Within 15 minutes of beginning Lost Ember, it scores two huge points: first, you take control of a wombat pup and waddle around a bit; second, you emerge into a beautiful, sun-kissed open landscape, with no obvious objective but to explore it. It’s a light-hearted introduction to (what turns out to be) a surprisingly moving story of betrayal, guilt and acceptance.
The world of Lost Ember is a world in ruin, where nature has overrun civilisation and the memory of humans is all that remains. The righteous ascended to ‘the city of light’, but those who didn’t quite meet the heavenly benchmark were reincarnated as animals - and you’re one of them. A wolf, to be precise. You partner up with a wandering spirit, a chatty and inquisitive guide who can’t seem to make it to the afterlife, but somehow concludes that you can help him out with that, and off you go.
The path you follow is a Journey-esque journey, linear but with occasional freedom to explore, though no major control over the direction of the narrative. This is a mystery with a game built around it, and it becomes apparent fairly quickly that maintaining the natural pace of the story is a far more rewarding experience than dallying to take in your surroundings. Lost Ember is a more involved story than Journey’s was, and is much easier to follow if you move swiftly from one beat to the next.
The gameplay benefits massively from keeping that momentum too. Environments are gorgeous when you’re moving through them but the edges start to fray when you go looking for collectables, or venture too far from the beaten track. Likewise, the animals you’re able to possess (which range from the humble, default wolf to tropical fish, fireflies, elephants and eagles) are mostly a pleasure to control when in motion, but unwieldy in short bursts and confined spaces. The first time you encounter a parrot and soar in company through canyons and waterfalls is wonderful, but you don’t know struggle until you’ve tried to fly up a gentle slope as a duck.
At times Lost Ember goes all in on creating a feeling of wonder, smoothing a transition from one area to the next by moving you along in harmony with your surroundings. There are a handful of stand-out scenes that I’m keen to go back to one day, like leaping over waterfalls and slip-n-sliding into the sunset, or swooping down on a herd of buffalo as they rumble across a desert littered with the wreckage of a ruined aqueduct. These moments build towards the back end of the game, as the plot unfolds and the sensation of reaching the conclusion is hastened by more polished gameplay segments, more wow-factor in the visuals and more depth in the music. When it works it works beautifully, but there are a few too many gaps in between, where controls feel sluggish or performance issues creep in, and those somewhat spoil the overall effect.
There’s a lot to love, though. It’s got an atmospheric and occasionally brilliant art style, a well-written and narrated story, and some genuinely charming gameplay segments. The music is great but there’s not enough of it, controls are occasionally tricky and frame rate isn’t always stable, but any issues are more of a nuisance than a deal-breaker. Best of all, and the reason I backed Lost Ember on Kickstarter to begin with: you get to explore this world as a bunch of different animals, and they’re hella cute. While the plot ponders some tough questions, the game itself asks if you want to be an armadillo or a capybara, and I’m here for it.