Editor’s Note: We recently got a chance to check out a preview build of Etherborn. The build we played was on PC and only featured around an hour of gameplay. Therefore, the impressions below are based upon that experience with the game.
As I sat down to play an Etherborn preview build I wasn’t entirely sure that the game would be able to bring enough new ideas and mechanics into the puzzle-platforming genre to allow it to stand out from the crowd. And, after previewing the game, the perspective-shifting and wall-bending world of Etherborn did not blow me away.
However, the topsy-turvy, twisting world did create some unique and smart level design that made me think harder than the majority of puzzle games I have played.
M.C. Esher-esque Levels
At its core, Etherborn is a puzzle-platformer that allows you to walk on just about any surface. This offers new and exciting levels and challenging tasks that few puzzle games can match.
Before I even hopped into Etherborn I was curious about how Altered Matter (the developer of the game) was going to be able to effectively communicate what surfaces I could walk on and where I could go. It turns out the team behind Etherborn have done an excellent job in doing just that.
The ability to transfer between surfaces is clearly defined by curved walls found throughout the levels. This is important for a puzzle-platformer, like Etherborn, as the game has to stick to a certain set of rules. By clearly marking what and where I could walk, I found solving the game’s puzzles to be rewarding and engaging. This is down to one simple fact, the game felt fair. Puzzle-platformers can suffer from random difficulty spikes; but, during the hour I spent with Etherborn, difficulty ramped up in a natural and comforting way.
The real enjoyment of Etherborn’s levels is not finding the crystals that allow you to progress, the satisfying nature of the game comes from figuring out how I could reach them. The unique level design of the game allows this, as the levels curve around themselves and platforms turn back on top of each other. Seeing a crystal in the distance and figuring out how I could manipulate the gravity of the game was my favourite part of Etherborn.
For example, one level had a crystal on the side of a bridge I had just walked upon. Figuring out that I had to shift gravity so that I could walk on the side of that bridge was one moment that stuck with me and left me impressed at the ideas and creativity that Altered Matter could put into the game.
Visual and Auditory Curiosity
The thing that surprised me the most as I played through Etherborn was how great the game looked and how crisp the music and sound effects were. The game doesn’t have any beautiful vistas or gorgeous character models; Instead, the most impressive thing visually was the reflections. Light stunned me as is bounced off of the flat surfaces I was walking on.
Similarly, the artificial-look of everything gives the game a unique tone of ambiguity. You aren’t sure what world Etherborn is set in, what it is trying to say, and why everything looks the way it does. The narrative helps push this belief forward. As I started the game I was greeted by a voice who spoke in what was almost ritualistic sermons. It wasn’t clear what she meant or what themes the game is going to touch on. However, it got me intrigued in the narrative Altered Matter are attempting to tell.
The sound effects and music also contribute to this tone. The audio mixing emphasised certain sound effects, such as running and water splashing, giving the game an atmosphere of artificiality that I had never seen before. I am unsure of what Etherborn is trying to make me think about or feel; however, I was left intrigued as to what it could be.
My hands-on time with Etherborn was short and I didn’t get to experience much of the game beyond its puzzles and platforming, which were creative and intriguing. The glimpses of the wider world of Etherborn left me feeling discombobulated and confused, due to the lack of clarity on what was actually happening. I hope in the final game, the narrative matches the excellence of the gameplay.