It’s been a while since we’ve seen a really great gravity-bending puzzle platformer. Etherborn from developer Altered Matter sees the gap in the genre, and is actually the first game from 20th Century Fox and Disney’s Indie Fund. Etherborn has been lauded with pre-release awards at indie game events. So now that it’s out, is it any good?
To put it pretty bluntly, yeah, it’s great. Etherborn doesn’t pull any punches, and honestly had me really frustrated on more than a few occasions. After breezing through the first few stages I wasn’t expected the difficulty spike that followed, but I slammed into them at full speed. There were a handful of times where I would spend thirty or forty minutes trying to figure something out, take a break, and then come back and solve the puzzles pretty quickly because I was overthinking them.
Etherborn’s puzzles aren’t just incredibly well crafted, they are a work of art. Levels and obstacles meld together and twist like an M.C. Escher painting, and even while twisting into different perspectives, Etherborn’s camera manages to keep up. The one hiccup I had was judging distances. I often found myself trying to make a jump or dropping off a ledge aiming for another, and falling into the abyss. Etherborn is incredibly liberal with checkpoints though, so it didn’t result in too many issues, but was more annoying than anything.
Much like the recent movie Midsommar (which I really hated), Etherborn left me with more questions than answers. Etherborn follows an unvoiced body moving throughout the world. This body just wants to be, just wants to exist, and it’s trying to understand its place in the world.
It’s really a great metaphor for most people. As we grow up, we learn our place in the world, and as we grow and discover that knowledge becomes more rooted and makes us who we are. Etherborn does a great job of relating players to this being, even if it doesn’t have an apparent motive. It’s almost touching in that regard, and is a testament to the developers at Altered Matter that they could create such a compelling game with so little voice acting.
There is a disembodied voice that propels the protagonist throughout their journey. A voice that pokes the character into a sense of discovery, even if they don’t have a voice of their own. The narrative is almost as beautiful as the world Altered Matter has created. Like mentioned before, the puzzles are incredibly well-crafted, but it’s the minimalist world that really shines in Etherborn.
There’s a starkness here that doesn’t pervade in the minimalist design, but everything remains vibrant. Each level itself isn’t all that long, and the entirety of the game doesn’t last more than a handful of hours, but each area is uniquely crafted and visually distinct. It can sometimes be a little tricky to actually figure out which areas players can navigate. The minimalist design sometimes doesn’t portray easily curvature of a surface, which is how players shift perspective.
It’s hard to accurately describe how to navigate in Etherborn. To start, players are on a flat surface and gravity works as it should. Once you start exploring there are curved surfaces that you can walk on that shift the way that gravity affects you. That’s why not being able to see those curved surfaces can be so detrimental, they are the crux of the gravity shifting mechanics in Etherborn, and are the core of the puzzles here.
There are puzzles inside each intricate area revolving around picking up spheres to insert into locks. For the first few stages they are used, it’s just a matter of collecting them all and inserting them into a group of locks. As the game progresses though, things become far more complex. One stage had me using the locks in the incorrect order, and almost reached the point of hair pulling before I figured it out.
Despite the occasionally frustrating puzzles, Etherborn never pushed me away. Instead, the journey through existence complemented the difficult puzzles very well, and when I wasn’t playing, I often found myself thinking about Etherborn’s beautiful world and it kept pulling me back in.
Etherborn is one of the most complex titles I’ve played in a while. Observation (specifically the ending) from Devolver Digital comes close, but Etherborn isn’t as “in your face” as that title. Instead, it opts to present complex thoughts in a symbolic way, and presents players with some very difficult puzzles. Altered Matter has a winner on their hands, which they obviously realized well before now, but this is a title that deserves to be played by anyone with an eye for puzzles, or anyone still looking for their place in the world.
Etherborn is available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch. This review is based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher.