Lost Ember brings a contemplative journey of discovery to the Nintendo Switch.
I need to have a quiet word with Mooneye Studios. I’m pretty sure someone there has some strange psychic link into my mind, specifically to my taste in video games.
Lost Ember is an exploration adventure that takes inspiration from – and pays homage to – a myriad of games, many of which are among my all-time favourites. I’ll take a deep breath and list them: Ico, Journey, Abzü. Breath of the Wild, Okami, Flower, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, plus a smidgen of Hob and a dash of Twilight Princess for good measure.
Far from being a criticism, this is absolutely a good thing, and it’s not just me that feels this way. You can also count the nearly 8000 backers who helped Kickstart the game in 2016. If you share similar tastes, Lost Ember – which was recently ported to the Nintendo Switch – should be on your radar.
Conceptually, I was on board with Lost Ember before I started playing. But it’s no small task to carry the weight of my expectations and also add something new to the sub-genre of semi-open world melancholic nature rambles I enjoy so much.
It starts well. The title screen is a mesmerising construct. A silhouette of a running fox framed by a dust pink setting sun, backed by an elegiac score promising an emotional adventure to come. It’s a promise the game comes tantalisingly close to keeping.
Lost Ember is a walking sim writ large. Really large. Really, really large. It’s a (mostly) linear journey told across seven distinct chapters and a variety of soaring natural landscapes and environments. It’s a world of rolling hills, ancient ruins, tumbling rapids, dusty dunes, snowcapped peaks, and, in some of the game’s most exhilarating moments, wide-open skies.
For much of Lost Ember you control a wolf that – with a Navi-like guide as a companion – embarks on a quest to discover the fate of a fallen civilisation. Along the way you can also assume control over other species, possessing them Being John Malkovich-style to help you overcome different terrain or environmental obstacles. Each has unique abilities that help you continue forward. In one early example, possessing a mole lets you dig a path under a rock. Later, you can use the abilities of a flying fish to swim upstream, and become a mountain goat to negotiate a vertiginous cliff path.
Each animal is exquisitely animated, be it the adorable waddling of a mole or the majestic swoops of a parrot. One sequence, in which you possess a stampeding buffalo, is an exercise in pure cinematic spectacle. But there’s also the opportunity to become a duckling and lead your siblings around in circles like Benny Hill.
The attention to detail extends to the environments. This heightened take on the natural world is stylised but varied and constantly changing. For once, it’s a video game journey that actually feels like a journey. And although there are few traditional objectives, there is always something on the horizon to draw you forward, onward, and deeper.
The trade-off for this artistry is some occasional but significant performance issues. The pre-release version we played for review was subject to game-stopping stutters and frame-rate drops. The problem is particularly apparent when moving from one large area to another, and unfortunately ruinous to a couple of Lost Ember‘s more ambitious environmental transitions. It’s not enough of a problem to advise against buying the game, but it is distracting and something that we hope will be improved in a post-release patch. For the best performance and visual fidelity, handheld mode is the best option.
Threaded throughout the journey is an oblique narrative revealed through a combination of flashback cutscenes and ghostly in-game memories. Interestingly, before you begin your adventure, you are given the option of playing the game with or without dialogue from your guiding companion. I played it with the dialogue enabled, and although it’s well performed, it’s a little too expositional and explanatory. If you have the appetite to play Lost Ember more than once, I’d recommend taking your first trip without the commentary and drawing your own conclusions from the otherwise effectively-told story.
Lost Ember‘s pleasure also comes from traversing its world and seeing it from different perspectives. Each creature is distinct and satisfying to control, be it the gallop of a wolf, the Samus-like rolling of a mole, the majestic stride of an elephant, or the amusingly slow amble of a tortoise. Curious players will be rewarded with new vistas admire or non-essential world-building collectables to discover. The combination of exploration, animal possession, and narrative comes together to keep the game engaging throughout its six-hour length.
Ultimately, Lost Ember doesn’t exceed the titles I listed at the start of this review, but it’s a worthy addition to their ranks. It tells an interesting story in an expansive world that is blissfully free from mission icons and side quests. And despite its relative brevity, it’s not an adventure to rush. So take your time, breath in the air, and savour the sights.
Game: Lost Ember
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Mooneye Studios
Developer: Mooneye Studios
Release Date: September 25, 2020