Have you heard of Myst? Yes? Excellent, this will be easy. Ether One is like Myst.
…More details? You want to know about the game and if it’s any good? Oh, right. Let’s get to it then!
Your journey through Ether One begins with the Ether Institute: a company that has created new technology to help patients with mental illnesses, specifically dementia. You will venture into the mind of a client and follow instructions in order to purge its memories of disease. It’s a strange premise that makes no scientific sense, but it’s a fascinating idea that pulls you in quickly. The game’s world is constructed from patients’ memories, and you’ll visit a harbour-side village, dark mines and industrial factories.
Like Myst, you never encounter any other people in the game’s world. Your guide, Phyllis, will divulge new information from time to time, but you never actually see her. Likewise, the few other voices you hear during memories are always without visuals. And since the game is in first-person, you never see yourself either. It’s suitably lonely and unsettling; as if you are the only real person in the whole world.
The atmosphere is consistently wonderful. The vibrant colours of the trees and village by the harbour give the area an almost magical feel. Likewise, the muted greys and browns of the mines and factories create an ominous depiction. The graphics are technically outstanding, though the system requirements are nothing to scoff at, coming in far higher than most indie games. Only the sound falls flat in Ether One’s presentation. Background music is not often used and is far too soft when it is. It’s a real missed opportunity to drive the story with emotion through music.
And that’s Ether One’s only real downfall: the story lacks impact. The ideas put forward are original and intriguing, but their delivery is awkward. In order to piece together a coherent narrative, it’s important to find as many notes, phone recordings and other hidden items as you can. Even then, remembering the names of all the people involved in the memories and their relationships to each other is near impossible. Only in the last couple of areas did I start to fully understand the central story, and the twist near the end was predictable.
Though filled with dozens of ingenious puzzles, it’s quite possible to beat Ether One and only ever complete a couple of them. Almost all puzzles are completely optional, allowing interested players to learn more about the setting and put their minds to the test, while permitting those frustrated by them to simply continue on and come back later if they wish. It’s truly brilliant, because whenever I became stumped with one puzzle I knew I could simply go try and other and come back later.
In order to actually progress through the game, all you need to do is locate ten red ribbons in each location. Doing so will unlock a “core memory” which you then enter to take photos of notable objects from the client’s past. Only a handful of ribbons are difficult to find, and the rest come easily enough if you explore each area. If you were to avoid most puzzles the game has to offer, you could easily knock it over in less than five hours. There are a few other hidden items to find too, and these are much harder to track down.
Each set of puzzles revolve around a broken film projector. In order to fix them, you have to solve the challenges in the surrounding areas. Most are so beautifully implemented that you don’t realise they’re a puzzle until you’re well on the way to completing them. Ether One’s ability to bring together story and gameplay elements naturally is outstanding. Most involve locating certain useful items and then applying them to the environment in the right way. For example, one puzzle requires you to start a furnace and heat it up. To do so, you must figure out the correct position of its switches, add a chemical to super-heat it, and then go down stairs and use a nearby clock to time the rotations of the object it powers. There’s plenty of back-and-forth between puzzles after you find new items and clues.
Fortunately, moving around the game’s world is easy. As part of your work as a “Restorer,” you have access to a hub known as The Case. It’s a physical space that functions as an inventory and encyclopaedia. You can only ever carry one item with you at a time, but the rest can be stored on the shelves found in The Case. Jumping back and forth between it is as simple as pressing the ‘T’ key. The hub keeps track of collectables you’ve found, important notes you’ve picked up, and even houses its own secrets. You can also fast-travel to places you’ve already been by accessing the map. It’s a clever way to turn what would normally be relegated to menu options into something fun.
Like the old days of adventure games, I kept a notebook by my side for the entirety of my play through. Even though the game keeps track of many important notes in The Case, I found it quicker and easier to jot down safe combinations, diagrams, and anything else I thought might be useful. If the thought of writing and sketching notes for later use excites you, then this adventure is one you’re sure to enjoy.
Ether One immersed me in a gameplay experience the likes of which I haven’t enjoyed in quite some time. In a world of fast-paced combat systems, novel-length stories and challenges filled with hand-holding, Ether One stands apart by balancing puzzles and exploration from decades ago in a modern and accessible way.