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ETHER One (PC) artwork

ETHER One (PC) review

"Holding back the waves of chaos, one tiny slice of order at a time..."

Ether One provokes unusual behaviour from me. I started playing it when it released last year. After progressing quite a ways into the campaign, far enough that I could have powered through to the end without much trouble, I set it aside because a mad rush would have meant not playing it properly. I waited until I could do things right.

That's the sort of game Ether One is. You can finish it in four hours or so, merely exploring and solving basic puzzles. That's a valid way to reach a sobering conclusion and watch the credits roll. But there's another way, too, a completely optional one. It forces you deep into the game's virtual world, compels you to explore every corner in an effort to understand each nuance. That second way tries--and mainly succeeds--at giving actual life to the town of Pinwheel in a way I've not quite seen before in a video game.

How? I canít tell you. Not really. That would lead into Spoilers territory. Yes, I know itís cheap to brandish the ďyouíll just have to trust meĒ card after breaking out the high praise, so thatís not entirely the path I'll take. Let me say instead that Ether One takes part within the failing mind of a dementia patient. You're asked to venture through memories that you can never be completely sure are stable. The easy way to play would be to explore three environments and pick up memory fragments dotted about the various landscapes. These are represented as red ribbons and, even if all you worry about is gathering them, you're in for a powerful experience. Youíre not there by chance, after all; youíre a restorer, a visitor trekking through personified memories and trying to solidify a patientís struggling memories in an effort to save them.

Locating ribbons doesn't require much of you. Just explore the environments and keep an eye out for those vibrant red things fluttering lightly in the breeze. Each one unlocks a small snippet of plot, narrated by the patientís physician who serves as your guide from the outside world. There are eight ribbons in each location. Discovering all of them grants you access to a core memory, with the theory being that if you can unlock enough of them, your actions may repair the patientís mind. Thatís a practical enough reason to hunt down ribbons, and also provides subtle justification to get lost in the little pocket worlds provided.

You don't need to go into Pinwheel Villageís blacksmith forge and learn how, during the patientís youth, blacksmithing within the village began to stray from indispensable function to obsolescence. Or how the smith slipped quietly into depression as he watched his chosen trade slowly die. You learn this if you do explore, though, from the narration offered by the doctor as well as from a voice more directly linked to the memories. One approach offers facts and the other insight, talking about how heartbreaking it was to see the smith retreat into himself over the years, despite still being able to produce items of immense beauty that he would sell to try and eke out a living. The tale of the smith is largely irrelevant to Ether Oneís plot, but itís absolutely vital to the world the game attempts to build.

Your search for ribbons also turns up handwritten notes left by various inhabitants. These describe everyday life, offering important glimpses of tragic loss or lackadaisical normality. What you find is sometimes at odds with the explanations offered to you by the dual narrators and you can, if you wish, delve deeper into the game and seek out your own answers. The reality is rarely black and white, almost always open to your interpretation. You are, after all, dealing with a confused mind. Anything you see and hear could very well be unreliable and muddled. One narrator might tell you that youíre going the right way, towards something important, before suddenly losing faith in herself and telling you that perhaps you should return the way you came. The other tells you that no direction is really incorrect. Theyíre both right, as well as completely wrong.

You donít need to explore all of this, but why wouldn't you? There are numerous secrets to reveal, but the projectors are the main reason to lose yourself in Ether Oneís mini-worlds. Dotted around the landscapes are broken projectors, which you can repair by correcting a subtle wrong in the surrounding environment. Only the first one of these, encountered in the tutorial-esque stage of Devlin Mine, must be tended to. You are asked to return a missing book to a nearby desk. The chore seems simple enough, but youíll need to find a way to delve deeper into the mine itself in order to complete you task, which forces you to use the items around you to overcome a large, pressurised door.

There are items scattered everywhere throughout the game, but most of them are useless to you or they exist in a setting where they donít belong. This dynamic underscores the fact that youíre trapped in an unreliable world. In a hidden and completely optional level, you'll encounter a puzzle wherein you need to fit a valve to a steam pipe. You can find this valve quite easily in a lower portion of the same stage but, strangely, you can also find one in the idyllic Pinwheel Village, which is a location entirely free of giant steam pipes. Little out-of-place items rarely jump out and announce themselves but, as you progress further, you discover hints and clues that tell you things arenít quite right. In a factory setting, you need to solve a portion of a puzzle by banging on pipes in a certain order. That makes contextual sense when it is introduced because it served as a low-tech way of communicating with other workers in the vicinity. The mechanic also pops up several times elsewhere in the game, out of context in what I first believed to be a time saving exercise by the developers so they could recycle puzzle assets. But what if that's not what it is? What if the dementia is at work, taking separate disintegrating memories and trying to ram them together like two jigsaw pieces that arenít supposed to fit?

Fixing projectors gives you glances of the person youíre trying to save, the individual who once existed before the dementia started taking hold. I tracked down and repaired every last one, spending hours wandering corridors as I tried to find some clue how to power up an engine or ferreting out the secrets behind a small shrine. I completed a model yacht race and restored a local inventor's office. I fixed work schedules, projected shipping forecasts and made someoneís boss a cup of coffee. I completed everyday chores we take for granted so I could restore order in a chaotic mind struggling to hold itself together. That effort creates a creeping, enveloping involvement as you venture ever deeper into the world of Ether One. It drip feeds relevance and offers an avalanche of tiny revelations that are easy to dismiss as irrelevant on their own, but which collectively are too powerful to ignore...


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (July 25, 2015)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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Masters posted July 28, 2015:

Nicely done, Gary. I think this game is available for PS4, if I'm not mistaken, so I may check it out. A little disappointed though, that you brandished the ďyouíll just have to trust meĒ card after breaking out the high praise. Pretty cheap of you.
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EmP posted July 29, 2015:

Yeah; I'm glad to say the PS4 really got behind this one. It got both a digital and physical media release and, I believe, was featured free game of the month on PSN+.

I could foresee people being disappointed in that card. I don't know what I was thinking.
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jerec posted July 30, 2015:

I started reading your review, but I stopped reading when you said I had to trust you.

That was never part of the deal.
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EmP posted July 30, 2015:

Come on, guy. What have I ever done to you to be labeled untrustworthy?

Oh. Right. That. Fair enough.

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