Hopefully the closest you’ll ever come to dementia.
Dementia terrifies me. My wife works with elderly dementia sufferers, and her stories about people who spend most of their day confused, only to have their few lucid moments filled with sorrow at the sudden recollection that a loved one is no longer living are truly heartbreaking. As game fodder it’s a challenging subject, but developer White Paper Games uses it as the basis for a strong, emotional narrative. The supporting elements can be a hindrance, but the overall experience is one that both puzzle fans and casual gamers can enjoy.
The basis of Ether One is the idea that memories are obscured by brain plaque. Much like one would go to the dentist to get their teeth cleaned, patients can go to the Ether Institute and a restorer will navigate their minds and destroy memory clogging plaque. Clearing that plaque requires sifting through the patient’s mind and piecing their memories back together.
The game description says there are two paths, but really it’s just one path with a lot of optional puzzles. Simply finding memory fragments (represented as ribbons) is enough complete it; in fact, I finished the game only visiting three of the four areas. However, there are also puzzles scattered around the world which, when solved, give greater insight into the story. The puzzles are well designed, and would be worth investing time in even if the satisfaction of solving them was the only reward.
Length: Extremely Variable
The story in Ether One is very compelling, and seeing the credits roll just motivated me more to go back and retry puzzles I didn’t finish, and explore areas again to see if I missed anything. The game is reminiscent of Myst in that nothing is really explained, and part of the challenge is figuring out what is and isn’t related to a specific puzzle. The vague nature, along with some nice embellishments and the haunting soundtrack, never let me forget that I was operating in a mind that wasn’t connecting all of the dots.
Unfortunately, Ether One doesn’t quite connect all of the dots either. The game is littered with notes, many with crucial information, but there is no notebook or any such thing to keep them in, so I resorted to taking pictures with my phone. There is also no map or way to make one, which made it hard to ensure I was thoroughly searching what were often very similar looking buildings. The game re-uses a lot of art assets, and I saw the same cupboards in every kitchen, and the same clothing in every drawer.
The game handles items in a similarly annoying-but-not-quite-offensive way. My character was arbitrarily limited to carrying one item at a time, and items can only be set down on certain pads. The balance is that I could teleport to the case (basically the hub area), where there were shelves I could fill with items. Teleporting only takes a few seconds but it adds up, as I was constantly going back and forth with every item I found, since I had no way of knowing what might be useful, and I knew finding something again would be time-consuming. The game also doesn’t do anything to distinguish interactive objects, so the knife that I could pick up looked exactly the same as the plate next to it that I couldn’t.
Ether One won’t blow anyone away with its graphics, but the art design is very nice. There is, however, a major problem with the textures. In order to speed things along I dropped the texture detail from very high (the default) to high. After getting stuck on a puzzle and randomly switching back I had a revelation – there was a poster on the wall that had vital information I needed, but at any texture setting other than the highest it was unreadable. The game is not a graphical beast and most players can probably stick with the highest setting, but just the fact that the lower settings obscure crucial information is awful design.
While I wish Ether One didn’t force me to run around so much and click on everything in sight to see if it was a usable item, those shortcomings couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the game. When I “finished” the game in just under 5 hours I had only completed one puzzle, and accumulated many questions. While I don’t know why anyone would want to play without the puzzles, even those who do will find themselves seeking them out for the extra information they provide. Ether One is a sharp, unique game that deals with a tragic subject in an empathetic way, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.