In a world of 100-plus hour RPGs, sprawling open world adventures, and competitive online games that demand for us to be plugged in, Matrix-like, to the internet, there’s something to be said for short, breezy experiences.
Yet the design of Etherborn is minimalist to a fault. Developer Altered Matter has created a puzzle platformer with, as the name suggests, an ethereal mood and a seemingly thought-provoking narrative. But the result is thin, wispy, and forgettable, despite its striking visual style.
As a faceless corporeal being, you awaken at the base of a great tree. Your task is to climb it as you’re whisked away through portals to various levels that require you to run, jump, and complete the same puzzle over and over, that being: collect glowing white orbs to progress.
There is one twist, though: Etherborn’s central concept. Your character can walk up walls and reorient gravity. As such, each level is cleverly designed like an Escher-esque construct, where you run effortlessly around mind-bending corners, fall sideways across the screen, and cope with a camera that just about keeps up with your movement but never quite gives the optimal view for such distorted platforming. There are dizzying swoops as gravity changes, and cinematic framing of the scenery, but while it’s easy to fall, the generous checkpoints allow for some experimentation.
It’s easy to get lost in these levels, not least because the minimalist scenery becomes flat and repetitive. The puzzles demand you consider multiple planes, angles, and dimensions, which can lead to some aimless wandering if you’re not careful before stumbling upon a solution. That said, this is a gently cerebral experience that’s never too taxing, even when it gradually ramps up its challenge.
What ties it all together is a philosophical narrative that, rather than inspiring curiosity, is fluffy, obtuse, and ultimately unnecessary. As you rise up the tree, a disembodied, breathy voice narrates some sort of history of humankind, spouting existential questions and suggesting something about the insignificance of humans. It’s all a bit disconnected from the playing experience, and fails to add much that’s meaningful to the game itself.
Visually, the abstract, polygonal world mirrors the conceptual narrative, and a beautiful score of hushed woodwind and lustrous strings maintains peace when your mind is in full concentration mode. Yet after a couple of hours, it’s all over, its questions unanswered, its one-note mechanics never reaching a satisfyingly climactic peak. Etherborn is gossamer-light, its refreshing change of pace a brief flutter among the weightier games in your backlog.
The score really is beautifully done and adds much to the game’s ethereal atmosphere. From tinkling pianos and lilting guitars, to jazz rhythms and haunting vocals, the sounds shift almost as much as the perspective. Listen out for musical cues that give hints if you’re on the right track.
All style over substance, Etherborn fails to leave a lasting impression.
Genre: Puzzle platformer
Format: PS4 / XBO / Switch (tested) / PC
Developer: Altered Matter
Publisher: Altered Matter
Release: Out now