To different people, video games can represent different things. Some play games for their challenges, others play them for a good time, and some play it for an emotional experience. Lost Ember attempts to cater to an audience looking for an artistic, story-driven game, yet unfortunately fails to create an engaging piece of software worth one’s time.
At its core, Lost Ember’s main goal is to tell an engrossing story. Upon booting the game, the player controls a wolf with no memory of their past. Upon waking up, the wolf is greeted by a glowing orb hovering around them. The orb begins to question the wolf as to who they are and why they are not at the City of Light, a resting place for departed souls. Assuming it is some kind of a mistake, the orb and the wolf depart towards the city, attempting to remember their past as they go.
Along the way, the wolf finds several markers that, when howled at, reveals memories from when they were alive. While these memories are the primary storytelling moments of the game, Lost Ember falls into the trap of believing it is telling an interesting and riveting story, even though it is extremely one-note. For example, there are multiple memories showing a girl helping her tribe out by stealing food or attacking other tribes. While the message about her being a criminal was clear, after the third time watching a similar memory, it became difficult to remain interested. At around the halfway point, the plot became extremely predictable and – unless required to progress – there was no emotional investment to watch every memory. It makes the player feel like an onlooker, not someone invested in the tale being told.
One major selling point of Lost Ember is its presentation. The game adopts a vibrant, cel-shaded art style, reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, however, unlike Breath of the Wild, it suffers from feeling like a very linear experience. The environments give the illusion of a vast open-world to explore, but in reality, the player is locked to a path akin to a hallway. Restricting the player from exploring the world makes the journey feel essentially like a straight line between point A and point B. When the world does open up, however, the game can look great, especially when looking at the horizon. For example, there is one scene where the wolf is running through a valley and chases off a flock of birds. Watching each of the two dozen or so birds fly off in every direction showed just how alive the world was, something that would have been great to see more of.
The gameplay of Lost Ember is extremely unremarkable. One of the main draws of the game is the ability to possess different animals and use their abilities to help traverse the world. While a great idea, the end result mostly equates to using an animal’s ability to cross a large gap or obstacle, instead of actively switching between the animal’s powers at all times. For example, if there’s a body of water to cross, the player must possess a fish to swim through it, or if there’s a large ravine, the player needs to capture a bird to fly across it. There was little depth to any of the possession system, making it feel more like a gimmick than anything else.
Another gameplay issue that Lost Ember faces is in terms of progression. While there are no lives and the player instantly respawns if anything happens to them, there are still plenty of opportunities to die. This in itself is not a problem, but it does raise the issue that it is extremely easy to get lost once respawned. Since there is little variety to the environments and the lack of a map or compass, there will be times where the player will get disoriented and begin heading back towards the way they came, with no indication that they are doing something wrong. When these instances occurred, it was extremely aggravating and something the addition of a guidance system could have easily remedied. Instead, it made for a confusing and frustrating experience.
Then there is the issue of performance, which ultimately is Lost Ember’s biggest fault on Switch. The game does not run smoothly, especially when transitioning between zones. While there is certainly a charm of having no loading screens in between environments, the game will stutter and freeze, sometimes for upwards of five seconds at a time. The frame rate also is extremely inconsistent, sometimes running fine and other times dropping to what seemed like half the normal frame rate. Textures also tend to be extremely blurry at times, specifically on foliage and animal fur, only further removing the player from the experience. These visual problems became more prevalent when playing on docked mode when blown up on a big screen, further showing how rough the game looks. Seeing as this is a Switch port of a PC, PS4, and Xbox One game, these technical downgrades don’t come as a surprise – however, they were so noticeable during the entire playtime that it left the port feeling half-baked on Switch.
Lost Ember attempts to be an artistic experience, yet struggles to be an enjoyable game. The story is uninteresting and predictable, the gameplay is boring and sometimes frustrating, and the huge performance issues on Switch makes this game close to unplayable at times. While there is clearly potential here, Lost Ember fails to deliver on nearly every front. There are plenty of other artsy games on Switch to pick up over this one.