Many will be ready to criticize The Vanishing of Ethan Carter as just some kind of "walking simulator" similar to Dear Esther, but that would be highly inaccurate. To be sure, the best way to describe The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is that it is an experience. You are there to experience the story, and the stories within the story, while exploring the world.
The game opens by claiming that it "is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand." That is somewhat disingenuous. It should say that it will hold your hands in some respects, but take an absolutely hands off approach in many other cases.
The gameplay comes down to some relatively simple puzzles, most of which are not clever or unique enough to mention - aside from one. Without giving too much away, as much of my enjoyment for this particular puzzle came from the realization of what it was exactly, the puzzle puts a twist on something all gamers are likely familiar with, which is where you have to correctly surmise the order of doors to go through. I truly wish I could say more, but because The Vanishing of Ethan Carter places so much emphasis on exploration and self-discovery, it would be wrong for me to reveal to much.
As for exploration, that is the key to enjoying the game. The game is completely fine with you missing information and other stories that go along with the main one. It has no qualms with you running through what you have just to finish the game, but everyone should know that you will most assuredly be missing out on the most enjoyable parts of the game.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does exploration and self-discovery right, as you are often rewarded with some interesting. That could be in the form of just objects in the world, like a collection of books, a note, a picture, a newspaper clipping - all of which add to the overall experience and make The Vanishing of Ethan Carter much more enjoyable.
Take my advice, go off the beaten path. Go everywhere the game will let you go to experience as much as possible. That is both for the sake of the experience, and for the sake of reducing the chances of having to annoyingly backtrack at the end of the game.
The only other part of the gameplay comes in the form of stumbling across grisly scenes, often where someone died. From there it is your job to find and replace certain items to figure out exactly what happened to lead to that person's death.
This is where some hand holding will come in. Often when looking for an item it is not in your immediate area so the game will point you in its general direction, making it into a treasure hunt. This was probably the dullest part of the game and something that was not utilized well enough. There are already few enough puzzles in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (though the game does not promise to be about puzzles), and the searching for items or discovering what is necessary to piece together a death seems as though it could have been interesting and definitely added something to the game.
Other than what was previously mentioned above, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does not have more to offer gameplay-wise.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does promise to be an experience however, and one that is focused on the story. The story is engaging enough and has some mystery, with some surreal and macabre thrown in for good measure, that it should always keep you guessing as to what is coming next. Though not necessarily guessing what happens next in the main story, but what other oddities you may run across.
While the main story should engage you at the beginning, it is not what will keep you going. The main story gets pushed to the wayside upon the first discovery of one of the side scenes where something both definitely unpredictable and amazing happens. Again, not spoiling much, expect to see some things that seem like they shouldn't fit in a game like this but do. Things like a giant octopus. I bet nobody expects that. Don't worry, that only sort of spoils one small thing, there is a lot more to look forward to.
However, going back to the main story, the Vanishing of Ethan Carter tries really hard to be something more than it is. It promises mystery, but fails to deliver. Instead, the main story goes from one event to the next while it tries to convince you that something more is going on with the constant reference to some kind of eternal being corrupting the family's minds. That is never really explored but is used as a device to try and keep the player engaged. Which does not work when so many other things happen on the side to take the player's attention away.
My original interest was the mystery, but I stayed for the experience. That is the best way to describe The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, as I said earlier. The main story only serves as a vehicle to push you forward to open up more opportunities for some really cool experiences.
What consistently surprised me the most in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was just how beautiful it is. There are some truly amazing backdrops and backgrounds to admire as you trudge through a dreary and often unnerving setting. Couple that with some of the best texture work I have seen in a game, and it would not be wrong to argue that this game is one of the best looking ones out there. What you see above, and if you search around for more, should be evidence enough.
To accompany the stunning visuals is a wonderful soundtrack that at many times will keep the player uneasy, when it needs to, and set the pace for moving forward. The only gripe I noticed is that the music could get repetitive and that it would trigger at weird times to where what was playing would not necessarily match what was going on. For example, it would play some really suspenseful music when I'm walking down a wide open path I've been to before as I was backtracking to do something else. Or some dramatic moment would happen in the story and music would be going on merrily in the background. Though, when it was present and used correctly, the soundtrack was great.
The visuals and promise of exploration should entice you into trying The Vanishing of Ethan Carter out. The surreal and the oddities will keep you interested. They happen almost immediately - if you look (really, explore in the game!).
In the end, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter fails to deliver what was promised: a thoroughly engaging story to keep mystery lovers engaged and thinking throughout the game. Most people will likely know the ending, or be very close to it, well before the game ends. Though, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is redeemed by the wonderful surprises you encounter along the way, as well as the atmosphere created by the beautiful visuals and wonderful music.