Eternal Threads Review

June 6, 2022
Also on: PS4, Xbox One
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Knot that great

I had high hopes for Eternal Threads, the newest game from Cosmonaut Studios. From the marketing and the trailer, I was expecting a mind-blowing sci-fi mystery where I had to, as the tagline says, “alter the past to save the future”. And in some ways, that was what I got. Unfortunately, the game was just nowhere near as interesting or as good as I wanted it to be. 

In Eternal Threads, you’re cast as Operator 43, a time-travel agent in a futuristic world where the advent of time travel itself caused the apocalypse to unfold. As the operator (who is essentially an empty vessel of a character for the player to project upon), you’re tasked with restoring one tiny piece of the “timestream” by saving the lives of six people who died in a house fire back in 2015. The way to do this is apparently by time-travelling back to the burned-down house itself just hours after said fire occurred, then using a temporal playback device to witness the digital ghosts of the six main characters interacting with one another over the course of one week — or about nine hours, in real time. Your task is then to use the “Time Map” you're provided with to potentially alter the choices the characters made, in an attempt to reach an ending where all six of them survive. It’s a cool concept, and I was admittedly intrigued at first.

The “time map” is one of the core mechanics of the game.

But unfortunately, that’s about as interesting as Eternal Threads gets. After you’re sent back in time, the only thing you’re doing is mediating a series of everyday personal conflicts that range from laughably soapy to utterly uninteresting. And this might just be a personal opinion, but if you tell me that the apocalypse has gone down because of the advent of time travel and then immediately force me back in time (to 2015, of all years) to engage only with what feels like daytime TV drama, I’m gonna get hung up on the whole apocalypse thing. Not every story has to have end-of-the-world stakes, of course, but to put something as exciting as that in front of the player only to immediately yank it away felt like a disappointment. The premise is easily the most interesting part of the game, and after the first five minutes, it’s almost completely irrelevant. 

The environment of the game is one of its better elements, and is quite fun to explore. You arrive in the burned-out shell of the house just minutes after the fire department has left, and are treated to an eerie, empty maze of rooms and hallways as you try to unravel the mystery of what happened to each of the six central characters. It was fun to see how the house shifted around me as I altered the choices of the characters — items appeared and disappeared, and things shifted around the house without any “direct” input from me. In its best moments, Eternal Threads makes the house seem almost alive, if not outright hostile to your interference. Frankly, the house itself might be the best character of the story.

Nothing creepy whatsoever about this dark, abandoned basement.

Eternal Threads’ human characters, on the other hand, disappointed throughout. Their traits and actions veered between bland and outright offensive, with little redeeming qualities throughout. The younger female characters are nearly always in their underwear when they aren’t in sexy catsuits (yes, really) and seem to have few character traits other than “clingy girlfriend” or “single and promiscuous”. The male characters aren’t much better. The only mildly interesting character in the game was Tom, the landlord who may or may not have a secret locked room in the basement; however, even he felt one-note in the majority of his interactions. Overall, I didn’t feel emotionally attached to the main characters in any way, which reduced my motivation to reverse their anticlimactic, ostensibly tragic demises. 

Frank the parakeet’s future hangs in the balance.

The gameplay itself has its positive moments. You’re encouraged to do a bit of sleuthing around the house itself by picking up notes and objects left behind by the deceased inhabitants, which can be interesting. But this aspect of the game is nothing particularly innovative, and is easily overshadowed by the plodding plot and flat characterizations. Aside from combing the house for physical clues, the central gameplay loop consists only of picking time nodes, running to the spot in the house where the scene took place, watching the scene, and then starting the whole process over again. The key mechanic of the time-travel/playback device was cool at first, but quickly got frustratingly repetitive, time-consuming, and redundant. Did we really need to watch the Operator manually type a full-length title into the device after every single scene?

In addition, the poor graphical quality of this game was incredibly distracting. Of course, I’m aware that not every studio has the time, budget, or resources to create hyper-realistic graphics, nor does a game necessarily need said hyper-realistic graphics in order to be visually appealing. But for a game that was released in 2022 to look like it was made in 2012 isn’t something that can be ignored. There are myriad ways to get around a lack of graphical budget or otherwise to make a game look aesthetically pleasing, and Eternal Threads employs none of them. The result is a game that looks like it’s supposed to be played on an Xbox 360, not a PS4. What’s more, there’s a truly egregious bug where simply pressing “Continue” on the main menu will get you stuck on a frozen loading screen that can only be fixed by restarting the game — you have to manually load your save file in order to get the game to actually start. This wouldn’t be a huge deal upon initial launch, but for a bug this major to still exist a month after the game’s official release is unforgivable. The game isn’t unplayable by any means, but these aspects certainly don’t do it any favours.

We’re deep in the uncanny valley here, and it’s not even intentional.

Throughout the game, Eternal Threads is clearly doing its best to implement the classic 451/Looking Glass Studios setup — you’re introduced to a world post-catastrophe, where your job is to play detective and use extensive environmental clues to figure out exactly how said catastrophe occurred (and in the case of Eternal Threads, avert the catastrophe entirely). It’s nothing new. You can see the bare-bones structure of this narrative style in a range of games, from Bioshock to Gone Home. But there’s a reason why players love this particular subgenre of video game and that’s because it can be absolutely fascinating to play. Sifting through scenes, letters, and clues to determine how certain events came to pass is a uniquely satisfying experience for many players, myself included. But this type of game has to be done well in order to both produce that specific satisfaction and set it apart from the hundreds of other games that utilise the same formula. Eternal Threads unfortunately never quite gets there. 

More than anything else, Eternal Threads frequently reminds me of Life is Strange; specifically, the parts I really disliked about Life is Strange, such as the laughably stiff dialogue. The difference is, though, Life is Strange came out almost a decade ago. After playing more recently released narrative masterpieces like Kentucky Route Zero, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Disco Elysium, our bar for what constitutes good writing in games — especially story-driven games — should be far, far higher. The poor writing, combined with the shoddy graphics and preachy themes, makes Eternal Threads feel remarkably dated. Setting your game in 2015 doesn’t mean it has to feel like it was released then, too.

What year is it again?

The most frustrating thing about Eternal Threads, though, is that it very easily could have been a fantastic game if it wasn’t mired in various plot and pacing issues. There are moments where the game’s potential becomes evident; the true ending and the scenes leading up to it are incredibly interesting, for example, so I won’t spoil that here. But those moments are much too few and far between. What’s more, many of the more intriguing story beats can only be accessed if the player completes every single scene and makes every “correct” decision for the characters, which might take a very long time — or make the player give up entirely. If it takes that much time, effort, and monotonous grinding to get to the only interesting parts of the game, they might as well not even be there in the first place. 

This, ultimately, is what makes Eternal Threads so disappointing. There are hints of promise scattered throughout the game — as few and far between as Operator 43’s mysterious clues, but just as essential. Yet, as within the game itself, the pieces never quite connect in a way that feels narratively satisfying. The mechanics aren’t interesting enough to support the fairly dull plot; the plot isn’t gripping enough to support the flat characters and poor dialogue. Overall, Eternal Threads is a game that doesn’t live up to its potential. If you want a truly intriguing, story-driven indie game where well-written characters must unravel the secrets of a supernatural/sci-fi mystery, I’d suggest trying out Control or Oxenfree. Eternal Threads, unfortunately, wouldn’t make the cut.

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An irrefutably cool concept of “fixing the past to save the future” situated within a fascinating environment is bogged down by underwhelming writing, dated graphics, and a good deal of unnecessary, uninteresting content. For a potential-filled game about time travel, Eternal Threads is frustratingly stuck in the past.
Jessica Eudy

Gamer, writer, narrative designer, overall nerd. Big fan of RPGs, getting way too academic and technical about video games, and most things Nintendo. I also like getting to virtually whack stuff with a sword.