ETHEREAL

PC, Family friendly

I have no idea why “ETHEREAL” is shouted. It seems such an inappropriate way to display a word that should surely only ever be whispered. It should be called “(ethereal)”. I wish they would have asked me first.

The good news is, it’s a fabulous game. Quite unlike anything else you’ve played, a puzzle game where the puzzle selection screen is a puzzle, and where the puzzle selection screen selection screen is a puzzle. The issue I’m faced with now is trying to describe that puzzle, and, well, that’s harder than the game itself.

You, I must break it to you, are a wibbly blob. You can freely move to the left or the right along a horizontal line, so long as no obstacles block you. However, you can only move vertically if an obstacle blocks you. See? See why people go to YouTube to talk about games? These old-fashioned words just don’t cut it sometimes. Look, just look at the pictures.

If a block is above or below your blob, then you can transfer across it, up or down. This then puts you on a new horizontal plane across which you can reach more blocks. And then as puzzles progress, other features such as catapulting triangles, rotating circles, and squares that open a black area around a small section of the level inside which you can pull the blocks about.

By these means you must collect pairs of coloured shapes, and you must collect them one pair at a time. Pick up a purple triangle and then go over an orange square and you’ll put the purple triangle back where it was. Much of the puzzling is working out routes that can get you from one to another without crossing a wrong’un on the way.

What makes this so interesting and satisfying to play is how your brain entirely adjusts to the rules, until what were previously unparsable confusions become coherent levels. Where at first I saw just a mess of blocks and lines, now I see a map covered in potential routes. In early levels I was sliding about at random, trying to fathom the rules. Now I sit back and look at a section of a level, running potential routes with my eyes. And the process of taking your mind from one to the other is such a pleasure.

Well, to an extent. Those black areas I mentioned really get tricky, especially when paired with a rotating circle. Depending upon the orientation, you can pull any part of any platform that’s contained within the black area up or down, unless any part of it that extends outside of the area and is blocked by another part of the level. Which, if you’re somehow still with me, means you need to rotate the level, move a block within it, then rotate back to manipulate another, until you can rearrange things such that a route is created. And normally this is where a puzzle game and me would part ways, where I’m trying to juggle too many balls across too many steps at once. And yet here, there’s an intuition to it, where I find my way through in a way I couldn’t have explained to you before or after.

All of this is presented in a really beautiful way, the levels bursts of colour, changing depending upon your actions, and soundtracked not by a score, but rather the music of your movements. Transferring to the other side of a block, picking up a shape, going past certain places, rotating, sliding, all come with musical plinks and plonks, and your actions build the soundtrack to your play. It’s something Matthew Brown nodded toward in the Hexcells games, and here Nicolás Recabarren and Tomás Batista take it a stage further.

It’s astonishing how unreviewed this game has been. It won the Audience Award at the 2019 IGF Awards, and was nominated for audio and sound design, and yet has one measly review on Metacritic. So strange. Awful industry. Because this really deserves your attention. It’s an exquisite puzzle game, unlike any you’ve played, and really beautifully presented.

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3 Comments

  1. Picked this up a few weeks ago and have been working through it bit by bit. ETHEREAL is very enjoyable, just hard enough I feel challenged but not so hard that I get stuck on a puzzle for so long I don’t want to play anymore. You are right it’s a shame that more sites haven’t reviewed it. Maybe like The White Door you will be the trendsetter on this one too 🙂

  2. Definitely picking this one up, especially with the DRM-free copy available to buy on Itch.io. Thanks for the recommendation.

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