“There must be more to being a wolf than this.” Such was my prevailing thought while playing through Lost Ember. On the one hand, it’s a walking simulator. There isn’t much to do other than explore, discover the world around you, and hunt for hidden collectibles. On the other hand, its central gameplay mechanics are innovative enough that I wish it went down a different path. Inhabiting the bodies of different animals and using them to explore a ruined world is an excellent idea. As it stands, Lost Ember feels like a proof of concept, a demo in search of a central mechanic.
Lost Ember‘s official website bills it as an “animal exploration adventure game”. As you might expect from that description, it largely eschews gameplay in favor of atmosphere, world-building, and storytelling. While you will be engaging with some light animal possession mechanics, it’s not really possible to fail or lose. The gameplay is mostly there to enrich the world rather than to provide any sort of challenge. That’s okay – games don’t have to be thrill rides all the time. They do, however, have to be engaging. Lost Ember sometimes manages this, but more often than not its flaws threaten to bury its triumphs.
Lost Ember | Of Wolf And Man
Since there isn’t much gameplay to speak of, you’ll spend most of your time in Lost Ember learning its story. It takes place on a ruined world reclaimed by animals – think The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Horizon: Zero Dawn. Once, the vibrant human Yanren civilization occupied the world, but an unknown catastrophe destroyed all traces of them. Accompanied by your once-Yanren spirit guide, you must travel the world to discover what happened to the humans who once lived on it. Along the way, you must also discover why you personally didn’t ascend to the City of Light, the Yanren afterlife.
That spirit guide is this game’s Navi. He’s pretty much the sole voice you’ll hear throughout Lost Ember. With that in mind, the decision to give him a lilting Yorkshire British accent is rather baffling. Games like Ico and The Last Guardian manage to create fey, mystical atmospheres for their games by using non-English languages, and that’s a decision that would have worked wonders here. It might not have been so bad if the voice acting itself wasn’t stunted and off. Characters deliver their lines not like they’re talking to one another but like they’re reading from a script. When the narrative is all Lost Ember has going for it, this is a major flaw.
The guide talks incessantly too. There’s rarely a moment when he’s not spouting expository dialogue, trying to sound emotional by stuttering, or stating the obvious. It’s a shame because the world is beautiful and the story Lost Ember is telling could be interesting if it held your hand less. As it stands, Lost Ember hammers many of its narrative points home without subtlety or a hands-off approach. When the core idea of your game is exploration, it’s a better idea to let the player explore than to railroad not only their character but also their emotions.
Lost Ember | Paw Patrol
There’s a strange dichotomy at work in Lost Ember‘s pseudo-open world. On the surface, it looks like a breathtaking savannah full of beautiful landmarks: human-made ruins, lone trees swaying atop hills, deep valleys full of mystery. To Lost Ember‘s credit, you are allowed to explore it at your own pace for the most part. It rarely takes your hand and forces you down a particular path. Unfortunately, the world design means that this lack of direction also makes it very easy to get lost. Here we have a game that is simultaneously too linear and too open.
The world begs to be explored. To that end, you can inhabit the bodies of different animals. A bird might help you reach a high place, for example, or you might need a wombat to burrow where your wolf can’t reach. Don’t expect to use these animals for any clever puzzles or gameplay quirks – this is very much a binary “use animal X to solve puzzle Y” kind of game. The animals themselves are adorable, all snuffling snouts and buzzing hummingbird wings. Still, there’s a distinct whiff of missed opportunity about the systems here. I never felt like a bird or a tiny mammal. Instead, I felt like a player trying to solve puzzles.
The music doesn’t help matters. It’s competently put together, but it sounds like Coldplay soundtracking an inspirational corporate advert about private healthcare. Instead of bringing to life this vast, magical world, it simply reinforced the incessant beating around my head, the constant “you should be feeling emotions” drive. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a valid tonal comparison. Its world is similarly overgrown, beautiful, and vast. Breath of the Wild evokes a lonely, sad atmosphere with nothing but a few piano notes, only ramping up the music when you reach a major settlement or dungeon (mostly). Lost Ember could learn a lot from this approach.
Lost Ember | Bones To Pick
As a concession for the gameplay hounds (pun intended), Lost Ember throws in some collectible mushrooms, artifacts, and other distractions. These collectibles flesh out the world a little and communicate some information about the Yanren. They’re not unwelcome – some of the objects are quite poignant – but they pale in comparison to Horizon Zero Dawn‘s themed mugs or Breath of the Wild‘s memories. Since the gameplay doesn’t really allow for clever mechanical play, you’ll mostly find collectibles by simply hunting through every corner of each semi-open level until you find them. This isn’t particularly fun and it’s not particularly rewarding.
It’s easy to pinpoint the moment I lost patience with Lost Ember. About halfway through its very short running time, I started wondering about the game it could have been. My mind was full to the brim with ideas and concepts that Lost Ember frustratingly suggests, but never capitalizes on. When you are frustrated because the game you’re playing is not what you wish it was, that’s a bad sign. Lost Ember doesn’t quite work as a game, a story, or an interactive experience. Instead of the raw emotion it wants you to feel, you spend most of your time frustrated at glitches or the limitation of its exploration systems.
Even in great walking simulators, gameplay can inform the narrative. Take Gone Home, for example. Without wishing to spoil, it begins as a spooky atmospheric horror-style game and morphs into something very different by the end. That change is driven almost entirely by your own discoveries. Nothing changes about the house’s atmospherics in Gone Home. The mood simply shifts as you learn more about what’s happened. Lost Ember is not anywhere near as clever. It aims for Ico or The Last Guardian but falls flat in almost every way.
Lost Ember Review | Final Thoughts
Lost Ember‘s massive potential only makes its relative failure all the sadder. There are things to like here: the visuals are beautiful, the animals are well-rendered (if a little poorly-animated at times), and the story has its moments. Unfortunately, these high points are floored at every turn by a world that doesn’t want you to explore it, a raft of technical glitches, and mediocre voice acting and writing. If you’re on the hunt for a game that will relax you and won’t challenge you in any way, Lost Ember may fit the bill. For everyone else, it’s very hard to imagine that most alternatives in the same genre aren’t better options.
TechRaptor reviewed Lost Ember on PlayStation 4 Pro with a copy provided by the developer.