Lost Ember has all the hallmarks of a critical darling — and you only need to look at its Metacritic and Steam ratings for confirmation. Unfortunately, for me, it was yet another walking simulator with a twist.
Yes, I’m sorry to preempt my own conclusion somewhat, but the reality is that no matter how it is dressed up — whether as a psychological horror, or against the backdrop of an electropunk alternative universe — wandering along a linear path watching a story unfold is beginning to wear thin on me.
Where Lost Ember is concerned, the player takes control of a wolf that was formerly a member of the Yanrana, a race of fictional Mesoamerican-esque native people who believe that their souls ascend to The City of Light upon death. For some reason, our wolf has been denied access to this promised land, and is instead forced to wander the land watching the story of their life unfold whilst a second spirit — also chained to the mortal realm — narrates for them.
Aside from the fact that players control a wolf for most of Lost Ember, the game introduces a further unique element in that the player can possess other animals that they encounter. Some of these animals have unique abilities such as flight, or the ability to crawl into small spaces or dig beneath walls. These abilities are generally the only form of puzzle in the game, and the player will begin to recognise the presence of certain animals and associate them with a particular kind of exploration.
The aim of Lost Ember is purely narrative. There are no enemies to fight, no bosses to defeat and no proper challenges to solve. Instead, the game draws players in through the extremely high standard of voice acting and the generally intriguing story. I won’t provide any spoilers here, but this is a tale of twists, turns, betrayals and tragedy, as well as undertones of rebellion and revenge.
Most of the cutscenes (of which there are many) are signposted by red smoke that billows out across the expansive levels. One of the reasons why I get a Mesoamerican vibe from the Yanrama is because the game feels very much as though it is set in the breathtaking mountainous regions of South America, and the crumbling architecture is often square and highly symmetrical in nature.
There is certainly some merit in exploring the world of Lost Ember both because of where it is set and because you’ll do so from the perspective of a handful of different animals, but ultimately the experience is largely as linear as any other game in this genre. Where it does allow players the freedom to explore – when playing as a bird, for example — it often rewards with largely pointless collectables and a good degree of disorientation, so I was generally happier to find my way back to one of the more obvious paths.
Of course, much of what games like Lost Ember offer is in the actual journey, and I find the experience of hopping from one animal to another quite mixed. As the wolf, our heroine moves beautifully, flowing gracefully through deep grass and up steep hillsides with ease, but when the jump button is pressed, a clunky and unnatural animation takes over, and the poor collision detection and lack of physics betray that this is not an action game or a platformer.
Pick another animal and you’ll usually find something to smile about. Ducks, for example, are easy to fly with lots of manoeuvrability, but can’t really gain height once they have taken off. Ducklings, on the other hand, can barely fly at all. A hummingbird can zip around extremely rapidly and can hover at any height but makes for quite a jarring method of flight.
Some of the ground-based mammals (which I can’t easily identify) have little abilities that the game actually calls “Silly Things” that activate when the D-Pad is pressed. These include features like eating fruits, or lying down for a snooze. One of these creatures can roll up into a ball and speed down hills, whilst another can dig beneath loose stone walls to knock them down — or simply dig for underground mushrooms.
Playing around with these animals is always mildly entertaining, but for me, it was never more than that. The visuals in Lost Ember are decent but more stylish than they are detailed, so whilst others might use words like “cute” to describe them, I simply didn’t feel that level of affection for anything in the game. With that in mind, I played with the simple intention of getting to the next cut scene most of the time.
As I mentioned earlier, these cutscenes are very well done and the voice acting, in particular, is superb. Each one is played out by ghost-like characters that represent people from the distant past, and the game achieves a lovely juxtaposition of the animals and natural things that exist in the now, compared with the human ghosts and their technologies – now long since destroyed — of the past.
Ultimately, when the game ended, I felt satisfied with the narrative outcome and relieved that the actual gameplay had reached an end. I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy the overall experience of Lost Ember, but I would say that I felt that the unique aspects of the game had run their course, and that I was ready to move onto the next, perhaps more exhilarating game.
If you’re a big animal fan and you like walking simulators, then Lost Ember might certainly be worth a look. It certainly has a strong narrative and some great voiceovers that easily match the best in the business. What it lacks is a sense of fear, or wonder or anything else that is truly emotive.
Yes, the story tugs at the heartstrings and is certainly interesting, and there’s no doubt that the gameplay is unique in the genre, but are those things enough to raise Lost Ember above mediocrity? If so, I’d say only just, and only if this is a genre that you’re really interested in.