The pastel colours and dreamy, minimalist landscapes of Etherborn, coupled with a quietly beautiful music score, appear for all intents and purposes like the next logical evolution for mindfulness apps. And then you realise you’re walking upside down on a disconnected sci-fi structure, unmoored from solid ground, and your next jump will either take you safely down onto a waiting platform, or send you spinning away into the void — entirely dependent on whether you’ve read the terrain correctly and are quite certain that words like ‘up’, ‘down’, or ‘gravity’ still have some meaning. Developer Altered Matter has taken the puzzle-platformer blueprint and turned it upside down.
In Etherborn you control an elegant humanoid, newly created, with nervous system and organs visible through translucent skin. You must navigate several worlds of spiralling geometry whilst a calming omnipotent voice informs you of loose apocrypha and the history of human development in your journey to be born (whether as a human, an idea, or something else entirely, is all open to conjecture). The narrative is as soft focus as the environments you explore, but the puzzle designs exist in sharp contrast — I can only assume they were built with the aid of an open book of Cubist paintings, a hundred screwed-up prototype sketches, and a dozen broken stress toys.
There are four stages to play through in Etherborn, each entered from the main world as you scale the bark of a gigantic, non-denominational, tree of life. Initial sections teach you the fundamentals — glowing orbs can be collected to activate bridges, and any sloping surface can simply be walked up to be able to stand on that plane. From your new grounding, you’ll find new pathways are now visible which were previously on the vertical sides of columns, or what was previously a horizontal gap between two islands has been transmuted into a short drop down from one floor to another.
Gravity trickery is nothing new in video games, but what helps differentiate Etherborn from the pack is that you aren’t actually in control of this part of the world; you aren’t flicking switches to change the forces acting on you. Instead, the game makes you fall in step with its own logic. You’re forced to change your perspective and internally plan your route around each obstacle, rather than attempt to transmute the terrain into something more obviously scalable. It’s a funny idea to try and get down on paper, but results in a greater feeling of accomplishment when you’ve gone back and forth trying to visualise the world at a skewed angle and how it might, for example, turn a wall into a bridge. In this respect there are obvious comparisons with Fez, but being played in an extra dimension gives Etherborn a lot more scope to build on that concept. The camera is used well to emphasise your changing position against the unmoving puzzle worlds. At times it will remain static, ramming home the feeling of vertigo as you run up a vertical face, and other times it will move with you, completing the confusing transfiguration of floor to ceiling entirely.
Musically, the score loops around from quiet, timid steps to triumphant finales over the course of a stage, and neatly placed triggers ushering in the next section when you move into a new area are well placed. The music swells after you’ve successfully got your head around a multi-stage labyrinth, a reassuring emotional signposting that you’re on the right track. It’s often understated, but complements the dreaminess of Etherborn’s level design.
The third of the four levels presented a leap in difficulty and design that I found delightfully frustrating. Across this expansive and inter-connected environment, finding out where the required activation orbs were was only the first part of the solution. With rippling Möebius strip architecture and blocks which would pop up out of the ground if approached from a certain plane, finding the correct entry point to allow my spectral character onto the right surface to begin with was surprisingly taxing. Etherborn helps you out a bit in regards to getting your bearings when running over an inverted world, as the press of a shoulder-button will draw the camera out for you to try and piece together where point B is, as point A is now an unrecognisable landscape.
Having emerged beaming from unraveling the complex layers of the third level, the fourth and final stage was a real let down. I breezed through what should sensibly be the most challenging series of puzzles in half the time of the other levels. I don’t think this reflected a better understanding of the game logic on my part — it was lacking and pedestrian compared to the grander scale and number of different mechanics shown off in the preceding sections. Hand in glove, the overarching story likewise failed to deliver, an anticlimactic ending which didn’t feel real until the end credits rolled. It’s a shame the finale felt so undeserved after the captivating initial sections of the game, but the pacing of both narrative and level design nose-dived from the upward curve that had been building up to a crescendo.
Completing the game unlocks New Game+, a mode which doesn’t live up to the extra challenge it promises. The stages are the same, except the glowing orb keys have now been moved around slightly (normally just hidden in a bush in the general area the orb was on the initial playthrough). It doesn’t help that by the time you finish each stage you’ll have learned the layout like the back of your hand, and having finished Etherborn after around four or five hours, even the start of the game was fresh in my mind — and so the subsequent New Game+ run took half that time.
It’s a shame that Etherborn couldn’t quite stick the landing to bring the story and gameplay to a satisfying conclusion, because the momentum built up until that point was incredibly fulfilling. Environments felt unique and thought-out, and offered some proper head-scratchers — and these were of the best sort of puzzle design; the ones that will make you exclaim “Oh, it’s so bloody obvious now!” the second you figure the correct actions out. Etherborn is a gorgeous experience which prodded my brain whilst soothing my other senses. The existent pacing issues could surely be improved by extending the game past the fourth, anticlimactic world — but when has a desire to see a title continue for longer been anything but a compliment?