Puzzle and platform are two genres that have birthed thousands of games, and they now shape our day to day experience with a controller. Nevertheless, there's always room for game-changing twists. This is where developers must bring out their creativity, inventing new things in a landscape that appears fully explored and exploited.
Altered Matter doesn't lack creativity, that's for sure. The Barcelona-based studio, composed of only four people, caught our attention in 2017 with a familiar yet different approach, when Etherborn was simply a project. Etherborn is the result of an MA dissertation which 20th Century Fox ended up taking an interest in, and it keeps winning awards. As per usual, we were curious so we decided to have a look at this dreamlike proposal, and finally understood why we've always been so fascinated by it.
Can you... hear me? Doubt. Destroy. Contemplate. Fall silent. Build.
It's the journey of a voiceless body and a voice without a body, a necessary encounter to make sense of a world that doesn't make sense. That's Etherborn's premise, which shapes the demo we were able to test for ourselves. We played three levels inside this complex universe, defying gravity every step of the way, and having to rethink our notions of space in order to solve environmental puzzles.
The basics are pretty simple. In the shoes of a being that longs to be, we've travelled through scenarios where all dimensions play a crucial role. Usual limitations disappear and so crazy concepts, such as running across the wall or the ceiling, are normal here. There's no gravity or, at least, not gravity as we know it. Everything is built and demolished with every movement.
The way our character moves is proof that the simplest option can be the best one. We just have to understand two easy concepts to master the mechanics: perpendicularity and tangency. Our avatar can jump, run, and walk across the wall only if there's a curve that joins their current floor with the next (which reminds us of Youropa).
Having only one slight limitation, the entire world is at our feet, quite literally. Etherborn, however, also challenges us into thinking outside the box in order to find the solutions so we can continue searching for that guiding voice.
Listen, at last, to what has always existed and was never there,
Going back to the question of simplicity, as it is present in everything Etherborn entails, puzzle resolution is generally based on exploring all scenarios in the search for hard to imagine routes and subsequently orbs. These must be placed in certain platforms in order to unlock new paths. Nothing more, nothing less.
At first, the idea seems so simple and easy to master. Altered Matter, however, has seized their designing skills to exploit three-dimensionality, as well as the creation of levels in which the player must explore not only every corner but also each position and perspective. Paths across the horizon, platforms that seem impassable, unreachable orbs... Etherborn plays around with platforms by showing you where to go but not how to get there every time you reach a new level.
We must break up with our traditional idea of 3D environments, leaving our comfort zone to understand that this world has different rules. The quicker you take this in, the quicker you'll solve every voiceless challenge.
and seek until your last breath the impossible pathway
It wasn't long until we understood what Etherborn's design represents, and discovered that its foundation has great potential. It's true that playing around with perspective is nothing new, our dear friend Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker can confirm this. Even gravity shifting is yesterday's news, as Nintendo and Super Mario Galaxy's planetoids show. Yet, the grace, minimalism, and illusions of Altered Matter that merge these concepts is exactly what keeps rousing our curiosity.
Etherborn suggests, but doesn't show; explains, but doesn't speak. It's all part of its appeal, as the other part is its art direction. There are no super detailed textures, nor places that resemble reality. The game, its colour contrast, brightness and scenarios make you feel like you're in a dream, which shows great personality from the get-go.
Look for me... I'll show you how, I'll show you why... Follow my voice...
For all these reasons, we want to continue the path of this entity that isn't but simply longs to be. Etherborn isn't either, but soon will be. We know we will be there to see if it enchants us as much as this demo has. We still have a long way to go to understand the mystery of this journey.
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