Fixing the Past to Save the Future in Eternal Threads – A Review
Developer: Cosmonaut Studios Publisher: Secret Mode Format: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch Released: 19th of March, 2022 Time Played: 10 hours, 45 minutes Game purchased at full price for £24.99
I’ve always been a tad hesitant when it comes to purchasing newly released indie games on Steam. Don’t get me wrong, I love indie games regardless of their genre or the budget they’ve been made with, and I’ll always be happy to take a risk on a title that doesn’t have many reviews yet, but… not so much when it comes to Steam, specifically.
It’s safe to say that whilst Steam has continued to stand tall as PC’s biggest gaming storefront; it’s become something of a minefield over the past ten years… Valve has been gradually reducing their quality control checks for quite some time now, and it’s clear to see that the results have been detrimental for both players and developers alike. It has resulted in an alarmingly large number of asset flips, poorly made games, and even flat-out scams making their way onto the platform.
This started with the release of the Steam Greenlight service in late 2012, a system that allowed development teams to submit their games for the Steam player base to vote on, ultimately determining which games would be given Valve’s support in the following months via worldwide distribution. Unfortunately —after an admittedly successful trial run— Valve started opening the Greenlight floodgates further and further, leading to a tsunami of scammers, each submitting minimal-effort projects in the hopes of earning a quick buck.
Titles like these were something of a rarity at first, drip-fed to the public and only called out due to the hard work of several YouTubers exposing them, such as James Stephanie Sterling and the late John ‘TotalBiscuit’ Bain. Many people acknowledged just how easy it was to exploit the Greenlight voting system (Valve included), but nobody put quite as much effort into critiquing it as Sterling and Bain did. Their incredible work highlighted the aforementioned lack of quality control and the egregious direction that Valve’s distribution platform was heading in. Unfortunately, their warnings went unheeded…
With the voting system eventually scrapped, regulations only got looser from there on out. Steam Greenlight was ultimately adapted into the even easier-to-exploit “Steam Direct” system that we have today. Now just about any game can get onto the platform, provided the developers are able to pay a $100 fee first. There is no voting system, there are no queues, and there certainly aren’t any quality assurances to speak of… How fun!
Due to this, shovelware has become so common in the “new releases” section of Steam that it’s become difficult to determine which games have had heart and soul poured into them and which have been haphazardly thrown together in the course of a single afternoon. Hence why I’m always extremely cautious when scrolling through new indie titles on Steam; It’s not that I don’t want to trust brand new developers and give their games a shot, but I’ve been burned countless times before and it’ll only be a matter of time before I’m burned again in some way, shape or form.
Yet, every now and again, I’ll see a brand new game on the platform that’ll intrigue me so much that I simply cannot wait for the reviews to pour in. Sometimes it’ll be because of a game’s fascinating screenshots, whilst others will capture my interest with a succinct and honest description of the game’s contents. Occasionally it’s because a game will present itself as so mysterious and intriguing that I simply cannot help myself… It’s always a risk, and definitely not one I take lightly given the current state of Steam Direct, yet some of the titles I’ve gambled on have placed among the most enjoyable games that I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
Enter Cosmonaut Studios’ first ever game: Eternal Threads. A game that was absolutely, undeniably, unequivocally worth the risk.
Time itself has broken. It’s not a great situation to be in, to be honest. As it turns out: Discovering something as significant as time travel brings about some pretty substantial side effects, but who could’ve seen that coming? How could we have possibly known that messing about with time travel would put us at risk?
Alright, alright, sarcasm aside: The discovery of time travel has caused vast amounts of chronal radiation to leak out into the time stream. These radioactive particles have, for all intents and purposes, poisoned time itself. They’ve travelled far and wide, altering a huge number of minor decisions, actions, and events throughout history, causing the world’s timeline to bend in countless incorrect ways.
So what can we do about it? Well, the Second Chance Project —a company from the far future— believes that the solution is more time travel! In Eternal Threads, you play as silent protagonist Agent 43, an employee for the aforementioned Second Chance Project. You have been given a single objective: Travel back in time and use your manipulation device to alter these minor decisions in the hopes of creating a better outcome for the time stream.
Direct interference is simply too great a risk, as people discovered the existence of time travel too early could result in even worse consequences for humanity further down the line. As such: You are only allowed to alter miniature decisions in the hopes of indirectly affecting an end-point through the butterfly effect rather than getting directly involved with the endpoint itself.
Today’s mission? Well, what better place to start than a houseshare in Northern England 2015? The Second Chance Project have sent you here to prevent a large-scale house fire which, simply put, was unavoidable. What was avoidable, however, was the fate of all six tenants of the houseshare, who perished in the fire due to the timeline being altered.
None of them were supposed to die, and that’s where you come in… Exploring the events that took place in the week leading up to the fire, you must alter several of the seemingly insignificant decisions that each tenant has made. If things go as planned, this should indirectly cause them to survive the inevitable end-point of their home burning down.
There are quite a few characters involved in this story, but these six housemates are the only ones who can be considered truly pivotal. These housemates are Tom, Raquel, Linda, Neil, Ben, and Jenny. Over the course of the in-game week, you’ll come to know each of them quite intimately, gathering knowledge of their motivations, life goals, origin stories, and ongoing secrets by observing both their public and private lives. But how does it work..? Well…
Eternal Threads could easily be categorised as a Walking Simulator with puzzle elements, but I feel that “Interactive Movie” is a more apt descriptor on the whole. The crux of the gameplay is found in its timeline menu, which lists roughly 200 events that have occurred (or could potentially occur), within the week leading up to the fire. It may look like a complicated menu, but it’s surprisingly easy to understand once you’ve gotten started.
Using this menu allows you to select various scenes you would like to witness, read recaps of each key event (if you’ve watched them before), and quickly alter any decisions on the fly without the hassle of re-watching their associated sequences. Most significantly: This menu allows you to see at a glance whether your actions have allowed a character to live or die by the final event of the week. These character statuses are accompanied by a full synopsis of what each housemate’s life will be like after the fire, according to the decisions you’ve made for them.
Some of these scenes will consist of fairly mundane day-to-day interactions that will help you learn more about each character’s personality. Others will give integral backstories regarding their lives prior to the events of the game, alongside the secrets they may be hiding. Some could be as simple as someone making a cup of coffee in order to quell their hangover, whilst others could show their grizzly demise if the week hasn’t played out in their favour. At any rate: You —as the player— won’t know what to expect until you see for yourself how each scene plays out.
Selecting a scene will cause the menu to close. You’ll then be returned to the explorable area: The burned-out remains of the house, just a few hours after the fire has been extinguished. A radar will appear on your time manipulation device, which points you toward the location of the scene that you’ve selected. These can take place in any room or hallway or even the basement and backyard areas.
Upon heading to an event’s location, you can interact with the holographic memory of any given character within it. It works a lot like pushing the play button on a video: The characters will begin moving and talking to one another until the end point is reached. Afterward, these holograms will disappear, and your character will type a memorable name on your device, thus labelling the scene and making it easier to find further down the line. Rinse and repeat.
Of course, the game goes deeper than simply watching each event play out. Many of these scenes will include branching moments within the timeline, Points where the chronal radiation may have warped a decision and changed its outcome. Sometimes it can be a decision that seems simple and irrelevant, like double checking if there’s any post for one of the housemates. Others can feel more significant, such as whether or not certain characters open up to one another about their deepest, darkest secrets. The trick is that even the simplest decisions can have very long-reaching consequences for a multitude of characters.
When these branching moments come along: It’s your time to shine. Through the use of your time manipulation device, you can alter the decisions that each character has made, changing how the rest of the scene plays out and how countless others could occur in the future. Hence: The butterfly effect comparison.
Deciding if a character remains sober at a party or not could lead to significant changes in their romantic life further down the line. Meanwhile, choosing if a character continues taking their medication can result in severe paranoia at later stages of the week. This is wonderfully represented by the timeline menu shifting with each choice that you make. Thankfully though: Nothing is set in stone. If you regret a decision you’ve made, you’ll always have the opportunity to go back and alter it, to try and reach a better outcome for everyone involved.
Fascinating is definitely an understatement when it comes to this system. It’s impressively complex but never overwhelming, yet the lengths to which each storyline can be altered are drastically more varied than the dual-layered timeline screen initially suggests. There are many questions created by this unique take on decision-making, and each choice only leads to more questions being raised. How can you get this character to survive? What decisions should be made to prevent them from starting a physical altercation? Should you prevent this physical altercation if it can cause character growth later in the week?
Despite this, the puzzle of the game always remains the same: What circumstances must you reach in order for the housemates to survive the fire? It certainly is a mystifying conundrum when there are so many variables involved. Yet, the game’s narrative flows in such a way that it’s guaranteed to click with you after enough key events have been seen. Rest assured that there’s no need to watch every single scene, though you may end up actively wanting to as you find yourself more and more immersed in the lives of each character… I know I did!
The Characters, The Atmosphere, and The Graphics
A narrative game of this style —complex though it may be— lives and dies by the quality of its characters… Thankfully, each of them feels unique and interesting in their own way. I found myself very worried within the first few scenes that each character ran the risk of falling into clichéd and stereotypical archetypes. Linda is a middle-aged woman currently separated from her husband, Raquel is a somewhat promiscuous bisexual woman, and Ben is a young but overworked doctor. It’s easy to see how each of these examples could be boiled down to fairly two-dimensional story arcs, with very little growth to be found.
Yet each of them ends up feeling like a living, breathing human beings. Linda isn’t just wallowing in misery or striving for empowerment due to her separation; She’s diving into the philosophies of how to repair a one-sided relationship with the help of her friends whilst finding the strength to support her brother through a particularly turbulent time of his own. All the while, she’s also attempting to teach her young son that being a mother and a housewife is only a small part of who she is as an individual.
Raquel never becomes a stereotypical portrayal of a sex-focused university student; She’s a highly conflicted artist trying to make it in a career that is deeply unforgiving towards new talent who must cope with long-term grief and symptoms of CPTSD at the same time. And Ben barely broaches the topic of his work; He feels like a fully fleshed-out character beyond the confines of his hospital, with a thriving and healthy relationship, a keen interest in the mental well-being of his friends, and a complex decision to make about what he should do with the future of his career.
Any one of these characters could’ve been handled in a number of plain and typical ways, yet they’ve been developed far more than first impressions may suggest. Each of them has multiple ongoing storylines that interweave with one another alongside the side characters they interact with. Their individual complexities only bring about more and more layered storytelling as time goes on. These three —alongside Jenny, Tom, and Neil— don’t just carry the main story of the house fire: They are the main story, and it’s impossible not to care about their lives…
I won’t be spoiling anything here, of course. This is just a review after all, and I’m sure it’s already plain to see that I recommend you purchase the game as soon as you can! It’s worth referring back, however, to something I mentioned in the Story section: The synopsis in the timeline menu, which informs you of what happens to each housemate and their loved ones after the fire has taken place.
These synopses actually update with almost every single decision you make. As such: Completing your main objective by saving each character is all well and good, but that’s far from the best ending. This additional layer to the game —a second puzzle, if you will— is not only about saving everybody but also shaping their lives to be the best that they can possibly be.
It’s a minor mechanic that only alters these small pieces of descriptive text, but you end up caring about the characters enough to feel invested in what their off-screen outcomes may have become. It gives the player a very special motivation to scroll back through time once more and change their lives for the better, not just for survival. This level of immersion over such a minor piece of content is quite the accomplishment by the writers and is a perfect example of how substantial the story feels.
There is, however, one character in particular that we haven’t really talked about: The house itself. Shrouded in embers, ash, smoke, and darkness, the house in Eternal Threads makes for a remarkably iconic locale. Though this isn’t a horror game by any stretch of the imagination, there’s something deeply atmospheric about how it all comes together. There are times when you can’t help but question whether you truly are alone, thanks to several moments of excellent ambient sound design and the deafening silence that comes between them.
Multiple documents and secrets can be found around the house, too, meaning it never feels like it’s just a backdrop. It’s fascinating to find a crumpled-up therapist’s pamphlet near a broken phone full of aggressive texts, only to then change a decision in the timeline and find it straightened out, accompanied by a fixed phone with details of a character’s first appointment. It’s an intelligent extra layer to the storytelling that doesn’t just enhance each of the characters but also the atmosphere and look of the environment itself, making the house a deeply immersive place to explore.
Last but not least, it’s worth bringing up the game’s visuals too, which aid its atmosphere extensively. Every part of the house has been lovingly crafted with great attention to detail. Every nook and cranny is modelled with such passion that it’s always clear to see just how lived in or uniquely damaged the house has become. Stylistically it feels authentically British, and it all culminates in a game that is every bit as immersive as it is enjoyable to look at. The character models may not be quite as beautifully rendered, but they’re not bad by any stretch of the imagination, and their high-quality animations help maintain the legitimacy of each and every scene.
Eternal Threads is an intelligently crafted masterpiece, through and through. It’s nigh impossible to think of a single bad thing to say about it. Though the gameplay may be simple in its concept and controls, the vast layers of complexity within its core puzzle make it comparable to the journey of discovery that Deathloop has to offer, albeit in a smaller scale. The narrative supports and expands upon those complexities time and time again with each and every story thread, fleshing out the characters to feel just as genuine as you or I.
The atmosphere was clearly one of the developer’s key focuses here, producing eerie vibes and anxieties without ever having to rely on jumpscares or loud noises. But as I mentioned: Eternal Threads is not a horror game, though its excellent blend of serious storytelling and silent exploration could easily have you thinking otherwise. Thankfully, this never manages to clash with the more upbeat and humorous aspects of the positive memories you’ll find interspersed throughout. Not an easy feat to accomplish by any means.
All in all, Cosmonaut Studios have hit the ground running with their first ever game, and I’m very eager to see what they come up with next. While they could easily stand tall within the indie horror scene if they wanted to give it a shot; I’d happily see more of these unique decision-based games regardless of the genre they go with. With this level of writing talent, I’m certain they have a very bright future ahead of them.
Personally? I would love to see them create more games in the Eternal Threads universe. It’s such a wonderful concept that lends itself so easily to a multitude of scenarios, jumping from point to point in order to fix different corrupted timelines with fresh characters, locales, and events each time. The Second Chance Project are a great narrative device, but there are plenty of hints throughout the game that have an ominous complexity to them, far deeper than what can be seen at the surface level. As such, it’s a world that I’d give anything to experience more of.
A worthwhile risk from the Steam Direct minefield, wouldn’t you agree? Now… Once more unto the breach, dear friends.