I didn’t think it was really possible to feel vertigo in a video game outside of VR, but somehow Etherborn managed it. As I stared downwards into the infinite void of the sunlit skies, I couldn’t tell which way was up, where I was or what I was doing.
Etherborn has a habit of throwing you into these uncomfortable situations, which is crazy considering it’s a peaceful physics-based puzzle game. Your character, a silent semi-transparent body, gets dropped into a world where you are guided by mysterious voice down a path, leading you to a giant tree where the levels are laid out along its bark for you to explore.
Along the way, you are introduced to the basics of this unusual world. This is a place where encountering a sloped path next to a wall means you can walk up said wall. Gravity will adjust to whatever surface you find yourself on, meaning if are waking up a surface with flat edges, don’t go thinking you can just jump and gracefully attach yourself to the side or land back on the ground. Instead, you will fall to your doom. Well, I say doom, but you’ll actually just respawn a few steps back at the last checkpoint, ready to foolishly leap into the abyss once more!
Danger is not the point of Etherborn, though. It’s all about wrapping your head around the gravity defying puzzles laid before you by the geniuses that are Altered Matter. I can safely say I was blown away by how intricate a lot of the solutions were. I genuinely spent twenty minutes on one puzzle before I changed perspectives and realised all I had to do was fall off the platform.
Experimentation is key and, more often than not, walking up a slope that takes you to another section will present you with new opportunities that you didn’t know existed before. Orbs are present on some sections and need to be collected and placed in slots in order to proceed. It’s getting to these orbs that present a lot of the challenge, sometimes requiring some backtracking and perspective shifts before you can find the way forward.
Perspective-based puzzlers are not new, but Etherborn definitely feels unique. Being able to view a level from all angles only to discover whole new sections that you didn’t know about is such a ‘eureka’ moment. There was one level (which you need to think of like a Rubik’s Cube) where I was exploring five of the six sides trying to work out what to do. I was so disoriented that I didn’t realise there was more to the puzzle until I discovered that sixth side and literally started cheering. Everything had fallen into place. I felt clever. I thought the designers were clever. I sat there clapping to myself.
Accompanying the puzzles is a gorgeous world and a soundtrack that really takes you on a journey. Music is important, especially with a game like this. Puzzle games can be frustrating at the best of times and having something in the background that fits the aesthetic will often push you that little bit further or at least sooth your frustration at being stuck. I feel Altered Matter have nailed it here.
I really didn’t want the journey to end, but knowing there’s more to come certainly helped. There’s a narrative to explore, yet I feel the best bits are being saved for the final release due to the nature of the game. The details were fairly sparse, but I did catch something about the fate of humanity in there so let’s see what happens.
Right now though, Etherborn is as close to video game art as you are going to get. It’s like looking at an Escher painting but being able to step inside it, change it and explore, solving the mystery along the way. It’s quite inspiring and I’m definitely looking forward to the next part of the journey.