By Jaime Skelton (MissyS), Senior Editor
Around the turn of the millennium, gamers experienced the Golden Age of RPGs. In a span of less than five years, we were treated to a host of isometric Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying games. Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Icewind Dale, and PlaneScape Torment boxes lined up neatly on shelves, thoroughly played and awaiting sequels. Their stories and characters left long-lasting memories, and set a precedent for video game storytelling that continues to influence games across many genres.
Fast forward to the present, and let me introduce you to Ember, a classically styled RPG developed by N-Fusion and published by 505 Games. Though not a D&D game, Ember is meant to offer an homage to those classical experiences. Most everything you would expect is in Ember: a party of characters to manage, real-time combat with the ability to pause and plan, a world to explore, quests and sidequests, and a storyline with serious consequences. But is this ember enough to rekindle the classical RPG fires of yore?
The Light of Life: Ember’s Story
The story of Ember’s world sets forth a landscape of political troubles and moral dilemmas. Your character is a Lightbringer, one of a rare group of people who bonds with sentient crystals known as Ember. There are a few catches, however: first, you’re raised from the dead as the only known Lightbringer to exist for over a thousand years. Second, you’ve been raised because the world’s collapsing in on itself, figuratively, due to the increasingly low number of Embers, most of whom are being used as nothing more than pretty trinkets. Finally, there’s that convenient catch that you’ve lost all your memories and are at the whims of monks telling you things you should have known. Great start to saving the world, right?
The ethical implications of what had been happening to the Embers gave me a great starting interest in the game’s lore. Sentient crystal meteors with hidden powers, now exploited at the hands of greedy races? These weren’t simply undertones of racism or ignorance; there were also hints at a storyline that reminded me of mankind’s current greed, the hungry rush for oil among the countries, the ignorance of the affluent at the true nature of their lifestyle’s impact on the world itself. Unfortunately, my hunger for a deep plot was left mostly unsatisfied as the game unfolded.
You’re Only as Good as Your Sword: Character Progression, Skills, and Gear
Beside the Lightbringer, you will have a few other companions that can come along with you on your journey, though only two can accompany you at a time. Each character has its own experience and levels independently, and stay relatively even with your own character unless they’ve spent some time out of party. When leveling up, characters get two points to assign across four stats: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Vitality. As with other RPGs, these stats are straightforward, with fighter types wanting strength, rogues and archers wanting dexterity, mages and healers wanting intelligence, and vitality offering a health boon for all.
However, there are no set classes or personal skill trees. Instead, Ember’s skill system operates more like Path of Exile’s. Skills are bound to items, and so a character’s skill set is solely based on whatever gear they currently have equipped. The game offers a rune system to assist with this, letting you swap the skills on a piece of gear, but they can only be used on a few slots (possibly for balance issues). Each skill is also linked to a particular stat, meaning that only mage/healers will benefit from casting heals, for example: you can equip other characters with the skill, but theirs will be pitiful in comparison.
While each of your potential party members comes ‘pre-cut’ to represent one of the major three stats, you’re free to choose from the start. All party members can also have their stat points reallocated, if you really want to turn Coren into a whimpering healer instead of the fighter he starts out as. Me, I just left him behind as soon as possible.
Ember also offers crafting as a side activity across multiple traditional disciplines including smithing, sewing, and leatherworking. These are not skill based, and only require you to place the correct items in the correct crafting bench to create the item you desire. Unfortunately, the recipe system is limited and fails to be intuitive. For example, you might have a recipe for an iron great shield that requires one mold and one iron bar, but using a mold and a silver bar does not produce the next level of the shield. Instead, you’ll end up taking things in and out of the crafting bench trying to figure out what that magical third item is you might need, and then give up and remember you get the same quality gear from the zone you’re currently exploring anyway.
Wait, Is This A Mobile Port?: Controls and User Interface
Whatever fondness you might find for Ember’s story, its characters, and its flexible character skill system will inevitably be snuffed out by the game’s awkward control choices. You see, most of Ember’s combat system is managed by dragging a line from the character HUD at the top of the screen onto the intended target on the battlefield. While some attacks on the current target can simply be clicked from this area, almost everything else – heals, area of effect spells, and attacks on other targets – requires a click on the skill, held with a drag to the intended target on the battlefield. Thankfully, the game allows you to freely pause during battle, because anything other than allowing the party to charge in blindly and auto-attack with free will (while standing in fire) is nearly impossible to manage without a moment to coordinate the action with the mouse.
The controls don’t stop their annoyances there. Character movement is bound to a click-to-move system, which wouldn’t be terrible if there was an option to click and hold to continue walking along your destination. There isn’t, though, so you’re stuck clicking away like a MOBA player nervously pacing their lane. Want to move the entire party during combat? Yep, that’s click and drag from the top HUD too. Want to heal a party member, or feed them? You need to open up both your inventory and their character pane, then use the item from your inventory. Want to put something on a hotbar for easy access? Forget it, Lightbringer: there’s only three slots and they’re only good for you.
When you realize Ember is also released on iOS, things start to make a little more sense. True, the mobile version did release after the Steam PC version. But the control system seems intentionally designed for the tap and slide mechanics of a touch-screen, especially considering it eschews controls of its predecessors which were arguably easier and more intuitive despite their age. Ember wasn’t designed for PC and ported to mobile: it was designed for both platforms at the same time, and fails to adapt its controls effectively for PC gamers.
Doing the Right Thing: Morality in the Face of Corruption
To talk much about Ember’s story as it progresses would be a spoiler, so allow me to dance around the facts and talk about a few points. Most side quests are, unfortunately, tedious and add nothing to the game’s overarching story. Whether it’s killing rats in a basement or delivering mail for a dying postman, they are disconnected from the story at hand. Yet skipping them would be a folly, because they often offer gear and much needed experience for your party members. The main story itself progresses on logically enough, though for a long time, you might be considering the question of just how manipulated the Lightbringer is – well, you would if the story gave you more than one line to doubt the intentions of your fellows.
Oh yes, and for all of those who you prefer a non-male character? The Lightbringer is forcibly male, despite having a mask, a neutral body shape, and no discernable reason to have any gender. This is a small criticism to make, but an important one, as I know it isolates and disappoints some gamers. While the game has no need for a character creation system, it also had no need to push a male gender on the main character. I won’t even touch on the quest that suddenly has you trying to win the hand of a strange maiden from her father.
Throughout his quests, though, the Lightbringer faces many moral choices. Do you attack the werewolves or leave them be in peace? Do you smite down a criminal, or do you let them walk away with an apology? Lightbrighter’s choices often wave between the forgiving and noble warrior and the holier-than-thou righteous paladin. Sometimes, your choices are even a little chaotic. Though these moral choices give an illusion of depth, of an ethical system that impacts your gameplay – there really isn’t. You can steal, sure, and that’ll make people angry. You can kill someone, and perhaps not get the reward you might have obtained if you spared them. But in the grand scheme of things, you can generally play your character kind or wicked and the world would never be the wiser.
Well… there is one exception. You see, I got fed up and angry with the politics of the people, the annoying wildlife attacks, and the lack of meaningful upgrades to tackle powerful foes. But I heard a rumor of a secret knife with the power to make all of these problems just… go away. I ventured far into spoiler territory, and found the blade, dripping with the power of Armageddon. I could put all of society’s worries to rest in one single action.
Later, I stood satisfied over the corpse of the necromancer, the last foe who had made my journey so frustrating. No longer capable of talking to me, my quest was at a sudden end. I crossed my arms in smug victory. Did I win Ember? Maybe not by traditional means, but there is certainly no one left to contest my triumph over the evil in the hearts of men.
Final Thoughts: A Dimly Lit Lantern
Overall Rating: 3/5
Ember certainly carries with it the nostalgic charm of classic isometric RPGs that we came to love over a decade ago. It even has the same graphical and musical style, making it look quite like the real thing. Dismal PC controls and lackluster storytelling, however, make Ember a frail knockoff. Fans of the game style are certain to play it through, and even rate it well, but Ember doesn’t hold up to high gaming standards. N-Fusion made an appreciable effort, but they aren’t Bioware.
It’s hard to live in the shadow of one of the best storytellers in the industry, something that makes you want to be not too harsh to N-Fusion. The game is also only priced at $10, and has plenty of hours of gameplay (around 30 in the main story) to make it well worth the cost. Sure, it’s not perfect, or “AAA,” but Ember is still an enjoyable experience if you want to run down memory lane.
Want to see the first few hours of Ember in action? Watch my recorded livestreams on Twitch!