Many games have successfully taken limited gameplay experiences and carried them to the finish line through intriguing stories and captivating dialogue. These stories unravel as you walk through their enamouring settings in games like Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, Firewatch, and What Remains of Edith Finch. Lost Ember is not one of these games, but it tries to be.
The story has an interesting premise; a journey to find the ‘City of Light’, the game’s depiction of the afterlife, which you and your companion, a floating red light, were denied access. It intrigues initially, but is consistently held back by a plethora of issues, chief among which is the woefully uninspired writing. The red spirit’s over-explanation of every ambiguous cutscene leaves little brainwork up to the player and ultimately feels like a patronising way of delivering the narrative through lazy writing, which hits with little subtlety.
As bad as the writing is, however, it doesn’t graze as deeply as the unenthusiastic voice acting. The worst offender is the monotone delivery of the red spirit companion, but the performances are uneven across the board, as your memories unfold to acting that pulls you out of the experience and into reluctant viewing. Thankfully the voice acting is as painful as the experience gets; the somber music, while failing to elevate the experience above mediocrity, does a passable job at setting the tone of exploration the game strives for as you roam through the open but empty environments.
Exploration through those environments is encouraged, but developer Mooneye offers little in the way of rewards for your curiosity. You can obtain a vast array of collectables from random trinkets to a few different species of mushrooms, but not much else. The landscapes are gorgeous in their sculpture, and showcase a pleasant amount of variety in biomes as the game progresses, but they take a while to change from different shades of green into more diverse environments like sweltering deserts and coldly white snowy mountains later in the game. Those later biomes offer new gameplay obstacles which can be overcome with the many different animals you can possess.
Birds can fly over large crevasses and heavy-headed bison can be used to knock down crumbling walls. These unique mechanics prevent the gameplay from going stale, but often feel clunky in their execution. Playing as a mountain goat later in the game, which allows you to latch onto high cliffs and climb up them, I often wouldn’t connect with the ledge I was aiming for. This is just one example of the rough edges that Lost Ember suffers from start to finish. That being said, the animal designs are exceptionally cute, with button-eyed wombats and flappy fish bringing some much-needed life to an otherwise empty sandbox.
Unfortunately, the ability to walk among the wildlife, while somewhat enjoyable on its own, is the extent of Lost Ember’s gameplay experience, and by the end of the story I had no investment in the narrative or the characters. I was taken out of the experience all too often by the sub-par voice acting and writing that decides to tell instead of show, and fails to give the characters any semblance of consistency and personality. The premise of both the story and the gameplay is intriguing, and the visuals and atmosphere are charming, but Lost Ember is ultimately a half-baked idea that fails to materialise into anything greater than the sum of its parts.
Yes, if you:
- Enjoy a relaxing environment
- Find the endearing art style appealing
No, if you:
- Don’t like walking and exploring in games
- Need mechanics with a lot of depth
Lost Ember released on November 22nd, 2019 on PC, PS4 (reviewed), and Xbox One.
Note: Cannonicity received a copy of Lost Ember in exchange for a fair and honest review.