Altered Matter’s Etherborn was a very pleasant surprise for me. The realm of the indie puzzler isn’t somewhere I usually visit, unless there’s something else that tempts me in – some other interesting mechanic than brain teasers or if it happens to be an old school point and click. Etherborn is neither of those, though, yet is interesting and accessible enough to have held my attention through what was admittedly a very short experience.

The story has an abstract edge, with your playable character – a translucent humanoid – descending onto the empty yet colourful environment that becomes your puzzling playground. The narrator doesn’t explain your situation so much as talk to herself about things that are clearly a bit above our heads, though she does provide some sort of direction – with you climbing a tree to access new areas and then progress further up the tree in order to “understand your own existence”.

I’m sure there’s a clever metaphor involved, but I’d prefer to talk about the meat of the game. Etherborn is a puzzle game about gravity and perspective. You can run, jump and climb vertically and horizontally, but essentially you need to think about yourself being stuck to a particular direction. For example, if your feet are planted on the ceiling and you walk off the edge, you won’t fall back to the ground, but instead fall into the sky. In this way, the game expects you to figure out how to get to specific locations by utilising the various surfaces and their directions.

You need to gather orbs in order to release bridges and unlock/manoeuvre platforms, and the challenge comes from figuring out how you can orientate yourself so that you end up on the same platform as the orb and in the same direction. For example, the orb could be right next to you, but it’s horizontal on the wall and as such you need to figure out how to get there – this could be as simple as finding a smooth edge to climb around to that surface (you can only fall off sharp edges) or something more complex, like finding your way onto the ceiling, platforming over some obstacles before utilising another smooth edge to make yourself horizontal and dropping down onto the orb from above. It might sound rather complicated, but in essence it’s quite simple – the challenge comes from trying to remember the order of directions as levels get busier.

The concept in itself is very clever, and leads to some creative challenges. Combine this with an esoteric world and the experience is certainly a unique one. The music and aesthetic provide a tranquil, mysterious backdrop which, despite there not being much push from the game’s narrative side, inspires you to press on and discover more about your character and their world. The levels themselves are fairly contained, though open enough to allow for more movement (and the added challenge, if you’re not sure what to do next, of red herrings), and also the opportunity for a harder New Game+ mode which hides the orbs you need to progress in harder to reach/better hidden places.

Unfortunately the game is criminally short. Taking me just under two hours to complete a fist run, this doesn’t leave a lot of room for variety or pacing. Some might find it frustrating how the game jumps in difficulty, essentially going from 1 to 100 from the tutorial to your first real level, and due to there only being a few levels, the difficulty isn’t allowed to progress naturally. I felt as though there was more that could have been done with the gravity/perspective mechanic and some really cool puzzles to be made – judging from the quality of the few actually on offer.

But on the other hand, this is the definition of a short and sweet experience. If you want to enjoy an interesting puzzle mechanic without slaving away for hours and things getting too complicated for their own good, then perhaps this won’t be a bad thing for you – though even then, I think just a couple more levels would have been excellent.

The story reaches a nice conclusion, if a bit difficult to understand, and the New Game+ mode does offer a legitimate increase in challenge if you feel like extending the gameplay. Etherborn is a nice little puzzle game with a creative and well implemented idea, but having said this, with not enough to show for itself it can feel slightly underwhelming come the end.



Author

John Little
John Little

I started gaming with the release of the PS1 - Crash Bandicoot and Ridge Racer Revolution being the first 'real' games I ever set eyes on - and have been enthralled with the medium ever since. I particularly love strategy and horror games, the sort offered by titles such as Total War and Silent Hill, though I also have a soft spot for a good RPG. I studied Journalism at university in the hopes of progressing into writing about games. You'll most likely find me covering indie games as I'm always on the look out for interesting little titles, and generally I stick to the PC and PS4 platforms. I'm not interested in MMOs or really any kind of online game, and I have an unusual and frankly worryingly expensive obsession with collecting gaming guide books, but aside from that I like to think I'm a well rounded average gamer. Find me on twitter @JohnLittle29