At its core, the game is a puzzle platformer in which the central aim is straightforward: reach the end of each stage by activating various switches and avoiding dangerous obstacles along the way. Naturally though, it isn’t quite as simple as that, and that’s because of Etherborn’s other central mechanic: your ability to frequently flip gravity.
Each of the game’s levels is essentially a large 3D object floating in space (or the aether, if you will), and all four sides can be accessed as you play. While the laws of gravity very much apply to you wherever you’re standing, any time you can find a curved surface – usually a ramp that goes up or down 90 degrees – your character will be able to run along it, flipping gravity along with them. Suddenly you can find yourself standing sideways, or even running along the underside of where you started.
If you’re struggling to picture this, think of the way some of the smaller planets in Super Mario Galaxy have a sort of gravitational pull that lets you walk off the edge and continue playing along the sides or underneath, happy in the knowledge that when you jump gravity will still make sure you land on your feet. Etherborn’s exploration feels a little like that, except its stages are significantly more complex and you can only shift the gravity at specific curved sections.
At first, this works tremendously. The first few levels are complex enough to have you scratching your head a little, but once you eventually get your head around how everything works it soon starts to feel very satisfying swooping round from plane to plane, running up the side of walls and up onto the ceiling. It can be a little disorientating at times, but nothing that’s going to trouble you too much. It’s a clever idea and your initial thoughts after the first hour or so will be “I really like this”.
This feeling will be strengthened by how downright beautiful the game is, Etherborn is undeniably a work of art Its creators have in the past explained how they were influenced by Russian painters like Malevich and Rozanova, Brualist architecture and the work of Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida. The result of this is a striking minimalist art style that complements the abstract stage design perfectly. It’s like if M.C. Escher had designed his own version of Gris. A particular highlight is the hub area, known as the Endless Tree; it’s a breathtaking trek along a set route as branches wind their way around your path.
If there’s one thing better than how it looks, it’s how it sounds. Composer Gabriel Garrido Garcia (or Triple G, as literally nobody calls him) has created an absolutely gorgeous score that is sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes heartwarming, but always full of heart regardless. Hopefully it ends up on Spotify so we can add it to our ‘lovely game music to listen to when writing’ playlist along with the likes of Gris and Thomas Was Alone. It really is so wonderful that it continues to sound beautiful even as you spend an ungodly amount of time traipsing around each level.
As striking as Etherborn looks, and as beautiful as it sounds, and as clever as its central game mechanic is, it quickly becomes too much too soon, and the level design gets overwhelming to the extent that most players won’t realistically be able to get through each stage with any realistic degree of problem solving ability.
We’d like to think we aren’t complete morons (despite what some article comments may suggest), but it didn’t take long at all before Etherborn had us no longer studying each stage and wondering what path to take, but simply wandering around, looking for ramps and trying to exhaust every possible route and jump in the hope of stumbling on something we hadn’t tried before that would take us onto the next unfathomably complicated area to explore.
If it was possible to rotate the camera round the entire stage, then there would be a more legitimate puzzle-solving element to the game. You would be able to better study the environment, look at potential routes, plan what steps you should take to reach the next section. Instead, most of the time moving the right stick only sort of slides the camera to the side, showing a bit more of the plane you’re already on when what you really want to see is the planes underneath and around you. As we’ve already said, these stages are essentially large puzzles floating in the air. Imagine playing a Rubik’s cube but not being able to turn it around to see the other sides.
Each stage had us feeling mentally exhausted by the time we found the exit – usually through nothing more than an exasperated process of elimination – and as we traipsed along the Endless Tree with the game’s faceless narrator preaching some sort of extremely deep, self-reflective philosophy at us we felt like we were being pummelled with intellect. We absolutely love what Etherborn is trying to do but it feels far too clever for its own good, the equivalent of a French teacher who insists on only speaking to her class in French from day one and expects them to know what she’s talking about.
The best puzzle games can feel impossible but leave you just enough string to follow so that when a stage is cleared you can look back and think “ah, right, it makes sense now”. When we finished stages in Etherborn we just thought: “Well, I don’t know how they expected me to figure that out”. Ultimately, it’s hard to get too excited about reaching the end of each stage when it’s little more than a case of trial and error: by the time you reach the end you haven’t learned anything, no matter what the narrative tries to make you think.
Etherborn looks fantastic, sounds incredible and revolves around a brilliant game mechanic that initially feels like it’s going to lead to some clever puzzles but ramps things up far too quickly and engulfs you with frustratingly complex stages while you’re still trying to find your feet. There’s still a great game in there, but you’ll need to have the patience of a saint to stumble up its 90-degree difficulty curve to find it.