Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch
I imagine Lost Ember’s pitch meeting at Mooneye Studios went something like this:
“You know what the walking simulator genre really needs? Wolves. Wolves that don’t talk, don’t hunt, don’t work with packs. In fact, forget wolves. Wolf, singular. That’s what this genre needs.”
And that’s about all you get. This is a walking simulator where the main character is a wolf. I fell asleep with the controller in my hand twice.
There is a wonderful world of walking simulators, from spooky Oxenfree to moving Firewatch to queer punk romance Gone Home. Every single one of the games I mentioned provided emotional, compelling stories and characters that engaged you right up to the last minute of the story. They are worth playing. Lost Ember is not.
Wolves, I guess
So you’re a wolf. You’re not an exciting wolf though. You don’t hunt. You don’t fight other wolves. You can’t even jump that well. You don’t have exceptional hearing or sense of smell. The wolf’s best (and distinctly un-wolf-like) trick is that it can possess the bodies of other animals, but those animals don’t really do anything interesting either.
Yes, you can possess a groundhog of some kind, and crawl through tunnels. Some sort of mole analog can dig under stones blocking your path. Fish swim. But they don’t feel like animals - they feel like really awkward cars. They don’t hunt one another. They don’t sleep. They don’t need to eat. They are placed inside of environments, but they don’t interact with them meaningfully. They can’t die. Throw a fish onto dry land, and an hour later, they’re still there, flopping around, waiting for you to possess them. They just sit around and wait for you to possess them.
It’s even more frustrating that you can use the d-pad to make your animal engage in some utterly meaningless context-sensitive animations. The wolf can lay down and go to sleep. The groundhog can munch on berries. None of them are relevant to the game at all. It’s like Mooneye considered adding survival mechanics, gave up, and left these vestigial animations behind. They make me feel like I’m being taunted.
Birds in Lost Ember manage to make flying feel disappointing. At one point, I flew down into an area I wasn’t supposed to, and despite the fact that I am a damn duck, a bird that can fly for miles upon miles to migrate for the winter, I can’t fly upwards to reach a higher platform. It’s a ridiculous mechanical kludge designed to prevent you from exploring the game world in a game ostensibly about exploration. About four hours into the game, you can possess a parrot who has 360 degrees of freedom, but by then, I was too bored to care.
At one point, you get to possess an elephant, and I thought, “Oh, this is it! Elephants are amazing! There’s gotta be something cool for me to….” The elephant can walk through copses of bamboo. That’s it. No big booming noise when it walks. No tusk charge. Not even a freaking elephant sound when I hit the howl button! Turning into animals is every kid’s fantasy, and Mooneye somehow manages to make it hellishly boring.
Howling for memories
Gameplay consists of searching for memory shards and activating them by howling. Sometimes the game shows you the past by showing red outlined figures in freeze frame poses or some poorly constructed cut scenes. You then look into the past and see a much more interesting story about an uprising that destroys a civilization - an uprising you led in a past life!
Surprise, you weren’t always a wolf. At one point, you were the woman who led a revolution that broke this civilization. That story is very interesting, but you have no meaningful interactions with it whatsoever. Zero urgency, zero stakes. You can watch it, but that’s it. See, you’re a wolf because of the things you did in your human life. In the game world, being a wolf is a karmic punishment.
And four hours into this game, I have to wonder what exactly I, the player, did wrong to get stuck as a wolf. There’s a much more interesting walking simulator hiding inside this one, where you actually get to play through the difficult life and death of a woman behind a failed revolution. And every time I see a little bit of that game, I get annoyed that I’m stuck playing the one that Mooneye Studios made. It was so dull that I gave up.
Also, there’s a British ember ghost that follows you around, commenting on your exploits. You never speak back to him because, you know, you’re a wolf (have I mentioned that? You’re a wolf). He has strong opinions about what you did in your past life, but none of it really matters. You’re both dead. Civilization has already ended. Zero stakes. At the very least, he’s well-voice acted.
In the woods, I guess
Lost Ember’s environments are bland as hell. They actually look significantly worse than the environments in Lost Ember’s years-old Kickstarter trailer. I cut indie games a lot of slack on graphical quality. No one should expect AAA graphics from small studios. But your world has to have character and flavor, and Lost Ember is a mayo sandwich on white bread. Is this earth? Are you playing as an earth wolf? I don’t know. Maybe? Real earth never looked this boring.
The textures look primitive. The water effects are straight out of 2010. The foliage is just the same stuff, repeated ad nauseum. I can forgive this in a game that provides more for you to do; I don’t contemplate the foliage structure and textures in an FPS or a racing game. But walking around and looking at the scenery is literally the only thing for you to do in Lost Ember.
Lost Ember pretends to be a game about exploration, but invisible walls confront you every time you try to stray from the devs’ pre-determined path. So rather than feeling like an exploration of a vast, untamed world, it feels like pixel-bitching for the sole passageway forward that the devs left for you.
Did you fall from something about 20-feet high? The game fades to black and puts you back on top of the ledge where you were. Nevermind if that is where you’re supposed to go anyway. There’s a path that you’re supposed to follow, and you’re gonna follow it, dammit.
At one point, it looked like I could jump a fish over a rocky barrier to a raging river below, and advance to the next area. Nope, invisible wall. The only way forward was to search for a tiny underwater passageway in a pond.
It sure looks like I can go through that tunnel. But I definitely can’t. It’s 2019, man. This is unacceptable. Also, this tunnel doesn’t lead to some forbidden area that I can’t get to any other way. It’s the outside of a tower, in a wide open area where I literally just was.
As a mole, I got stuck in a log, and had to reload the checkpoint. Get too close to a wall, and your animal disappears. You have to back up for it to appear again. As a duck I flew into a tunnel and the game couldn’t quite parse me turning 180 degrees and leaving, and thus visually glitched and showed me clipping errors.
BEHOLD THE DUCK TUNNEL OF MADNESS
At one point, you possess a fish and ride a long stone waterslide for a few minutes. This is one of the best moments in the game, and it’s marred by the fact that it played the same splashy, immersion-shattering water sound effect over and over any time my fish was touching the ground.
Despite being delayed since the summer, Lost Ember doesn’t feel anywhere near done. The Kickstarter trailer promised lush environments, and what we get is polygonal and artificial looking. The animals, which should’ve been the centerpiece of the experience, feel like an afterthought. But I don’t know that more time in the oven would’ve fixed Lost Ember.