If you’ve been reading my game reviews for any length of time it’s probably quite clear that I have a few…types that I like. Of course there’s the usual mix of must-play AAA’s and the long running franchises that I’ve become a fan of but mixed in between all that is a subset of games that I’ll dub review-bait. Basically any indie/small studio title that’s pretty looking, has a good narrative or is experimental in some way is likely to catch my eye. LOST EMBER fits into that subset perfectly and was on my to-play list last year but I just never got around to giving it a go. It seems I wasn’t missing out on too much as whilst it’s a competent game in many respects the overall experience is decidedly middle of the road; the sum of its parts not being anything greater than its whole.
The people of the Inrahsi believe that those who follow their religion faithfully are rewarded with entry to the City of Life upon their deaths. For those that stray from the path however they’re cast back down into the world as beasts, forced to roam the world once again. You are Wolf, a beast of this world who appears to have the uncanny ability to see the spirits of the Inrahsi people and to possess all other animals in this world. You’re approached by a wayward spirit who’s become lost on his way to the City of Light and seeks out your help. What follows is a journey through the memory of the world that you live in and the spirit’s journey to the life hereafter.
The hallmarks of the Unreal 4 engine are all over Lost Ember from the various particle and lighting effects to just that overall “feel” you get from Unreal games that don’t muck with the underlying engine code too much. Lost Ember is at its best when you’re playing in the wide open spaces, able to soak in the seemingly endless vistas in front of you. That facade disappears quickly when you get up close to anything however where the lack of detail in both the modelling and the textures becomes readily apparent. Some of this can be explained away by artistic choices but in reality it’s more an artefact of trying to make large environments without spending an inordinate amount of time populating in the detail (something indie/kickstarter funded devs rarely have the opportunity to do). Worse still it’s clear that a lot of the animal is hand done with a lot of the animals seeming stiff or incredibly unrealistic in their motion. Lost Ember certainly has its moments, as my screenshot directory will attest to, but it’s very middle of the road when all is said and done.
Lost Ember is effectively a walking simulator, not really requiring much from the player in order to progress to the next section. There are some levels which will require you to possess a certain animal in order to progress but every time that animal will be right there next to the puzzle, making the challenge of figuring out what to do rather moot. There is an exploration aspect to it as well with a bunch of collectibles and “legendary” animals to find but apart from getting an achievement or two there’s really no reason to track them down. Checking out its Kickstarter page it’s clear that the gameplay was supposed to be mostly second to the narrative but what they’ve delivered here is pretty far from that original vision.
The exploration, for instance, is absolutely not worth your time at all. The collectibles are either “artefacts” which are random things that are partially related to the memory that you’ve just seen/about to see but they don’t include more than a sentence or two about them. For instance one item, which would be pretty central to one of the main characters, is given a single sentence simply restating what was said in one of the memories. At the very least the collectibles should give you something you can’t get elsewhere to make seeking them out worthwhile. Collecting the mushrooms is 100% pointless as far as I can see as the game doesn’t give you an indication of whether or not anything will happen should you collect all of them. Finally the “legendary” animals are simply glowing versions of the ones you already had access to, giving no benefits or deeper insights into the story.
The game also could use a couple layers of polish as there’s some unrefined edges that make themselves apparent far too often. The controls feel mushy and unwieldy most of the time making it rather annoying to control the majority of the animals. This is exacerbated by the camera which gets a real mind of its own in certain places and will routinely clip through the level, especially in tunnels or when you’re underground. The platforming controls are also incredibly wonky, often taking several attempts to get them to register what you’re trying to accomplish. Many animals will also get stuck in animations for seemingly no reason at all, some will even get stuck in animations that seemingly affect your input keys as well. The levels are also not 100% vetted as there’s numerous places where you can get yourself into a situation which you can’t get out of (save for hitting a checkpoint). All of these issues are fixable of course but we’re 5 months post-launch now so I can’t say my confidence is high to see them remediated anytime soon.
The main issue I have with Lost Ember’s narrative is that it’s all delivered via endless exposition from your spirit companion and the various cutscenes. The Kickstarter page billed it as a joint exploration that led to a deep bond between you both but in reality all it boils down to is your spirit telling you what you’re seeing. You, as the Wolf, have absolutely zero to do with anything that the story is putting forward and the relationship you have with the spirit is really only skin deep. Now to be fair there are some emotional moments later in the game but they don’t feel like they’ve been earnt, instead relying on cheap narrative tricks to make you care about the characters put forward in the game. All said and done it’s a very mediocre story, made all the worse by the fact that the overall game experience does nothing to add to it.
Lost Ember certainly started out with all the best intentions but it’s lack of polish, uninteresting core game loop and mediocre story make for a rather lackluster experience. On the surface it has all the elements of something that I’d thoroughly enjoy: pretty (even if simplistic) visuals, light gameplay mechanics and a focus on storytelling. But whilst all those elements are there none of them are interlinked with each other, nor is any one of them a standout in its own regard. To sum it all up: Lost Ember is neither good nor bad, it’s just rather forgettable. Fixing up some of the core gameplay issues would push it more towards the good end of things but there’s some serious rework needed if it could ever be considered great.
Lost Ember is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $42.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3.9 hours playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.