Certain design quirks make it quite obvious that Ember was designed for tablets, and I saw articles stating that it may be an all right game for the PC, but it’s an outstanding one for tablets. That may well be true, but it’s also irrelevant, seeing as I don’t care about tablets and will judge it solely on its merits as a PC game. What is relevant, on the other hand, is that, once you get used to them, those controls designed for tablets seem to me to work better on the PC than those designed for consoles that are so often found in bigger titles for a long time now.
Due to said design quirks and a beginning that may not be particularly inspired or original, it is possible that the first impression may be somewhat underwhelming, but rest assured that Ember really does get better as you go along. More importantly, the improvement isn’t due to the fact that the characters gain better and more interesting skills, which isn’t really the case, but instead due to the locations, the books and the enemies. And while the locations are the first improvement you’ll notice, as they will get more interesting until you reach the City of Light, which I’d say is the best the game has to offer from this point of view, the other two elements I mentioned probably require a few more details.
Hardly any of the books available in Ember need to be read and very few even need to be found in order to complete the game, but they offer interesting bits of history and lore, as well as various stories that are simply enjoyable to read, including quite a few that intend to be funny and usually succeed. In addition, various books as well as the game’s story in general also tackle current issues from our world, situations and problems that we’re facing and that we need to do far more about before it’s too late. As such, those who enjoy reading will find themselves searching for all titles and parts and keeping track of what they found and read.
As for the combat, it’s the enemies that make it interesting, the developers seeming to have put some effort into making later battles nicely tactical. This may apply even earlier, for some boss and elite fights or when you simply try to get through an area that’s way above the party’s current level, but late in the game even standard enemies make a tactical approach very much recommended. And I definitely remember the boss fights starting from The Bastille, plus some later elites, most notably the one at the end of a side quest that rewards you with one of the best pieces of equipment in the game. Playing on normal difficulty, using found gear and no consumables until the final battle, and without grinding and only rarely even using sleep as intended, plenty of these battles proved difficult, but they were always fair, a few even seeming a bit like a puzzle to solve. You will need to pause often, maybe move around a lot, possibly make good use of combos, dealing more damage by having characters use skills on an enemy almost immediately one after the other, but perhaps most of all in these battles you’ll need to pay attention to the icons that show up above enemies, indicating the skills they’re preparing to use, and act accordingly.
Yes, I know that the above will make some say that my playing style makes games unnecessarily difficult, but that’s just how I play, being very frugal, not using consumables until the end if I can avoid it in any way and not buying much of anything if I can find things I can make good enough use of. I would enjoy crafting, but while it is possible in Ember, I found it unnecessary before the end, which I guess adds to the freedom of playing however you prefer. But if you want to make things easier, on top of being able to change the difficulty at any time, you can gain as many levels as your patience allows, as I’m not aware of any level cap, by killing the enemies that respawn and by making full use of sleep in order to boost your experience gain from kills, you can craft the best gear available for the party’s current level, you can use various kinds of potions and food, which can be crafted as well, and you can also purchase runes from the merchants in the City of Light and Pinnacle in order to get just the skills you want. On the other hand, if you want a challenge or, as in my case, simply want to explore, you can visit locations intended for much higher levels and try to survive, seeing as there’s nothing other than the enemies to stop you from traveling to most areas even early on.
One other thing to mention would be that the game is particularly forgiving when it comes to party members getting “killed” in battle as well, since unless none are left standing, those knocked out will not only immediately recover after the fight, but recover with 20% of their health, and without losing any experience. I’m not quite sure what to think about that and there were only three moments, one of them being the final battle, when I continued after a character got knocked out instead of reloading an earlier save, but I guess I’ll take it as a good thing, because it once again offers the player the freedom to play as they wish… As does the fact that characters that join the party are always immediately raised to the level of the main character if needed, so you don’t have to worry about leveling them or choosing when to meet them.
On a different note, autosaves are also useful. You can turn them off if you want, but if you don’t, the game will save to the autosave slot not only after a certain time has passed and before major battles, but also just before using fast travel to leave an area. And since I mentioned being able to turn off this behavior, there are a few other potentially useful options, such as free camera, disabling moving the camera by clicking and dragging, or opening the inventory whenever the character sheet is opened, this last one being the one I enabled right away.
Back to the game itself, being able to buy back the last items you sold from any merchant, at the price you sold them, also offers some peace of mind, reducing the risk of losing something by accidentally selling it, at least if you realize it in time. But the last thing I want to point out as actually being very useful in the game itself is much more important, and that’s the information displayed when hovering the mouse over an enemy in query mode, including not only the exact current and maximum health, but also the level, class and a strength rating, which may be minion, standard, strong, elite or boss. Since elite and boss enemies are immune to certain skills and minions die very quickly but may deal a lot of damage if you don’t kill them right away, this is important to know.
Unfortunately, since there’s no highlight function and object names only show up when the Lightbringer is very close to them, entering query mode very frequently and therefore pausing the game just about constantly even while simply exploring is pretty much required due to the fact that this is the only way to see objects you can pick up or interact with outside the Lightbringer’s immediate vicinity. Worse, there are a handful of items, I think all of those I found being containers, that for some reason show up in query mode as if you could interact with them when you’re some distance away or in a spot from which the game’s pathfinding won’t allow the Lightbringer to reach them directly, but seem to be simple scenery items, not allowing any interaction, when you actually get close. And then there are also a number of items and containers that can’t seem to be reached in any way.
Also on the topic of items, those owned by others are handled in a rather strange manner. The name shows up on a red background, indicating that taking that item would be stealing, but you can take it with no consequences if no actual NPC sees you, those you can’t interact with not counting. However, if an NPC is in the area they will stop you and your only option is to put the item back. The character won’t refuse to try to pick up the item, which could have perhaps been a better option if you’re being watched, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to sneak or otherwise avoid notice. Some NPCs have schedules that will result in certain areas being clear at certain times and I found one NPC that didn’t seem to care that I was grabbing owned items right in front of her, which may have been on purpose considering her situation at the time, but otherwise if an NPC is there, even if their back is turned, even if they are asleep, they will notice you and you’ll apologize and put the item back, then continue as if nothing happened.
But those are little things, though there are even smaller issues that I noticed, such as the handful of typos in books or the fact that there’s a major discrepancy between what a character tells you about a certain important moment in history and what you can read about it in books found even right next to him. Much more notable but I’d say still minor would be the 99 item inventory limit, which seems to be a completely artificial limit added just to have one. But there are several containers to be found in order to expand it to some extent and you can always get back to sell things well enough, so if it didn’t bother me quite that much despite being the pack rat that I am, it’s probably just a little nuisance… As is the fact that items in containers don’t show up in the shop window, needing to first be taken out before they can be sold. And since I can’t fit this anywhere else, I’ll also mention here that all area maps are displayed completely as soon as you enter an area, with nothing telling you which places you already explored, making it a bit of a pain to make sure you don’t miss anything in open areas.
An artificial limit that bothered me more is the fact that you will meet three companions, but can only take two of them with you at once. It would make sense if there would be more options, but having to just leave one person out after you find all of them feels quite forced. Sure, the areas intended to be explored after meeting the last companion would have needed to be significantly more difficult for a party of four to make sense, but I’m sure that could have been arranged.
Something that bothered me even more when it comes to companions, on the other hand, is the fact that they have so little to say. Then again, it may take an accident to find that you can talk to them at all, as you need to click the main character and drag to a companion in order to do so, which behavior also applies in combat, though the character will say it’s not the time for it if you do so then. Not that you’ll be losing much of anything if you don’t discover this at all.
Speaking of clicking and dragging, though you can get used to it quite fine, that control system does feel strange on a PC at first. Click to have the Lightbringer go somewhere, with the companions following, but if you want a companion to move you need to click on them and drag to the desired location, which needs to be very close because they’ll turn right back if they’re more than a few steps away from the Lightbringer, and if the Lightbringer moves again they’ll reposition themselves as well. Also, for the skills that target a location instead of a single enemy or ally, you need to click the skill and drag to the target, which is also how you can target a single creature that’s different from the one that’s the current target, or when the character in question doesn’t have an active target at the time. And this applies to using items as well. Click on the item and drag it to the object you want to use it on in the few places where that is needed, and if you want a character other than the Lightbringer to use an item you must either have that character’s sheet open or click on the item and then drag it to their portrait.
Again, you can get used to this and it may even get to feel less awkward than the controls designed for consoles that are found in the PC versions of plenty of bigger titles, but you should be able to select a skill, or a party member, and then click on the target or destination, and the same would also apply to the “whole party” button. And speaking of that, a way to exclude one party member from a command, selecting the other two for it, could have been of some use as well, though this is a minor thing.
Probably the worst part, however, has to do with each character being limited to just three active and two passive skills, all of them being determined by the equipment worn and having no way to improve any directly. All you can do when gaining a level is distribute two attribute points among the four available attributes, the efficiency of the skills being determined by the associated attribute or, in case of some passive ones, by weapon damage. And whenever you find a better piece of equipment, you have to weigh the better attributes against the possible change in available skills. Yes, you can add runes to equipment in order to replace the skill granted by it, but runes are expensive and can only be used once, and there are only two actual rune merchants in the game. As a result, you’ll find yourself sticking to older and otherwise worse equipment to preserve the useful skills granted by it, and possibly carrying around a few different pieces of equipment in order to be able to use other skills you think may be needed. Which is not to say that a trade-off between positive and negative effects of equipment is necessarily a bad thing in itself, but characters having nothing to do with their own available skills is, and it makes for very limited and downright poor character development.
Character development is also harmed by the fact that maximum energy can’t be increased, except again by wearing certain pieces of equipment, and even then only by very little. And while I’m on the topic of energy, it’s also annoying that there are no numbers listed anywhere when it comes to energy use or recovery. You use or recover low, medium or high amounts of energy, but it doesn’t say exactly how much that is anywhere. Also, while some items that restore health can more helpfully state that they restore half or all of it, others, as well as those that temporarily increase attributes, follow that same rule and do not specify any actual values. It’s quite frustrating and doesn’t allow you to calculate or accurately plan much of anything.
And then there’s sleep, which I made little use of. The game seemed balanced even so, with enemy levels seeming just about right, and I finished it at level 24 when it seems to assume that you need to be at least level 20 at the end, with level 20 also being required by the best few pieces of equipment that can be found. But it just seems wrong to tie maximizing the experience obtained from kills to sleeping at certain pretty exact intervals. There is, of course, some logic in wanting the characters to sleep at certain intervals if the developers wanted to introduce that sort of thing, but it could be handled differently, while such rewards should be offered to players who go as long as possible without resting, or at least that’s how I see it. Instead, the experience boost obtained from sleeping once is determined by the time since the party last slept, up to a maximum of 25%, and gradually drops as you kill enemies after waking up, yet higher values can be obtained if you sleep again after enough time has passed and without killing too much in between. While, again, making full use of this is not needed, having a system that would greatly benefit the characters but making it an exercise in frustration to attempt to properly use it is quite annoying.
To finally move away from such details, I should also say that the story isn’t exactly much to write home about, and the way you choose one of the two endings also seems quite lazy, for lack of a better term. The books save the storytelling aspect of the game overall to some extent, but the story of the game itself pretty much just keeps you moving forward from one point to the next. I wasn’t sure where to put this, how to include it in the review, because it’s not really bad, and it also does quite clearly draw some parallels to some major problems from our world, but some quests, including parts of the main one, did strike me as quite silly, and I’m not referring to anything intended to be funny, so I guess it can go here after all. Again, it does its job I guess, but I’m looking at some of the writing in the books and can’t help but wonder why does it seem like the effort and even skill put into those entirely optional elements wasn’t also put into the game’s actual story, or the characters for that matter, for the reasons I stated above.
And then there are certain technical aspects that need to be mentioned. One is the fact that the game crashed quite a number of times when fast traveling between areas, though the autosaves made at those moments always worked and turned this into little more than a small nuisance, as I could always just get right back to where I was. A much bigger issue, on the other hand, is the fact that the game constantly reads data from disk, and at up to a few Mb/s. I guess this isn’t much of a problem for those with SSDs, but the wear caused by this may be a concern for those of us still using mechanical HDDs. The developers stated that, since the development of Ember started many years ago, they couldn’t switch to 64-bit, or at least make a 64-bit version, and were therefore limited in the amount of memory they could use, but since they also stated that textures are loaded straight from disk before being displayed and music and sound effects are streamed from disk as well, I’m not sure what’s taking up memory in the first place!
To conclude, Ember has certain design and technical quirks you need to be aware of and it doesn’t excel in any area, but it’s an all right game if you don’t expect too much from it. There are limitations, some of them seeming completely artificial, but with the exception of the particularly light and limited character development system they shouldn’t prove to be major problems. The world is open, allowing the player to explore as long as they can survive, but combat is the most important aspect and fortunately it does get better as you go along, with fights becoming quite tactical and not the sort of click-fest that tends to be the norm for action RPGs. For all of that, it’s a quite forgiving game and therefore caters to an audience that can deal with challenging moments but does not particularly seek a challenge. As for the story, it just gets the job done, but some of the books found in Ember can actually be quite good and finding and reading them may be one of the game’s best aspects, at least for those of us who enjoy reading.