Playing Etherborn is like taking a hike through a series of colourful terraria that have been warped and torn apart by mysterious cosmic forces, causing gravity to shift like the sides of a Rubik’s Cube. It can be bewildering, but it’s never unpleasant-like a dream you can’t quite make sense of, but don’t want to end.
Out now on Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, Etherborn is a puzzle game that plays on your perception of space and physics. One second, you’re running past a small clump of glistening shrubs; the next thing you know, the path you’re on has curved and taken you up the side of a tower headed to the sky. Moments later, you accidentally step over the side, only to plummet to a platform below it that connects you to the bottom of said tower, letting you stroll along its underbelly when you should be falling to your death.
The rules are simple enough, but they’re so counterintuitive that they never start to feel old. Your character, a translucent bag of pale flesh, can run, jump, and collect glowing orbs. If you run up a curved surface, gravity will reorient itself so that it’s perpendicular to the direction you’re moving.
Hit a wall and you won’t be able to move past it, but find a ramp and you’ll be able to run up it, or maybe even fall on top of it from above. Every once in a while, the glowing orbs you find can be deposited into holes in the ground, transforming the landscape around you to create new paths forward — if you can grasp the invisible logic linking it together.
It’s a lot like if gravity were a rain cloud always hovering just above your head, so that no matter how you moved or turned, it kept you glued to the surface below your feet. Figuring out Etherborn’s puzzles is a lot like navigating an M.C. Escher drawing. Stumble around long enough and eventually you’ll find the exit. More likely than not, all it takes is putting one foot in front of the other and trying to walk as many as possible of the paths laid out in front of you.
This might sound tedious, but the scenery makes it all worth it. Beautiful background gradients fade from warm orange to fluorescent yellow, while pink stone bridges contrast with vibrant green paths. The overall look draws a lot from the colourful minimalism of Monument Valley.
Although Etherborn feels less narratively and thematically sophisticated than that mobile game and its sequel, it also has the benefit of letting you explore its dreamscapes in 3D.
Despite being a short game, the type you could finish in one sitting if everything happened to click, Etherborn drew me deeply into its world. It was as if I had reached its ghostly plane of existence from deep within a meditative trance, one I’m eager to slip back into again.