Released last week on Steam and GOG, among other services, Ether One has landed in our hands just in time for a full examination. To find out the diagnosis look inside.
At a time when the narrative has become increasingly prominent in the video game space, some of the bolder indie attempts, such as Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable, have gone so far as to nearly remove that which could be considered actual gameplay. Ether One tries to find a balance by introducing a selection of puzzles to complement its narrative in a very 1993 CD-ROM-esque move. These puzzles are mostly optional, interestingly, but only through solving them will the story fully reveal itself and it's the story's themes that will keep you playing. Ether One explores the deteriorating mental state of a woman suffering from dementia. It's rare indeed to encounter a game which focuses so directly on mental illness but Ether One handles its themes quite deftly.
You play the role of a "restorer", a person sent into the psyche of mentally disturbed patients in an effort to save them from their internal prison. Guided by a rather authoritative yet mysterious voice, you find yourself wandering through the memories of Jean, a 69-year-old woman scarred by something which happened in her life long ago. The gameplay centers primarily on exploration and item acquisition with a plenty of items, puzzles, and notes to pick up along the way. Many of these items may not appear to hold a particular use while others may contain the solution to a riddle you'll encounter later on. In that sense, Ether One demands a good sense of inventory organization, an art lost in modern games.
In fact, the approach to inventory is quite original. The player is limited to holding a single item at a time, but the number of necessary objects far exceeds this limit. The solution? A separate room, available at the press of a button, in which you can carefully store and sort your collection of items. It is a strange place known only as "The Case" (referencing the medical case a doctor might carry) to which you will return to regularly. Shelves work as expected and allow you to carefully organize and place objects which wind up serving a real purpose in how you approach puzzles. It's certainly less restrictive than the more "realistic" approach seen in the last Alone in the Dark game and, once you become accustomed to it, becomes just as easy to use as a more traditional solution.
As a game relying on narrative, nailing the atmosphere is doubly important and thankfully they've done a good job here. Sure, some of the textures could have been a bit sharper, but the pastel art direction is sublime and delivers an undeniable charm. Some will find the visuals a bit dated, but it has the same charm as a foxy actress of the 80's who's grown older and still looks fine. As expected, performance is fast and smooth and the use of discrete surround with a focus on ambiance contributes to the experience. While Ether One isn't really a horror game in the truest sense, the developers still manage to build a rather disturbing atmosphere with the mysterious play between the supervisor and the restorer only serving to exacerbate distrust. As such we must applaud the work of the voice director here as a failure to nail this element could have destroyed the narrative they were trying to tell. Ever since Portal and Glados, we've become accustomed to the presence of an accompanying voice over, but it requires solid voice acting for it to work properly. It is thankfully the case here.