N-Fusion's Ember, first released on iOS and PC back in 2016, is just about as generic as RPGs get. A love-letter to the classic isometric RPGs of the 1990s, it manages to pretty much nail the looks and sounds of your Baldur's Gates and Diablos, but it also strips away almost all of the depth, discovery and complexity of those titles in favour of offering up a watered-down, RPG-lite affair. It's certainly easy to get into and is fun enough to blast through, but this is absolutely a mobile-style game that's more recommended to folk who perhaps struggle with fully-fledged RPG depth or just want something they can pick up and put down without thinking too much about it at all.
That's not to say there isn't something to enjoy here – especially for the exceedingly cheap price of entry. N-Fusion describes this as a ten-year labour of love, and, in many ways – especially considering this is a small indie game – it shows. The twenty or so different areas that you'll journey through as the amnesiac Lightbringer – the hero charged with saving the world of Domus by facing off against the mysterious Darkbringer – have plenty of visual variety and there are lots of NPCs to chat with, plenty of gently amusing dialogue to wade through and (as cliched as the story is) it'll keep your attention well enough over the game's relatively short running time. Ember does the basics well – it looks the part and plays exactly how you'd expect – however, it's also a game that feels a little too empty and lacking in real adventure or intrigue.
Area maps, as great as they look, are revealed in their entirety as soon as you enter them and show up all available NPCs and lootable materials from the get-go. There's no sense of discovery, no secret areas or dungeons to stumble across if you wander off the beaten path on the way to your next mission. Side quests are uniformly straightforward, never leading anywhere unexpected, and main missions tend to keep things short and simple. For the most part, it's a story experience that requires little more than running around fetching items and facing off against some enemy or other without any chance or feeling that something surprising is going to take place.
Combat is a real-time, pausable affair that sees you take control of your party of characters, directing each one by pausing the game and dragging a line between them and whatever enemy you need them to attack. There are no specific character classes – special moves, spells and abilities available to your fighters at any time are instead dependant on what weapons or gear they have equipped – and levelling up is relegated to simply dropping skill points into four categories: strength, intelligence, vitality and dexterity.
Like everything else in Ember, it's a heavily simplified representation of the traditional systems and gameplay loops you expect to find in this old-school style of RPG. It also, more critically, makes the mistake of removing the ability to use healing items or other potions during combat – beyond a handful you may have equipped to your quick inventory – so you'll need to ready yourself for each and every battle, which can be a massive pain, especially if you happen to accidentally engage a gang of enemies before you've got around to fixing your crew up from a previous battle.
Engagements also tend to quickly break down into button-mashing and spamming specials, and any idea of strategy never really goes beyond having one of your team use ranged attacks to soften up or stun a foe before you engage them properly. It's also ridiculously easy to use your bedroll to sleep anywhere outside of combat in order to completely refill your entire party's HP and MP, leading to a total overuse of the mechanic; we found ourselves sleeping absolutely everywhere instead of using potions (although, to be fair, the same could be said of The Witcher 3's meditation system; we've had a lot of fun making Geralt sleep in swamps and rushing rivers).
Crafting is well-represented here and, again, is exceedingly easy to get your head around. You can pick up all manner of recipes from books and scrolls dotted around the world and these never tend to have more than a handful of ingredients. The world is also absolutely rammed full of said ingredients so you'll always find yourself with more than enough to make pretty much whatever you fancy with a minimum of effort. There's also lots of background reading to do through books and scrolls you'll find strewn around that flesh out the backstory to the world of Domus.
Ember also tries its hand at giving you meaningful dialogue options to get through encounters without having to brandish your weapons but, for the most part, these come across as very simple. For example, you'll happen across a bunch of ne'er-do-wells on a quiet road, they'll challenge you, you'll tell them you don't quite fancy a scrap right now and they'll leave you be. There are a few exceptions to this level of simplicity – in particular, we enjoyed one early quest involving a Goblin King – but really, unless you actually want a scrap, it's painfully easy to avoid one; this is dialogue choice at its most basic.
In terms of this Switch version of the game, there is, unfortunately, a persistent stuttering issue whilst out and about in open areas; it's certainly not game-breaking and isn't particularly noticeable once you settle into a session, but it's there, only really disappearing in smaller indoor dungeon areas. It's a shame because Ember is a good-looking game; the various biomes you move through on your adventure are all impressively-detailed and look great in both handheld and docked modes. Hopefully N-Fusion can drop a patch to sort this small performance issue ASAP.
Ember is certainly a lovingly-crafted little indie love-letter to those great big isometric RPGs of yesteryear. It takes all the gameplay loops, mechanics and story beats you expect to find in the genre and waters them down to create a RPG-lite experience which is entertaining enough over its relatively short running time but is definitely more suited to newcomers to the genre, or those looking for something breezy to blow through in short gameplay sessions without having to spend time getting bogged down in typically heavy RPG systems of play. If its numerous areas didn't feel quite so empty, if it had some more variety to its quests and one or two secret areas to discover as you explored its world it would be much easier to recommend, but, as it stands, this one is an inexpensive but pretty generic experience that won't sit long in your memory once you put it down.