Indie developers in 2019 truly have the freedom to create the games they want. When Fig-funded game Etherborn reached its funding target, developer Altered Matter set out to craft a gravity-shifting puzzle platformer. Players sold on this concept have a lot to look forward to as Altered Matter has delivered on its promise. The mind-bending mechanics of Etherborn force players to approach the world from a new perspective amidst some stunning visual landscapes.
In Etherborn, the player takes control of a voiceless, newly-born being who follows a bodiless voice in search of meaning. Such a philosophical premise promises an experience that will answer key questions regarding self-identity and the quest for meaning. The answer plays into the age old cliche that we are born to create our own destiny. The game’s narrative discussions around these topics are disappointing, though they do demonstrate that the narrative is less important than the themes behind them.
One of the biggest frustrations with the story is that the language used complicated the simple message the developer was trying to tell. The soothing yet commanding tone of the omniscient voice would have been enough to carry along a more refined script that served the themes with clarity. Instead, Altered Matter opted to write something poetic by using lots of really big words that sound like they have lots of meaning, which instead detract from the actual meaning.
Etherborn has a linear structure that takes place across five distinct levels. The levels are completed by solving gravity-defying puzzles to collect light orbs that open the pathway forward. Once all levels are completed, a new game+ mode is unlocked, creating replayability through the additional challenge of new, well-hidden light orb locations. Including this game mode offers players a chance to enjoy a more difficult experience without an additional learning curve.
What sets Etherborn apart is the unique mechanic that underpins the gameplay. To traverse the landscape, players must jump and use ramps to change their perspective, turning walls into floors to move through the level. The opening level does an exceptional job of introducing the player to how this concept will be manipulated throughout the game. Controls in Etherborn are simple and intuitive, allowing for an experience that focuses the challenge purely within the design. Despite being able to run, the movement speed of the character seems sluggish for the most part, yet can be too fast for easy maneuverability in levels that require finesse to execute.
Etherborn is deeply beautiful. The soft hues and subtle colour palette create a truly ethereal experience that carries through until the final level where the tone shifts into something somewhat dark, yet utterly breathtaking. Skeletal bodies, frozen in time, dwarf the character to create a visual masterpiece that captivates the viewer. Accompanying the divine art direction is killer sound design that makes the world feel complete. The ambient music creates an atmosphere that indulges in the landscape it calls home in a way that elevates the experience.
The short length of Etherborn leaves players wanting more. In OnlySP’s preview of the game in 2018, the Alpha build contained the same five levels that are seen in the final game. Having spent so much time on these levels has meant the final product is highly polished yet disappointingly short. The gravity bending puzzles at play are so clever, well designed, and satisfying to complete that a lack of experimentation through more level designs to satiate the player’s hunger for more is disappointing.
The challenging gameplay, gorgeous sound design, and stunning aesthetics all make Etherborn a worthwhile experience, even for those not fond of puzzle-platformers. Every level demonstrates a craftsmanship that encourages the curiosity to think and engage with the world. Completing puzzles is satisfying, even if the length of the game is not. Some minor issues may crop up along the way, but Etherborn is still a clever, fun game that challenges players and their perspective of the world.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. Also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.