Etherborn is one of those titles you'd point your finger at if anyone was to question whether video games were an art form. Its twinkling soundtrack and lush pastel-coloured landscapes are just magical and evoked memories of the first time we experienced the much-beloved PS3 title, Journey. Unlike Journey though, Etherborn is much more puzzle-focused, enabling players to manipulate the pull of gravity to traverse and alter their surroundings. It's an interesting mechanic, that's for sure, but it's one we feel falls short of its potential and could have been realised to much greater effect.
In Etherborn you play as a strange humanoid creature that has its organs exposed and curiously has no hands or even a face. Things shift to black upon starting your adventure and a mysterious voice calls to you, speaking in riddles and asking you to look for them. You are then led across a winding tree towering to the heavens that features several different levels and you must progress across them in a linear fashion learning more about this mysterious stranger as you go along. We can't say that the story is what kept us the most invested and much of the time it was hard to follow (it's pretty thin after all) but it did offer just a smidge of intrigue.
The colourful worlds within Etherborn are the puzzles themselves and you can shift the direction that gravity snaps you up by walking along curved ramps, walls, and walkways. Moving up a ramp flips the world around you and you'll always snap to the surface facing directly before you, or you'll get whisked away and crumble into ash into the atmosphere. Along each stage, there's a requisite amount of white orbs and you'll need to snatch them to active switches that alter the environment and present a path towards the exit. This is the central hook in Etherborn, but environmental obstacles such as toxic pits and moving blocks help to complicate matters further.
You'll see an orb glistening in the distance floating high up and you'll have to do the brainwork to see you how can manipulate the space around you and get to it. It's tricky for sure, but a lot of the time we found ourselves pacing aimlessly and making the occasional leap of faith to see if it propelled us to where we wanted to go next. It's not clear which orbs you should grab first (some are only accessible by triggering switches) and some of the worlds are so large in scope that you'll wish you'd brought a bicycle along with you. We'd often have to come back and attempt worlds multiple times and guesswork was often a factor to success which snagged away much of the satisfaction. One positive, however, is that there is no set number of lives and you'll always come back lightening fast to where you last slipped up.
Etherborn only took us three hours to complete and mainly comprised of four different levels, and bear in mind that in our case this play-time will be inflated a little as we spent much of our time scratching our heads or just going for a wander to soak up the atmosphere. That being said, there is a New Game Plus mode that we were surprised to see as these often crop up within action or adventure focused titles and not puzzlers. It features the same exact levels as the standard mode but all the orbs have been scattered around in more challenging places. It doesn't completely compensate for such a fleeting main story but it's a nice touch for those who are itching to dive back in as there's an element of unfamiliarity even if it is pretty subtle.
Where Everborn shines the brightest is the sense of atmosphere that it creates. Watching the brightly coloured landscape pivot and rotate around when moving forward was always a stunning feat to behold and each of the four worlds has its own distinctive palette and is lavished with plenty of environmental detail. As mentioned earlier, it has a look reminiscent of Journey and we'd often find ourselves in awe of our surroundings. The soothing collection of ambient tracks we also found a great companion to our puzzle-solving journey and they helped to vanquish those odd bouts of frustration where we found ourselves completely stumped.
We found ourselves coming away with mixed feelings at the end of Etherborn but we'd still argue that's worth a play should you feel compelled to check it out. Its presentation is top-notch with an excellent soundtrack to match, and the mechanic of being able to shift the world around us to manipulate the pull of gravity we felt was a novel one. It is, however, disappointingly short and only lasts roughly three hours, and some of the puzzles left us feeling misguided and lost, which resulted in a lot of backtracking and even some trial and error.