I need to pay more attention to Fig, an alternative crowdfunding site to Kickstarter which was founded by Justin Bailey (the former COO of Double Fine Productions). Just like Kickstarter, it allows developers to pitch their games and receive funding and support from the fans in order to bring their ideas to life. One such game, which was fully funded in June last year, is Etherborn, a surreal gravity-defying puzzle game that has you constantly thinking two steps ahead as you try to overcome the challenging and mind-blowing environmental puzzles.
Etherborn is the creation of Altered Matter, a small indie developer from Barcelona. Just by skimming through their fig page (HERE), you can see the amount of love and dedication they have put into the game – even going as far as recreating the puzzles physically out of LEGO in order to ensure the designs worked, due to the game’s unusual puzzle-solving mechanics. I’ve successfully played through the game (without any form of guides or hints) and I’ve started my second playthrough recently, but just how does Etherborn stack up against the other puzzle games currently on the market? Let’s find out…
There’s a deep story within Etherborn, one which is delivered via a faceless narrator (which is perfectly voiced) as we move between puzzles and in a few scattered cutscenes. It’s all about defying pre-conceptions and being allowed to have your own voice instead of being given one thanks to knowledge, language and society. The majority of people grow up and adapt to their surroundings, they learn about the past, understand right and wrong by being told and reading about it, and take things for granted just because it’s the way things are. But what if we had the freedom to stray from the norm and come to our own conclusions, no matter how bizarre and unusual they are?
This is all symbolised within Etherborn as your ability to defy gravity. You are a voiceless human within its early stages of creation, learning about your surroundings for the first time. You have no concept of gravity, thus you can bend it at will, walk up walls and shift your centre of mass in order to manoeuvre through the perfectly designed puzzles. However, it’s not a simple A to B type situation, there are obstacles, roadblocks and diversions you must overcome, things trying to stop you from deviating and discovering things on your own. However, you never give up as you venture on in order to find your true voice at the end of your journey.
It’s all rather deep and holds the game together, rather than just delivering a set of puzzles. However, the core gameplay is the mind-bending puzzles, so let’s see what they’re like…
The puzzles within Etherborn are ingenious! As I mentioned previously, the ‘key’ mechanic within this game is the ability to defy gravity as you move around the floating puzzle. This is done perfectly and presents you with a lot of frustration as you try and figure out what orientations you need to be in so you can proceed, and how to actually get to be within that position in the first place. Although you can shift your gravity and walk up walls, this is only triggered by sloping floors, so you have to walk up a wall rather than simply being able to jump at a wall and stick to it, like Spider-Man.
With a playtime of around four-five hours, there aren’t too many puzzles to play through but some of them consist of multiple layers which will take you up to an hour in order to figure out the solution. One such level was beyond amazing – you start off on a cube-like structure, trying to find all the orbs to activate the platforms – all whilst walls pop up based on your orientations at the time. Once you’ve done this part, the cube slots into another big puzzle that also has more segments off-screen which fly in upon activating, all slotting together like a puzzle cube, or like the game is literally making a LEGO toy.
One of the things which had me frantically shouting at the TV was the way the game actually utilises gravity as it’s unlike what we saw in Neverout previously. Basically, once your body has changed gravity, by walking up a wall, this now becomes your gravitational pull. So, if you walk up a wall then jump off, back to where you just were, you’re now in a different orientation than you were before. It sounds very confusing but it all makes sense when you’re playing the game. It makes solving the puzzles much harder and very interesting.
On a side note, many of the puzzles reminded me of one of the final scenes in the film ‘Labyrinth’, when David Bowie is walking through a physical recreation of ‘Relativity’, a painting by M. C. Escher. If you’ve not seen this, click HERE.
So, if you’re like me and you sit down to play the game then discover it’s about four hours later and you’ve just seen the long unskippable credits – is it time to move on to a new game? Nope! Not just yet. Completing the game will automatically get you half of the trophies on offer, the other half are unlocked by playing the game again via the NG+ mode. I may be wrong here, but I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen a puzzle game with a ‘New Game+’ mode as this is usually reserved for RPGs or games in which you can carry over stats or items to make a harder playthrough much easier and satisfying – so what is this mode?
Altered Matter basically decided to double the playtime of their game by playing hide and seek with the orbs. New Game+ has identical puzzles to the main game, so the solutions should still be fresh in your mind, but the locations of the orbs have drastically changed. Some are now hidden in bushes (which you can’t see unless you dive into them), some are hidden behind walls you can’t see from the standard angle, and others are now in gravity-defying locations you didn’t have to venture into previously.
I’ve worked my way through three puzzles in this mode so far, each one is getting progressively harder as the required orbs are really hard to find. I think I’ve spent about double the time it took me the first time around, all because of the new positions. I honestly wasn’t expecting anything like this within a puzzle game but it works perfectly, it doesn’t require a lot of extra development time from the developers and it expands the playtime of the puzzle game by making you think about the same puzzles in a different way – genius.
The visuals within Etherborn are stunningly beautiful. A lot of the textures and assets are simple single-coloured areas, but they look very surreal, futuristic, and unearthly. The contrast created between the various structures, the light which is emitting off your transparent skin, and the mysteriousness of the world surrounding the floating puzzle, all combine into a magical experience. The star of the show though has to be how all the pieces of the puzzle slot together to create the clever and intuitive puzzles – especially the later levels.
The music is just as beautiful and relaxing. Each puzzle has its own accompanying music to perfectly suit the environment, each one ensuring they are calm and peaceful so that the frustrations of dying over and over doesn’t get you all agitated. I say this every time, but puzzle games that could possibly frustrate the end-user really need music like this, it helps to keep you focused and determined. One thing I would love to see is a release of the full soundtrack (there are samples on the fig site). I could even see a physical LP or CD release doing really well, maybe bundle one with the game if the developer decides to release a physical version in the future – maybe with someone like Numskull Games or Limited Run?
**Update: So, a physical edition is going on sale tomorrow (24th of March 2021) but it’s via iam8bit. There’s no soundtrack, sadly, but it does come with a reversible cover, a sleeve, and a poster. You can order it here: https://www.iam8bit.com/collections/etherborn – Plus, the soundtrack is available on Spotify, Steam, Amazon, Bandcamp, Apple, etc…**
However, not all things were great with Etherborn. There’s an issue in the current build with subtitles if you’re playing on a PS4 Pro. Let’s rewind, the game has a lot of accessibility features such as remapping the controller, inverting either axis, adjusting the amount of vibration on a slider, having the dialogue in English, Spanish or Catalan, and ten different subtitle languages. You can even adjust the size of the subtitles via a slider – which is great as you can get the perfect size you require…
The PS4 Pro doesn’t scale the subtitles correctly though – although the base PS4 seems to work fine. I’d recommend putting the size on the lowest setting – if you’re on a Pro – as that’s the ‘default’ size on the PS4. If you make it any bigger, words get cut off at the sides. I am confident that the developers will fix this issue – as I reported it about a week ago – but as of today, you may need to manually adjust the size to avoid clipping on the subtitles.
The first few puzzles:
Etherborn is a beautiful surreal puzzle platformer that literally turns gravity on its head! The premise of the game is simple – collect the orbs and open the pathways to the exit portal – but the inclusion of gravity-defying pathways, and having to think a few steps ahead of yourself at all times, really makes this game something special. Despite there not being that many puzzles to solve, some of the puzzles will easily take you up to an hour as things shift and move all over the place. Also, the game introduces a New Game+ mode upon completion, further expanding the playtime thanks to moving key elements around so that your experience the second time is altered slightly. I honestly can’t think of another game out there at the moment which looks and plays like Etherborn – it really is one of a kind.
If you’re a fan of puzzle games, games with unique gameplay mechanics, interesting indie games, or even if you’re a casual gamer looking for something to pick up and play every now and again, Etherborn is waiting for you. What I’m hoping for next is a release of the soundtrack to add to my collection. Either an LP, CD or maybe the inclusion of the soundtrack with a physical version would be nice!
- - Very clever puzzles with revolve around using gravity to reach new places
- - Beautiful soundtrack and great voice acting
- - New Game+ mode offers the same puzzles yet much harder due to orb locations
- - Really simple concept and easy to play, yet solving the puzzles will really test your mind
- - Unlike any other puzzle game I've played this generation
- - The subtitles don't scale correctly on the PS4 Pro (should get fixed soon)