What has to be one of the most cinematic games of all time, Lost Ember is an emotional and breathtaking journey from beginning to end. As if playing a poem or story book, this downloadable title is all about the journey, the story, the amazing thoughtful presentation, and its heart sobbing ending.
There is no combat, no enemies to defeat, no gold to collect, no experience points to gain. Instead, the player takes control of a wolf and is guided down a linear path composed of stop-motion memories that slowly piece together the past. It is difficult to explain without providing spoilers, and the ending is an emotional payoff, but know that the journey is a memorable experience.
When the wolf encounters an impasse, the player can merge into another nearby animal to traverse the path ahead. For example, a mole can dig underground and can cause some structures to tumble. These koala bear things can roll like a wheel and eat their share of berries. Birds can take to the skies, larger creatures can walk through thick vegetation, and goats can climb steep mountains. This subtle navigational puzzle solving is never tricky or tedious but gives the player an excuse to experience one of the best parts of the game – the sweeping landscapes. With no heads up display cluttering up the interface, Lost Ember might be one of the best games to play on a large high definition display. With large environments that span miles into the distance, I often stopped just to look around. These environments are breathtaking and look amazing on an HDR display and cannot be understated. You know those real world postcards that showcase a super cool environment that you are supposed to send to your family and friends when you are on vacation to make them jealous? Well Lost Ember is that pretty much around every corner. The scenic views are beyond beautiful.
Unfortunately, these breathtaking landscapes create Lost Ember’s biggest flaw – stuttering frame rate. Even playing on my Xbox One X, there were times the game would chug into the single frames, sometimes even pausing entirely for a few seconds making me think my game crashed. For the most part, these technical hiccups occur when transitioning from one environment to the next but they will happen throughout the entire half dozen hour quest. Just when you are fully immersed into the narrative and environment, the chugging frames take the player out of the experience.
The wolf is accompanied by a little flame, a lost ember, that acts as the player’s Navi. Besides providing direction and guidance, this flame character is also how the overall narrative is presented. Voiced by the actor who played Sam in Game of Thrones, the entire quest is portrayed to the player through this one voice since the wolf, the player, doesn’t have the ability to speak. Although emotional, there are times when the writing is a little too cheesy and undermines the player’s intelligence. For example, during a cutscene, the spark will basically say something like “hey look, that is you and you are doing that thing” when it is clearly displayed on screen. There are moments when the flame will say things so eye-rolling they make Zelda’s Fi look vague. With such a powerful emphasis on story, it is shame that some scenes couldn’t have been written with more care to show the player what is happening versus blandly telling for fear of missing key details of the story.
When traversing these massive landscapes, the player is encouraged to search the surrounding area for mushrooms and hidden collectables as a way to increase replay value and provide some added incentive but ultimately do not result in anything significant other than Achievement points and Trophies. Unfortunately, looking for these optional collectables often result in the playable character getting stuck on pieces of the environment and occasionally teasing the player with missable items that can only be obtained through starting over. Thankfully, the game provides stats on what items went uncollected once the campaign is finished so completionists can go back and look in specific areas. Since there are so many items to find, it is basically impossible to find them all on the first play through and without the help of a guide.
Lost Ember is all about the experience of playing as limbo-stuck wolf on his way into heaven. My advice is to not read story spoilers or even watch streams of this game as you will be doing yourself a disservice. Play this game for yourself. Enjoy it and take your time. Sure, at its heart it is essentially a walking simulator with relatively minimal input from the player, but a story and presentation like this is something truly special in today’s modern gaming landscape. Despite some technical flaws, this is one of the most memorable experiences you can have on a current gen console. This game is a gift.
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Better Than: Journey