Eternal Threads Preview: "A Cerebral Puzzling Experience"
Time travel and video games go hand-in-hand, but not enough of them make use of the timeline as a core puzzle to be solved itself. Titles like Braid, Prince of Persia, or SUPERHOT allow you to manipulate time, but it often serves as a tool to undo mistakes in the pursuit of a different objective. Enter Eternal Threads, the debut game from British studio Cosmonaut Games that explores the butterfly effect and its intricacies by tasking you with saving the victims of a house fire.
Days Of Future Past
Eternal Thread's novel game concept is engaging from the beginning, as it introduces you to a world where time travel was made possible. However, as any would-be time traveller would know, playing with the past can have devastating effects, and that proves true in Eternal Threads where that meddling results in a cascading effect across the planet as it changes millions of peoples' fates. And that's where you come in, as one of the few people qualified to move through time and change certain events in order to manufacture the most desirable outcome.
The introductory cutscene reveals that this is your first day on the job. You are sent to the location of a house fire that resulted in the six inhabitants dying, with your goal being to go back in time and manipulate the past to create a future where everybody survives. There's a short tutorial as you set up your equipment which allows you to see the events from before and during the fire and the mechanics that will let you alter time. You're then given the reigns to complete your objective.
Wrinkles In Time
The primary way you can alter the timeline and change the housemates' fates is through a tool called the visualiser. This handheld device allows you to dial into three projector-like devices you place around the house, letting you watch events from before the fire.
Your visualiser also lets you access the time map, which is where most puzzle solving will take place. The time map is a linear representation of the timeline, showing the week leading up to the fire, where you can select different events to watch. Despite the time travelling headache this game has the potential to be, the time map provides clarity and gives you some tools to play through it your way.
Sitting at the end of the timeline is the conclusion event; your goal is to have all the characters alive at this point. Each character also has a final event, marked by a hexagon, and normal events, marked with circles. Some of them turn into diamond shapes after being viewed, which means you can make a decision that will alter the timeline. An example of this came during a scene where two of the housemates were having a boozy night in, playing pool.
In the original, deadly timeline, one of them drunk texts their ex, but I elected to change this and make the other one stop him. This decision unlocked a new event the following day, leading to them forging a closer friendship. Not every event comes with a decision to make, and not all of them are equally important, but there are a few dozen to find and experiment with during your playthrough to earn different outcomes.
There are a total of 197 events that you can watch in this preview episode. However, not all of them are immediately accessible, as certain criteria need to be met before the timeline will split and cause different actions to occur. You can also access them in any order you wish. I first began watching it chronologically before an event stood out involving the character Ben and a job offer he received. After changing this part of the timeline, the time map highlighted the events that it directly affected, so I jumped forward to see what the result would be. Fast-forward about an hour, and I had managed to make some decisions that led to Ben and his girlfriend surviving. But that wouldn't be enough to save all six, as the handler reminds you, with some resolutions needing to be undone to get a better ending for everyone else.
Not Quite About Time
The most stand-out issue that the game currently faces is its presentation. Graphically it's fine - if a little basic - but much of the animations and voice acting leaves a lot to be desired. The characters come across as stilted and unnatural, with some of them delivering their lines in the same one-note tone, often when the scenes presented had wildly different moods associated. This stood out the most with the characters who are in a relationship, such as Ben and Jenny, with their interactions never really selling their relationship.
The developers were clear that this isn't the final version, and that there would be improvements, polish changes and bug fixes still to come. It doesn't seem that the cast will change with just a month to go until release though, and it will be a problem considering you spend the majority of the game watching and listening to these characters and their lives.
Eternal Threads has a tonne of potential to be one of the most memorable games of the year and a cerebral puzzling experience. It presents players with an engaging narrative Rubik's Cube that can be solved in a number of interesting ways, testing your ability to track cause and effect into a neat timeline that sees everyone survive. While there are some issues with polish that are typical of smaller budget titles, it's undoubtedly going to entice those that love a good puzzle.