Whilst it wasn’t exactly a game that was initially on my radar, I couldn’t help but to be intrigued by Altered Matter’s puzzle-adventure Etherborn when I saw its most recent trailer. It’s not something gamers might appreciate with screenshots alone, but if you see the game in action and witness how the perspective and gravity of each level can be manipulated by the player, it’s easy to see that this could be something a little bit special. Luckily, I’ve been fortunate enough to get some hands-on time with an early demo of the game and see how exactly everything works, and I was impressed with what I got to play.
Etherborn’s protagonist can run, jump and interact with specific points where key-like orbs can be inserted in order to open new pathways. Simple enough, right? Well, the big hook of the game is the ever-shifting gravity, with the player able to walk up walls and ceilings provided they have a slope leading up to them. It might sound a little confusing on paper, but it feels natural in-game and it doesn’t take too long to grasp the shifting perspective that occurs as the gravity changes. I suppose the best way to describe it would be a combination of M.C. Escher and puzzle-platforming, and, unsurprisingly, it makes for a fun little experience.
In the demo I got to play through an opening tutorial, check out the hub world called ‘The Endless Tree’ which consists of a giant tree (duh), and then explore two of the main levels. It took around forty-minutes to get through it all, so I got to spend a decent amount of time checking out the game’s main mechanics.
Both of the levels that I played through tasked me with making my way to a specific point of the topsy-turvy environment – it’s not made clear to you where exactly that point is initially, but there’s a natural route to follow through each level that ensures you won’t be completely confused as to where you need to go. The main thing you have to look out for are those aforementioned orbs, with certain pathways blocked off until I’d attached a set amount of orbs to a power point.
The orbs are typically easy enough to spot around each level, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to get to. Etherborn is all about gravity shifting, so sometimes an orb might be floating on the side of a wall or even on the ceiling above you. It’s up to you to find the right curve to follow on a wall or on your path and use it in order to shift gravity around to try and reach each orb, though you’ll often have to find another curve and shift things around multiple times in order to get there. Sometimes you might even have to jump to some platforms next to you or platforms below you too, whilst other times you may just grab an orb by complete luck (yes, it happened to me, and yes, I appreciated it).
Whilst the first level I played was based around this principle alone, the second one introduced a poisonous mist that would kill you when touched. It meant that you couldn’t get around the environment as easily as before, which means you’ve got to think outside of the box a little in order to reach each orb. It sounds a little intimidating, but the mechanic suited the game quite well and showed that there’s a lot more to the experience than just shifting gravity. I’m intrigued to see what else the developer will introduce to keep levels feeling interesting, though the mist did enough to make the second level feel quite different to the first.
I found that the second level was a lot smaller in size too, which was something I actually preferred – with a more condensed design it made it easier to appreciate the fact that each part of the environment was multi-dimensional and that the solution to each little puzzle could well be on the wall or even underneath you. Whilst Etherborn isn’t the first puzzle game to experiment with perspective and gravity, it is one that does it in a very clever and elaborate way. It’s something that becomes more and more obvious as you play through each level and it always brought a smile to my face to see that a path I’d previously been walking across was now the ceiling above me.
Etherborn is also a very pretty game, but in a ‘less is more’ kind of way. That’s not to say there’s not plenty to see because there were a ton of attractive landscapes to witness in the demo alone, but the low-poly style of the aesthetic meant that it focused more on vibrant colours than visual detail. It’s for the best really: I think if the game tried to pack all of its levels with sophisticated detail it’d feel a bit too busy, whilst the simplistic look that the game adopts fits the vibe of the surreal puzzling perfectly. I’ve got to give a shout out to the music too, which fit in perfectly with the theme of the game and offered a selection of charming tunes to listen to as I attempted to solve each of Etherborn’s tricky enigmas.
Did it get me excited to play the full game?
Yes. Whilst I’ll admit that it took some time to get used to the puzzling style of Etherborn, once I’d figured it out I could appreciate the clever design of each level of the game. You can respawn quite quickly if you die too, so even mistakes aren’t too big of a deal – and believe me, you can expect to make quite a few.
Whilst I’m looking forward to seeing the full game, I do hope that the developers don’t make the levels too big in design. Etherborn’s M.C. Escher-like levels were complicated in the demo, but they were on a smaller scale so it never felt overbearing; if they became too big and elaborate, I think I could get a little bit frustrated trying to figure them out.
Still, I thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve played so far and think that Altered Matter have got something very clever on their hands, so I’m pretty sure the final game will be just an ingenious and entertaining as the experience I had in the demo. Etherborn is definitely a title that puzzling fans will want to keep an eye on.
Developer: Altered Matter
Publisher: Altered Matter
Platform(s): PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Release Date: Spring 2019