N-Fusion’s nostalgic, gorgeous love letter to classic CRPGs hits most of its notes perfectly and is one of the nicest surprises this year in terms of value for the money and how well the team has pulled off much of what it intended.
Back in the earliest days, there was no sun and the world was dark. The heavens opened up and stars fell like beacons into the pitch black world, and they were known as “Embers”. Powerful and wise druids of a primordial race, “the Lightbringers,” roamed the land searching for this luminous matter. They performed a ritual of awakening to call the “Embers” out of their deep sleep. Suddenly the world became bright, and the veil of darkness was lifted. The Embers were the embodiment of magical flame, light, and life, but as word spread about the sheer power of the Embers, they came to be hunted and captured…and so the War for Ember began…
Given this site’s moniker I’m probably the last person who should be reviewing Ember, as I fell head over heels for the game after first seeing it just over two years ago at a 505 Games media event. Back then, it was an iOS exclusive and after spending time chatting with N-Fusion’s Jeff Birns and seeing the game in action, I was all set to drop my non-Apple stance and throw good money into taking the iPlunge. Fortunately, my brain started slapping itself in the face, which got me to ask if the game was coming to other platforms. Flash forward to the game hitting Steam first, followed by iOS a few days later and yours truly sinking a few dozen hours into the PC version, loving every nostalgic minute.
You play as a freshly revived Lightbringer, brought back to life after a lengthy period of interment in order to save a pretty troubled land called Domus from destruction. Yes, the game deliberately checks off a long list of CRPG tropes with slight amnesia, bantering siblings, a bad pirate gone good and others swirling through the plot. But this is exactly the sort of game that’s been made by a team who knows what it’s doing and it’s been done so well that everything’s more than acceptable once you get it. Or get over it, if you’re one of the wags who goes into every game expecting “innovation” from everything you touch. That said, the game works excellently as a casual to hardcore play because you get to control how easy to difficult your own experience will be.
As the formerly deceased hero, that Lightbringer is neither handsome (his undead face is masked for a reason, folks!) nor one for incessant babbling about his memory loss at every conceivable opportunity to every NPC he meets. The game introduces him as he awakes thanks to his first partner Coren, your basic tank type warrior, and the pair needs to make good their escape from a graveyard dungeon to the surface. Combat, item use and other basics are introduced brilliantly with plenty of fights to dive into and even a few required mini-bosses and a boss battle before the overworld is reached.
Once above ground, you’ll discover a really lovely, fairly large and mostly open world to explore where you’ll find enemies who let you know you’re in need of leveling up by beating the stuffing out of you if you’re too careless in your wandering. On the other hand, use that graveyard as an initial hub while you slowly clear out the area and gain power, and you’re on the way to a better time. You’ll eventually gain access to a third character, a mage named Corra, and a fourth, who I won’t reveal here. There’s also Fia, a sentient Ember, but you’ll need to see how she fits into the plot on your own.
The game works exceptionally well as a solid homage and throwback to western-developed CRPGs such as the Ultima series, Baldur’s Gate, Might & Magic and other classics and all those tips of the cap work quite well. Isometric perspective aside, it’s NOT much at all like more action-oriented Diablo, Torchlight or similar games where combat is straight up less strategic and more visceral. This distinction is important right off the bat because trying to play through the entire game like one of the latter action heavy titles will get you a Game Over as things get more hectic.
A “tactical pause” system (think those great BioWare RPGs) is in play where you can handle combat at your leisure provided you have certain skills equipped that let you get in a first strike. Sure, you can let enemies see and come at you, weapons at the ready. But a skill such as Immolate or other area effect talents that don’t require dead-on targeting can be used on unaware foes who’ll take damage and can be hit harder as they react and charge your party. Once targeted, you’ll automatically battle in real time until you or your enemies are dead, or you can stop the action to click on or click and drag skills to their targets for more elegant fighting when things go in your favor.
Veteran players and obsessive RPG fans may find the game too easy thank to so many ways to recover health in and out of combat. But here’s the beauty of that: you don’t HAVE to use all the goodies the game offers you at all. Just crank up the difficulty and intentionally handicap yourself – you’re all good to go afterwards. One example is the infamous bedroll, an inexpensive item that can be used anywhere outside of combat to restore health and mana while giving an XP bonus that can go as high as 100% if you time uses carefully.
You can also cook food that heals and gives assorted stat boosts, craft powerful potions, and even make weapons and armor that’s pretty powerful outside a few great shop items or quest-given gear. You can skip weapon and armor crafting altogether and just use enemy drops for a chunk of the game. But once you make a high-quality set you’ve attached runes to that make your formerly good gear obsolete, you won’t go back to less rewarding found gear.
Speaking of rewarding, the amount of loot dropped right from the start is quite impressive to the point of hilarity. Initially,The inventory here caps out at 99 items and after the starter dungeon, 87 of my slots were filled. While you eventually find a few storage bags that hold 16 additional items each plus a few two-item coin purses, hoarders need not sit on ANYTHING here. Quest items get their own slots and can’t be lost or sold, weapons labeled as “Crude” or under should be sold, and yes, you’ll have SO many cooking ingredients that you could open a small restaurant if the game allowed for it.
As that trailer and screens show, Ember is a really spectacular-looking game for iOS as well as PC. In fact, I’m going to say go play this on a monitor or iPad and NOT on a tiny phone screen just to actually be able to check out the detailed art assets and not have to squint at tiny text or drain that battery. Every area has a distinctive look, there’s a day/night cycle at play as well as some decent weather effects. Sure, graphics tweakers rocking higher end rigs will wail at not being able to fiddle much with the visuals. But the attention to detail is more than impressive enough with an equally impressive 60 frames per second on the performance front as icing on the cake. Music is also solid, albeit repetitive, and the voice acting is quite good throughout.
Thankfully, the writing is a nice mix of serious to amusing throughout, as the game played too straight would just come off as too pompous, but too far into camp would make some not take it seriously. There are a few goofball side quests you’ll stumble into on your travels, such as the Lightbringer finding a potential mate, the whole Goblin Library quest, a bit where three bears need to be taken care of after they raid a house,and a few other quests and side quests that bring a chuckle. Oh, do DEFINITELY read every book you find. Most offer lore, some are pretty amusing and a few give your Lightbringer permanent skill boosts as soon s they’re cracked open.
There were a few very pesky bugs that were addressed in a patch, so other than the PC version allowing for entering console command cheats that break the game into being too easy if you go that route, what’s here is just about as good as it gets. Yes, parts of the experience seem as if they’re undercooked, as in those werewolf-like wildlings in the first forest area I never could figure out how to talk to properly and at least one side quest ending before it seemed to really get started. But, I guess that’s what sequels are for. For the record, there are two endings here (three, if you count an achievement people are still trying to find, last I checked) which seem to set up some sort of follow-up. But I’m not sure if this was intentional or just a way to leave the door open a crack just in case. In any event, the ten bucks this costs for over 30 hours of gameplay is a pure STEAL, I say.
Review code provided by the publisher