The mind is a strange, and wonderful place. In Ether One, you take on the role of a Restorer. You work for a medical company that deals in curing ailments, from the inside, out. In the mind. Your task, as the Restorer, is to delve into the memories of a person afflicted with dementia. Rooting through old thoughts, and reliving moments, you must find the source of the ailment, and remove it, thus restoring their sanity. But the complexity of the mind isn’t so easily remedied, and soon, your existence begins to hinder the mission.
Taking control of the Restorer, the game takes place in first person view, allowing you to see and interact with the environment, through the eyes of the protagonist. You can run, jump, read, examine, and pick up items. You begin in a medical facility, where you meet Phyllis, a disembodied voice that gives you instructions, and leads you on your journey. After a bit of exploration, you sit in a chair, and dive into the mind of a young woman that suffers from severe dementia.
Once in the mind, you are placed within a kind of hub world. Here, you can store objects, see your progress, read notes you’ve picked up, and sort through many of the important items that you find on your journey. You can return here anytime you wish, with the simple press of a button. When you’re ready, you teleport to the patient’s mind, and your adventure takes place in the town of Pinwheel.
This is an exploration game, through and through. As such, there isn’t a H.U.D. There isn’t even an inventory screen. As you make your way through Pinwheel, you begin in the abandoned town, searching for clues, and uncovering the mystery of not only Pinwheel, but the source of the patient’s dementia. You eventually make your way through Pinwheel Harbor, an industrial complex, and eventually a mine. There are four major areas to explore in Ether One.
In your travels, you will find sheets of paper on tables, floors, and walls, that give you bits and pieces of story. These can range from journals, love letters, reminders, or simple statements, all used to give you clues to what must be done. It also serves to fill you in about what is happening, or what has happened, allowing you to piece together the broken fragments of the story.
And, of course, there are puzzles to solve. During gameplay, you can pick up and interact with certain objects. Some will aide you in your quest to unravel the truth –hidden in the patients mind– like jars that can be shattered, or a lost journal that was never put back. Then there are random objects, like cups, folders, sheets of paper, bottles, and other oddities that serve no purpose. At least, I don’t think they do? It’s up to you to find out.
As I said, there isn’t an inventory screen, so you can only hold one item at a time. The main hub, where you begin, before first entering Pinwheel, is where you can store these items. During play, when you find something that’s useful, you can flash back to the main hub, store the object on a shelf —made specifically to store things you’ve found– and flash right back to the part of the memory you were last at. Very convenient.
Aside from finding objects, reading notes, and solving puzzles, there are also ribbons hidden throughout the level. These ribbons serve as the patient’s memories. When one is found, they dissolve, and a story sequence begins to play. There are eight ribbons in each area, and finding them is your primary objective.
As a Restorer, you eventually find an object that gives you tremendous power. It’s an artifact that allows you to destroy plaque build up, that is causing the dementia. With it, you can rebuild broken areas, like buildings, thus restoring parts on the memory that were missing, or perhaps forgotten.
Once you solve the puzzles, and find all the ribbons in an area, you are then free to enter one of the patient’s crucial memories. Activated via a music box in the main hub, you enter a door to the memory, and end up in an area, where it’s hard to see. Here, all you have is a camera. With it, you take pictures of everyday objects, that reveal important moments in the patient’s history.
Ether One does an excellent job of setting up an atmosphere of mystery. When I first started playing, I thought this was going to be your standard first person game in a medical facility, where something goes horribly wrong. And in the beginning, it was just that. But there’s a moment, when the story itself takes a drastic turn, and everything starts to become unhinged! Ether One draws you in and keeps you wondering and guessing until the very end.
Which brings me to the story. As I said, I thought this was going to be a standard adventure about science and terrible doctors. Not at all. The trek through Pinwheel is initially just that, though. Then, without spoiling anything, you make a decision, and there are doors. The freaking doors! From here on out, the story continually, and genuinely, surprised me. There were moments, when I started to realize what was going on, where I seriously felt emotional. Ether One has a very powerful story, and is one of the few that almost made me cry. I can’t say there are many video games, that I’ve played, that have had such an emotional impact. The story is absolutely beautiful, and magnificently heartbreaking.
The dialogue and the voice work are also top notch. Nothing ever felt rehashed or generic, and the performances added so much life to the overall game. The people that voiced Phyllis and Jean did a remarkable job of creating characters that were interesting, and likable. Throughout the game Phyllis has interesting quips that help drive the entire narrative forward, speaking and guiding you on your journey. I was never sure if I could trust her, or even if I should, but she was a well rounded character, with a believable personality. Also, Jean’s commentary on the world was a great touch, and added to the wonderful immersion.
I also really enjoyed the art style. It’s highly detailed, without being too realistic. I appreciate that approach. The overall design kind of reminds me of what Gearbox did in Borderlands, with the cel-shaded, cartoony look. And being that I freaking love Borderlands, that’s a good thing.
Ether One could have been perfect, but there are a few things worth mentioning, that did take me out of the experience. First of all, the lack of a map made things a bit more difficult. It wasn’t really a problem, but the areas in Ether One can be pretty big, and there were certain moments where I got lost. Also, while searching for the ribbons, I couldn’t really tell if I had searched an area or not, since Pinwheel can feel down right massive, at times! I also really suck at directions, so for me, a map –maybe indicating where I found ribbons– and a general overview of the area, would have helped, and kept me from wandering aimlessly in a circle.
The inventory management also felt a bit awkward. Since you could only hold one item, it forced you to go back to the main hub, to stash whatever you found. This was interesting, and not too taxing, seeing as how you could instantly switch from the memory to the hub. However, when you teleport to the main hub, you face a board, which keeps track of your progress, instead of being brought to one of the shelves. The shelves are on the side of the board, so it’s not too hard to walk up to them. But when you have a lot of items, it really slowed progress to have to teleport, move, put item down, teleport back. It seemed to over complicate the inventory, where a bag, or simple screen, would have been easier.
And as far as items go, it was hard to tell what you could pick up, what you could use, and what was just a background asset. Everything looked the same. I think an indicator, like a glow around an item, or a sparkle, would have narrowed down all the choices, since I ended up trying to click on everything. Also, I was never sure what was integral to solving puzzles, and what was just random junk? Cause there’s a lot of stuff you can pick up, and I cluttered up the main hub with cups, papers, hats, and other odds and ends that I never ended up using.
Lastly, there seemed to be a delay in the controls. I mean, when I’d hit the WASD keys to move, it would take a split second for the character to move. It’s very minute, and hardly noticeable, but noticeable enough to mention. Also, the mouse seemed to lack a bit of precision? Not sure if this is a fault of the game, or my computer. Although, I feel like it may be my PC. You see, my computer can run the game on its highest setting, but it chugs slightly, like it’s going to die. So it just may be a performance issue, and no fault of Ether One. I really need to get a stronger rig. Sigh, oh well.
There are some games that you play, and they leave no lasting memory. When they’re done, they’re done. Then there are games that are so powerfully crafted, that the emotional response –by the time the game ends– is overwhelming. Then, all you can do is ponder everything that happened. You just sit there. You’re sad. Upset. Satisfied. Ether One is one of those games. The journey it takes you on is unforgettable, and one of the most emotionally impacting games I’ve ever played. Absolutely wonderful, very surprising, and well worth your time.
Please be sure to check out my interview with Pete Bottomley, from White Paper Games!
Review copy courtesy of White Paper Games