A lot of soul, but lacking in body.
I’m not sure if you know, but poems can be quite moving.
The last time I actively engaged in poetry, though, was about 12 years ago in Ms Clifford’s class when I was told to research Dunedin-born, New Zealand poet James K Baxter. The poems struck a chord with me as it was the first Kiwi perspective I’d heard which didn’t condense New Zealand into a glorified, ecological heaven-on-earth. Instead, Baxter described the land of the long white cloud as a ‘second-England,’ a ‘missed opportunity’ and a place repeating the same unjust, bourgeois cycles – plus it could get a bit saucy in parts, which for a boy entering adolescence was like bloody catnip.
Although it’s not as stark or directly cynical as one of Baxter’s works, when playing Etherborn I couldn’t help but think back to a heady, pre-pubescent day of dressing up like a cliche Jesus and presenting my research to the class. To me, Altered Matter’s first outing is the video game version of a poem and I can’t quite decide whether that’s good or bad.
Granted, it’s a wide brush to slop onto Etherborn, but it’s had me mulling over what I played and what it was trying to say more so than any game this year. It feels oddly reminiscent of coming away from a Baxter poem as it starts off surreal with flowery words describing emptiness, voices lost and faded thoughts. The imagery keeps this obtuse nature throughout the experience, deliberately embracing the abstract.
Like its themes, the way Etherborn has you interact with the world is also confusing. Controlling a translucent, humanoid-like creature who looks like something on the front of a bottle of chest-relieving cough medicine, you’ll wander up a bare tree, traipsing from one disjointed memory bubble – essentially the game’s shorthand for levels – to another. Each memory contains puzzle sections which can be completed by collecting orbs and doing some gravity-defying platforming.
Rather than having a soothed throat, the player-controlled character has the ability to traverse up the walls and on the ceilings of the segmented, dreamy landscapes. By shifting the point of gravity to where your feet touch, Altered Matter have cleverly twisted puzzle platforming into something more unique and less familiar to players. However, this comes with its own set of problems.
While the majority of the puzzles are well-constructed, they often caused me to get stumped for several minutes before I figured out the deceptively simple solution. They are also often disorientating. Through constantly shifting the origin of the gravity and camera angles which fight against it, trying to solve the puzzles in Etherborn can have you leaping off a ledge unnecessarily or even make it harder to figure out where exactly you are. For a game which lasts about an hour or two, it impedes the pace and turns a few of the puzzles from head-scratchers to genuine annoyances.
However, if Etherborn’s controls feel slightly clumsy, its art style has no such problems. It’s stunning.
To describe Etherborn’s aesthetic as beautiful can only be done by pronouncing it as Bruce Almighty, pausing after each of the first three letters. Okay, that may be a bit far but the way Altered Matter have used their colour palette is impressive. They’ve mixed together a hazy colour pallette which blends together to give a foggy, ethereal mood for each step or jump you take in this world. The fractured worlds, ruined buildings and imposing structures give a sense of desertion, apathy and of places long forgotten by time. It’s truly impressive.
Though you can’t argue about how good Etherborn looks, its pacing feels odd. While I don’t equate a game’s value to the hours it takes to complete (I thought last year’s Semblance was absolutely fantastic though some admonished it for its length), Etherborn ends abruptly. When the end credits started to roll after a couple of hours I desperately hoped the game was going to continue afterwards. But it didn’t – instead, it ends when the puzzles start hitting their stride and its core gravity-shifting mechanic starts to feel familiar.
Although, this is where Etherborn has me questioning how it wants players to react and whether or not it’s done what it wanted. Like a Baxter poem, it’s short, steeped in metaphors and imagery, and wants you to come up with your own interpretation, which essentially means it’s hard to recommend.
And yet I’m worried Etherborn won’t stay in my thoughts for as long as Baxter’s words have. Try as it might to nestle its way into the recesses of my mind, Etherborn may end up being a fleeting memory – a pleasant experience but one which will hang on the forefront of your mind, only to be quickly scuppered by something with a bit more of body.
[Reviewed on Switch]