In many ways, Etherborn feels like a project that is out of place in 2018. From top to bottom, the title oozes the quintessential indie platforming charm that came a dime-a-dozen in 2012, when controversial games such as Fez dominated the non-AAA scene. However, oddly enough, recent years have seen these types of platformers fall off in favour of roguelikes and RPGs in the industry. Contemporary gaming is crying out for the sort of intelligent platforming and mechanics-first design of that early-2010’s zeitgeist, especially as the current market is becoming too flooded with lukewarm releases and copycat indies. Despite Etherborn’s nostalgia-inducing aestheticism, buried underneath is a game that has endearing mechanics, tight controls, and the potential to rejuvenate some of that lost consumer interest in platformers.
In OnlySP’s time with an alpha build, Etherborn impressed on all levels. Etherborn, though, is not a simple platformer, but a new addition to the gravity-puzzle genre.. Ever since Valve perfected gravity puzzles with Portal, developers have been tentative to explore this genre, yet Altered Matter has managed to build upon Valve’s design philosophy and bring it into third-person play. Players must solve a variety of three-dimensional puzzles that require some brain-twisting levels of thinking to manipulate the game’s responsive and sensible gravity-manipulation system. Traversal of the levels, which centre around atmospheres based off of distinctive biomes, is built around Etherborn’s manipulation of gravity, with players anchoring to different surfaces on the Rubik’s Cube-esque levels. Players experience gravity perpendicular to the surface they are standing on, which sounds about as perilous and brain cell-catalysing as it sounds.
In terms of narrative potential, the alpha is light on story details, but, thematically, Etherborn deals with metaphysical questions regarding humanity and the universe through the game’s physics-defining locales. The story does threaten to fall into indie game cliché, yet the major appeal lies is the mechanics, not the threadbare narrative.
Whilst the framework of Etherborn threatens to sway into austerity, many players will be impressed by how the title balances clever and unique level design with such scant gameplay elements. Essentially, players must make decisions on which plane of the level they wish to interact with. Walls with curves allow players to change perspectives, shifting the gravity onto the same plane that the player is on. Dropping off non-curved walls means players will fall, either onto a different plane or to their demise. At its foundation, Etherborn is about making decisions on when to use curved and 90° corners. By transcribing this mechanic to varied worlds, the game, at least in the alpha, remains engaging. The alpha offers a look at five levels—named Birth, Overworld, The Yellow Infinite, Poisonous Desert, Cubes, and Final—with each offering different questions and interpretations of Etherborn’s toolkit. Certain levels, namely Poisonous Desert, act as a compact primer for the game’s take on gravitational manipulation, whereas other stages rely more upon classical platforming.
Put bluntly, Etherborn’s artistic direction is stellar. The washed-out colour palette, reinforced by the minimalist design of the levels, gives the project an understated appeal, which can be read as either sophisticated or simplistic. In fact, the game often walks the line between “simple enough” and “too simple.” The opening minutes, taking place in a drowned vista with tree roots littered under the water, are a nice introduction to both the artistic and mechanical design elements; Etherborn, from the character’s design to the levels themselves, is skeletal.
The opening hub, taking the form of a vast tree, also serves as the alpha’s (and assumedly the full game’s) overworld, with each branch leading to a different level. Also incorporated is a touch of Norse symbolism, too, via this Yggdrasil-inspired design, which is a nice touch.
The most underreported aspect of Etherborn is the soundtrack, which varies from the hubworld’s calm A Moon Shaped Pool-esque ambience to more situational, varied tracks that suit the theme of the level. For example, the music for Poisonous Desert could have been ripped straight from the desert world of Super Mario Odyssey, which is a testament to the skills of the project’s composer Gabriel Garrido. Sound design, particularly in indie titles, is essential to the overall appeal, so Etherborn’s carefully curated soundtrack is a welcome addition to the title’s consistent style.
The project, which has just under two weeks to go on Fig, sits at USD$23,613 out of Altered Matter’s goal of $30,000 at the time of writing. As insinuated earlier, platformers are becoming a harder sell in the indie game market compared to other genres. Furthermore, even industry greats such as Swery struggled to achieve funding through crowdfunding, alongside promising titles such as Dolmen, suggesting it is not the holy grail that it was five or six years ago, and Etherborn is another title that has worked hard—and will have to continue working hard—to achieve the funding it requires. The major question about Etherborn’s credentials is not whether it is a good game or not, but whether the project’s audience sees it as an early 2010s renaissance or a title that merely missed the platforming boat.