The walking simulator genre is one that's dependent on a strong hook to draw players in. After all, walking isn't exactly the most exciting activity, so basing an entire video game around it takes a lot of effort and creativity. These titles live or die based on their narrative and world, because if we don't care about the place we're walking through, why would we keep trudging on?
Thankfully, Lost Ember does more than enough to lure players into its unique setting with an engaging plot and world that's easy to get lost in for the short time we get to visit.
Call Of The Wild
You play as a wolf who meets a wandering soul that's desperate for help. This soul is trying to get to the City Of Light, which is this world's version of Heaven or the afterlife. Since you're a wolf and you have nothing better to do than sleep or eat, you wordlessly agree to help this soul. You eventually discover that you are a reincarnation of a woman named Kalani, a member of a lost tribe of people called the Yanren. In their religion, those who follow their ways enter the City Of Light, while those who don't remain on Earth as wild beasts. So, obviously, you did something pretty crappy because you're not in their Heaven. With the help of the spirit of Kalani, you gain the power to possess the bodies of other animals, and you venture forth to find the City Of Light with your new soul companion.
I thought the story was very well-told, although a little on the predictable side. It has heavy themes involving the toll that violence and blind loyalty can have on people, as well as the cost of freedom and independence. It can be a little too on the nose with its message, and it's not difficult to see where each twist and turn is going. However, the performances and writing are solid, and it kept me invested all the way through, even getting me a little verklempt at points.
Literally Playing Free Bird
The goal of Lost Ember is to find the memories of your human past, which are represented by little smoking red fires. These slowly explain Kalani's backstory and give answers as to why she never made it into the City Of Light. As expected of a game in this genre, the gameplay does involve a lot of walking and moving forward, but Lost Ember throws in the ability to be any animal you come across. When you become a different creature, that allows you to use their special abilities. For example, you can possess the body of an adorable wombat which allows you to roll down hills like Sonic The Hedgehog. You can possess a bird to fly to higher ground or a fish to swim through rivers and so on.
This turns out to be the real fun of Lost Ember as these different animals all control a little differently. Some of them are incredibly fun to play as or are just plain goofy. I remember coming across a worm and thinking, "Wait, can I be that worm?" Sure enough, I could, which turned out to be completely useless, but it was pretty great that the people at Mooneye included that for no real reason. In fact, they even have an entire gameplay element that they call "Silly Things" where the animals can do things that are completely pointless. Elephants can suck up water in their trunks and spray it, armadillos can eat turnips, etc. There's really no reason for it to be there, but it's nice to fool around as a tortoise just for the hell of it.
The Looks And Sounds Of Nature
The world you travel across is full of some gorgeous scenery. Pools of water, sandy deserts, tall rock formations, massive man-made structures, it's all beautiful and breath-taking. It's also a location where mankind has all but vanished. Nature has taken back the land with overgrown plants and wildlife everywhere. The graphics have a simplistic look, but manage to accurately convey the beauty of nature on a grand scale. Each animal is animated and designed to look and react somewhat realistically. It's pretty impressive to go from a running wolf to a flapping bird and then into the body of a rampaging buffalo almost seamlessly.
The music does a good job of adding some extra emotional heft to your actions both in the past and present. It knows how to add tension when you're being flung around as a hummingbird caught in a wind stream, or when to calm things down with soothing piano tunes as you swim through the water as a fish. It also amps up the drama during the more intense cutscenes. It does that little trick of unleashing a song with lyrics during a pivotal moment in the story to really drive the point home and hit you right square in the feels.
Some Ruffled Feathers
The only thing that really took me out of Lost Ember's world was the technical performance issues, which weren't game-breaking, but did ruin my immersion from time to time. There were significant loading hitches as it transitioned between levels and chapters, which could cause the game to freeze up for a few seconds. Jumping out of a possessed animal and back into your regular wolf form could lead to some weird animation bugs, including one time where my wolf started moving forward while in a sitting position. I also experienced some crashes from fatal errors, although that only happened once or twice and didn't seem to be a major problem.
Lost Ember is also incredibly easy. There's no combat as it a walking simulator after all, but there's not really any puzzles either. The only way you can die in the game is to fall from a great enough height, and even then the game pops you back to the nearest ledge in about a second. As a result, I was able to beat this in about three hours. It could be completed even faster if you're better at video games than I am (which isn't a high bar to clear). There are various collectibles you can find, such as ancient relics from the Yanren civilization or legendary animals to possess, but unless you're going for 100% completion you may find Lost Ember to be a bit of a paltry package.
Wild Wild Life
Lost Ember is a wonderful little game with a story and environment that I enjoyed exploring. The story is a little cliched, but I thought it delivered the big emotional punches that it was aiming to throw and it landed the ending. I do wish there was a little more to do in the game, as the ability to play as an assortment of animals was really fun, but it doesn't feel like there's enough to do with them other than use them to get to the next part of the game.
It's got some issues and bugs - both technical and actual bugs - but any game that lets you play as a wombat is at least worth a quick look. Lost Ember is an engrossing experience, and you'll be running, digging, swimming and flying to your next destination just to see how the story will turn out.
A PC copy of Lost Ember was purchased by TheGamer for this review. Lost Ember is available on PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4, and Nintendo Switch.