, I couldn't see the hallway I needed to go down. I'd walked past it dozens of times and didn't even know it existed. (Full disclosure, when I played the game later on my TV, the difference in brightness was massive and the hallway was clearly visible.) Either way, I now had all the clues and crossed another mystery off the list. The third was also relatively easy to solve. As was the fourth. But then, again I was stuck. I hadn't found any other bodies and I'd explored the entire world. What I didn't know was that in the vignette world where you can see the crime recreated, one of the "ghosts" in the vignette had unlocked a previously unlocked door, which again I needed a guide to point out.
Once I got past that, the rest of the game was fairly straightforward, the story progressing nicely until I got to what I assumed was the ending of the story, where the game informed me that in fact I still had another four puzzles to solve before I could actually finish the game. Two of them I knew about, but the game hadn't really implied that I needed to solve them to progress. The other two I wasn't even aware of. Long story short, I found them and was then (and only then) able to finish the game.
Don't Want Spoilers? Start Here.
Normally I don't start a review with almost a thousand words of semi-spoilers, but it seemed important to explain the above in order to put my review in context. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a complex game full of incredible highs when I figured something out and equally frustrating lows when I had wandered around for 30 minutes trying to find a rock. What I can't decide is if that is the developer's intention. Did they create a game that "does not hold your hand" in order to make the joys of discovery seem that much better? Does that up and down wave make for an ultimately better game?
After thinking about it for about a week, I've decided that the answer is probably no, I think I would have enjoyed Ethan Carter more if the game had held my hand just a little bit more. I don't need an arrow to guide me to each puzzle, but it seems like the game could have done a better job guiding me through the story using environmental storytelling. A game like Firewatch is a perfect example, I always knew where I needed to go, but it gave me a lot of freedom on how to get there. This meant that the story came together in a linear way, which in retrospect would have been a better way to experience Ethan Carter.
That being said, the real question is that even knowing that the game can be frustrating, is it worth the effort? Is the payoff worth it? The answer is an strong yes. The story that weaves its way through The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is excellent and unexpected in many ways. The ending will leave you with answers but maybe just as many questions and that isn't a bad thing. On top of that, the game is gorgeous and it's made even more so by the stunning 4k visuals in the Xbox One X and PC versions of the game (the PS4 is limited to 1080). The developers used a process called photogrammetry to bring real-world objects into the game by taking dozens of photos of those objects in the real world and it makes the game feel very real and astoundingly beautiful.
Overall, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter isn't perfect. I enjoyed my time with it and while it's not as good as a lot of other narrative adventure games I've played, it's amazing story combined with breathtaking visuals make it a game well worth playing. I personally believe you would also benefit from playing it with a walkthrough. It will greatly lower the amount of frustration that the game presents you with and it will let you approach the game in a more linear fashion, which I think will help the story ultimately make more sense.