By Jason Quinn / October 19th, 2018
ETHEREAL is a puzzle game developed and published by Nonsense Arts. Gameplay is the focus in this game, there is no story to speak of at all. So let’s get right to talking about it. The game is structured into four zones, with each zone containing six levels. The goal of each level is to collect some colored dots and then make it back out. Being a puzzle game, this task isn’t so simple. You can only move freely horizontally. If you want to move vertically, you have to phase through a wall. Of course, there must be empty space on the other side. Simply navigating through levels like this is the core of each puzzle.
Colored dots come in pairs, which is where the complexity comes from. When you pick one up, you have to pick the other one up without touching any other colored dot. So a big part of puzzles is determining which order you can actually pick them up in. Once you’ve picked up a pair, you can safely traverse the areas those were in, thus opening up new paths.
Each zone you go into has a couple new mechanics to add to the mix. Each one means you have to think about the levels in more and more complex ways. The first one introduced are blocks that you can move around. It starts out just as a means to get to another area, but eventually you’ll have to position it carefully so that it will work with some other mechanic. For example, the next one introduced rotates the entire level by 90 degrees. The effect this has on puzzle solving is pretty apparent. You can no longer just look at the level one way.
Each mechanic introduced adds another layer of complexity. ETHEREAL introduces mechanics in a way that makes them easy to learn. You get just a really simple area that only has that one mechanic to teach you what it does. After that, it’s used in conjunction with other mechanics you’ve learned. The pacing is really good too, you get just enough time to really put it through it’s paces before being introduced to another one. No level ever feels repetitive or like something you’ve seen before.
The puzzles get fairly complex, but never too complex that it feels impossible. There were more than a couple levels where I had to just kinda stare at the screen for a minute and really try to plan things out. Early levels you can get by with brute force, but trying to do that later in the game is just gonna make things frustrating for you. The game wants you to be patient and calm.
One issue I had is that each zone that contains the levels are puzzles themselves. Simply getting to another level was a little more complicated than it should be. Especially after finally beating the last level in the zone, having to make your way back to the entrance just feels a bit unnecessary to me. It’s not too bad, but in a game that’s largely devoid of padding, these parts felt a bit superfluous.
Visually, the game looks good enough. The minimalistic style certainly lends itself to this sort of puzzle game, but it doesn’t look boring either. One thing I’m not a fan of are the edges of the screen curving. Almost like it’s emulating old convex CRT screens. It makes it look unique I suppose, but it can make parsing some of the levels a bit difficult. I at least wish you had the ability to turn it off.
The music in the game was fine with some nice relaxing ambient music, but it was kinda destroyed by the sound design. When you pick up a colored dot, the other half to it’s pair will start ringing every few seconds. It’s loud, very high pitched, and very annoying. When I was trying to solve a puzzle, I found it immensely distracting. I eventually just muted the game, it was the only way I could actually concentrate.
ETHEREAL is a very competent, well designed puzzle game. The way it introduces things makes playing it pretty intuitive, even though it kinda looked like nonsense just looking at the trailers. There’s really not many things to criticize about it, but there weren’t exactly many high points either. If you’re craving for a puzzle game that won’t take up too much of your time, this is certainly a worthy game to look into. Beating it only took me maybe 4 hours. There’s no price listed on Steam as of writing this, but I’d say it’d be worth picking up between $10 and $15.
Review copy was provided by the publisher.