Etherborn is a small, yet ambitious title and the first game from a 4-main team, Altered Matter, hailing from Barcelona, as well as the first game from 20th Century Fox / Disney Indie Fund. It offers beautiful, neck-bending environments for players to solve without the pain of strain. Walk among the art pieces from different perspectives and find out what your role is after solving their challenges in this relaxing, puzzle game with class on display.
You take control of a nameless, humanoid avatar. Translucent in design, the only life that can be sensed is the tree-like nervous system seen rooted within the mind and torso. Etherborn contains a story and is told throughout parts of navigating each level and in-between each level with voiced cutscenes. While the purpose of your existence is vaguely revealed early on, players can get a gist of what’s going on, if the game’s title is any indication to go by. The non-playable scenes may be skipped by holding down the B button, but in the 3-5 hours it may take to complete the pretty puzzle-platformer, it may be worth sitting through.
Players are immediately dropped into the world space as it is and for the beginning portions it does a clear job of explaining the basic controls and core mechanics as the inputs are laid out to see in the environment where specific actions are meant to take place. The essentials are walk, jump and interact. Holding down the Y button will allow players to run, but admittedly this can still be slow at times whenever a platforming section was wrongly timed and you need to get back to a specific section of the level, for example. There’s an option in the menus to reverse these actions where the player will always run and walking is only enabled by pressing and holding Y. This felt a lot better and eliminated the need to have an extra button being pressed. I’d recommend it, but it’s up to the player. Still, the left analog gives the player just that: analog control. So even with run always enabled, you’re always in charge of the speed.
Control is exactly what Etherborn gives players, especially when it comes to the camera. Although it follows the player and automatically changes to particular perspectives in different areas, the zoom and panning is left to the player, albeit optional. For instance, the camera will follow the player when walking along, but holding down R will zoom out all the way as it follows giving you the bigger picture. Rotating the right analog will look around the level from that camera’s current position as well. When you get the basics nailed down, Etherborn pulls your shoestrings and begins to show you it’s not just a mere walking simulator. Players will find themselves upon the Endless Tree where levels must be completed in sequence. Branches will wither and break off creating a new path to your next destination.
Etherborn is breathtaking in its simplicity. It blends a rounded modern look with the versatile low-poly look, giving it a clean overall design. Low-poly models will stand out with its shimmering look with the way light bounces from its surface, or give life to the scene whether it’s the shrubs’ many leaves rustling in the wind. At the same time, texture work in the environments themselves are crafted to where it never overstays its welcome and the tessellation direction along with the choice of colors make for a serene experience. As the depth blur and lighting filters in, there’s appreciation for what it goes for.
Navigation and environmental puzzle-solving are key components to getting through each level (5 total). Each level is essentially a large rotating cube without actually feeling like it has any defined shape at all. Defied by gravity, players can walk along what would be called walls or ceilings. The catch is being able to change the rules of gravity by walking over the necessary platforms that naturally fit into the environments. Any edge with a hard angle means you are pulled into that direction by gravity should you walk off its ledge. Walking over any smooth & rounded angle onto the other side of the platform applies a change to gravity. It comes down to knowing the direction you’ll be pulled “down” toward and solving the levels. Unexplained, there is a visual indicator to where you the player will land on the platform below. There is fall damage, which immediately places you back to where you last were nearby, so there’s no real method of cheesing. Controlling the character while walking upside down may also take some getting used to. Jumping onto a higher platform could be more fluid. At times it feels like the left analog must be pushed towards the platform more forcefully than it should require just to hop onto it.
Perspective plays into the gameplay quite a bit, but it’s never a confusing situation. There may be a slight influence of the artist M.C. Escher, but you’ll never look at an entire level as one giant maze with stairs leading to a balcony of confusion.
The classic gameplay of acquiring objects and placing them on switches or levers is a large focus here. The goal of each level is to obtain the orbs and use them as inserts. The challenge comes from knowing when and where to use them. Some orbs you may have to leave behind and come back for later. Some you may need to take with you to another portion of the level. Eventually, all orbs will be put to use and in our total playthroughs (yes, plural) we found that to be the case without a way to get stuck. There’s a New Game+ where players go through the main game again, but each level has orbs in different places and need to be obtained in a different manner. As it turned out, the New Game+ did offer an even more likable challenge as it changes a bit in the way one must think. Orbs may be hidden by environmental objects or clever use of the camera angle. Platforms also need to be reached by experimenting a little differently. As a tad better New Game+ seemed, it being the 2nd playthrough still made it feel familiar enough where we managed to complete the game even faster than our initial run.
The game runs at a stable 30 frames per second. HD rumble is put to use here, but there’s not detailed enough nuance to stand out and by the nature of the game, there doesn’t seem to be much to do with it, either. At any time during the game, players can jump to any level they’ve already stumbled upon or return to the Endless Tree via the pause menu.
What’s exceptional is the soundtrack that compliments the visual side(s) of things. Synth tones, acoustics, strings, and overall ambiance is one of the highlights.