Ether One from White Paper Games is a fine example of a narrative-driven exploration game. It should be pretty clear to most gamers whether or not this kind of game will hold appeal for them, and for fans of the genre, Ether One won’t disappoint. The game sees the player take the role of a restorer, tasked with entering the consciousness of a patient suffering from dementia and piecing together their memories to uncover the truth. It’s a brave move, centering the story on such a serious and debilitating mental condition which affects the lives of so many people, but thankfully, and to the merit of the developers, it’s treated with respect and appears to be genuinely heartfelt.
The wonderfully realised but ominously deserted town of Pinwheel serves as the setting for the bulk of the game, and is a delight to explore. It soon becomes familiar as you travel back and forth between the town and the case, an area which serves as a hub and storage area for items, notes and projector reels which have been discovered. The main story can be uncovered by exploration alone, travelling around the different memories and collecting ribbons which advance the story and sometimes open new areas. For the more adventurous, a set of puzzles in the form of broken projectors litter the game world and tease mysteries which really require the player to work and think hard if they are to be solved.
Your lone companion on your journey into the mind comes in the form of the disembodied voice of a woman named Phyllis who is overseeing the treatment and your mission. The town is devoid of people but each building and location is filled with the results of their actions. This gives a creepy, haunted feel to each of them. There is a definite sense of history in the game, Pinwheel feels like it has been lived in and that the people who’s lives you are uncovering were really here at some point. Of course, the absence of any other human characters is explained by the fact that you are wandering around the reconstruction of the town in someone’s memories and not the actual town itself but it is unsettling nonetheless.
Visually, Ether One has a simple but effective aesthetic. It appears to be very lightly cell-shaded and reminiscent of a pastel painting which compliments the unreal nature of the majority of the game’s setting and works especially well in the small seaside port town of Pinwheel.
Ether One does away with any classic menu or inventory functionality which at first is quite endearing and has clearly been done to aid immersion. The lack of an inventory, however, can become troublesome as only one item can be carried at any one time. Items can be stored in the hub and transitioning back and forth is quick and smooth enough but when trying to complete some of the puzzles, I found myself getting really tired of the system. Having to return to the case several times during a puzzle ultimately detracted from my enjoyment of the game. That being said, the developers were faced with a difficult choice between immersion and functionality and for the most part, succeed in both areas.
The rest of the control system works well, moving around in the game is effortless and items can be picked up and placed in certain predetermined locations, rotated with ease and examined with the press of a button. Ether One also boasts VR support for those who own a headset but having only played the game on a lowly monitor, I can’t comment on its effectiveness although I imagine it would be quite an experience.
One area where a game like Ether One could have fallen is in the quality of the voice acting. Phyllis’ guidance and dialogue drives the story for the most part and is central to the the player’s understanding of the narrative. Thankfully, all the voice acting is up to a very high standard and a range of emotions and reactions are realistically and believably portrayed.
Ether One is a sobering and thoughtful journey filled with intrigue and contemplation, rounded out with well-crafted and optional puzzle sections. This isn’t the kind of game which will appeal to everyone and if it’s action you’re after, I’d advise going elsewhere. However, if the prospect of experiencing a truly captivating story wrapped up in a exploration based puzzle game is an attractive one, then Ether One delivers and won’t disappoint.