Like many platformers, Etherborn seems deceivingly simple at first: just jump to the end of the level, collecting crystal orbs that open up previously inaccessible areas. In fact, some of Etherborn’s geometric planes and architectural complexity date back to Monument Valley. A distinctive feature of this logic game is that its laws of gravity are not similar to our world. You can simply walk on any surface, even perpendicular to your character, as long as there is a curved edge connecting them. However, you are still vulnerable to injury and death; accidentally sliding from these landscapes into the endless void below is possible.
The scaling up of these skews leads to a different dimension and new unforeseen problems. Etherborn often manipulates your eyes, forcing you to find abstract solutions to your puzzles. There are times when I was confused, unable to move on, but much later I realized that I did not notice several platforms that I could jump onto because they were turned on their side. In other cases, you can even spend most of the level on a horizontal wall and jump over chasms in the same plane – a perspective that is difficult to master. It is likely that you will slip through cracks at least once or twice due to obtuse angles and see you curl downward into the void (or sideways, given the game’s unconventional gravitational pull).
The key to solving some of the puzzles is close attention to detail, which can help you find obscure passages that open up another path to your goal. As you become intimately familiar with the nooks and crannies of each miniature world, you will not only want to satisfy your curiosity about the environment, but also do so if you want to beat the game’s levels. Raising the stake in later chapters is the offset of monochrome blocks that expand and retract depending on where you are – and they can be a great source of trouble when they get in your way.
You can walk up the side stairs and find a completely different landscape hidden underneath, or run along the contours of the structures that surround the island. Even though Etherborn’s world is poorly decorated and may even appear sterile, with a few shrubs, dandelions, and urban decay adorning every world, this universe still feels truly intriguing.
Finding a hidden passage or curved path as a new means of propelling yourself to uncharted surfaces is very gratifying. Considering that you will probably spend a lot of time playing around with its puzzles, it will also help ensure that the orchestral, instrumental soundtrack is soothing and unobtrusive. Although there are only five chapters in the game, each of them will probably take you at least an hour to figure it out. Combined with its steep difficulty levels, it’s also nice that mistakes resulting from accidental deaths are also quickly forgiven, and the game quickly returns you to the state you were in a few seconds ago.
However, it is certainly less impressive how hard Etherborn tries to capture inappropriate storytelling in puzzles. You are a faceless, transparent humanoid figure with a highly visible circulatory system, a character vaguely reminiscent of a human anatomy dummy found in a biology class. At the behest of an disembodied, consecrated voice, you are tasked with traveling these lands in search of a series of waypoints. Clicking on them will eventually open up various paths on a massive tree called the Endless Tree, whose bark gradually peels off to reveal a sinuous, vein-like system throughout the trunk that ties all the chapters together. It’s a graceful inclusion that alludes to the play of humanity and anatomy, but is ultimately inconsequential.
Even when this disembodied voice tells a story that hints at the beginning of human civilization, the plot seems casual and oddly divorced from its mysteries. Apart from the introduction of each chapter, the voice does not greatly affect the game; instead, he simply delves into vague parables about the insanity of human nature, without really explaining the meaning of you and this exotic world. This sense of dissonance makes the story rather fragile. This exacerbates the way the dialogue is filled with abstract ideas that balance on pretentiousness, inflated with high lines like, “So their huge egos have also been reduced to plain language.”
Etherborn’s highlights are undoubtedly his ingenious riddles and his constellation of small, compelling worlds. But with just five chapters in a short execution time, it feels like a flaw, and I still have the urge to solve more puzzles. Etherborn tries to compensate for this by opening up a new game mode plus after you’ve completed the game, allowing you to immerse yourself in the same worlds again. This mode is largely similar to the original one, the only difference is that the crystal spheres are located in hard-to-reach places. However, aside from the slightly more challenging platformer puzzles, the thrilling excitement of discovery has largely subsided – after all, you’ve already found all the secrets – and you have little incentive to return to it. By the end, even the charm of these small worlds is not enough to make you come back.