While puzzle mechanics are still an integral part of game design for certain genres or franchises, puzzle-based games are a rare breed in today’s gaming landscape. They may lack the blockbuster set pieces and photorealistic visuals, but what they do often pack is a whole lot of charm and creativity. One game that hopes to shine some light on the puzzle genre is Etherborn, the debut game from the Barcelona-based studio Altered Matter. It’s a game that aims to mix the challenging nature of puzzle-centric gameplay with an emotive narrative, something it largely succeeds in despite its short length.
Big journey for a little person
Etherborn’s premise is fairly simple in nature; players take control of a voiceless translucent being who is in search of answers regarding their origin while being guided by a bodiless voice. On their journey, our little friend will conquer a number of levels (puzzles), bringing them closer to the holy grail. While the story gives our being some purpose it’s hardly noteworthy. In fact, it’s somewhat convoluted and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at times. However, I will admit that playing the game with Spanish audio gave it a little more allure than English voice overs.
Each level is a giant puzzle designed to test your problem-solving skills and patience. On paper the task is simple: collect the orbs and progress to the end. However, getting from A to B is not as easy as it sounds, with the levels throwing topsy-turvy gravity-shifting elements at the player. Placing orbs on trigger points in the level will activate areas of the level that were previously unreachable and often you’ll need to use orbs on multiple trigger points multiple times to reach the end.
The puzzles’ biggest drawcard is that the rules of gravity don’t apply; one moment you’ll be walking normally across a platform only to be walking underneath it or along its side panel minutes later. If there’s one rule to live by in the world of Etherborn it’s that every surface can be a platform at some point.
These puzzles drive me up the wall
To Altered Matter’s credit, the puzzle design really makes your brain earn its keep. There were several times where I felt like I’d hit a brick wall – but alas I would not be beaten, and after a break I would come back with a fresh set of eyes and conquer whatever challenge lay before me. It’s a testament to the rewarding puzzle design that it makes you want to come back and succeed no matter how stuck you feel. If you do get stuck it is important to remember that there’s always a way to progress.
Disappointingly though, Etherborn’s campaign is limited to just five levels (six if you include the tutorial). Sure you can go back and replay each level on New Game + (or a variant of), which repositions the orbs and ups the difficulty (apparently), but it’s still the same five levels you’ve already played. I know game development is a tough gig at times and Etherborn’s budget likely wasn’t huge, but it’s hard not to compare Etherborn to similar games (at similar prices) such as Youropa, which has over ten hours of content, as well as a level creation tool. On the plus side it does make for a relatively easy platinum if trophy/achievement hunting is your jam.
While Etherborn’s gameplay is the jewel in its crown, its most striking asset is its vibrant and colourful visuals. Blending gorgeous glowing fluorescent and pastel colours, Etherborn’s world is a glowing picturesque sanctuary which is complimented perfectly by its soothing soundtrack.
Stairway to pastel colour heaven
It’s such a shame that Etherborn’s runtime is barely a few hours because what Altered Matter has crafted is very good. The gravity-shifting puzzle design is excellent, the vibrant art style is gorgeous, and the soundtrack helps sell the emotive narrative even if it is somewhat irrelevant. If you like a good challenge then Etherborn is worth a look, however be prepared to be left wanting more when the credits roll.
Reviewed on PS4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher