I tend to ignore game store sales. Sales are so frequent that missing one is irrelevant, because there will be another. I don’t really buy games to stack up into a backlog either; I’ll usually wait until I’m in the mood for something new, and then I’ll see what’s on sale at that moment and let that guide me (or ignore the discounts and pay full price for something like a god damn rube).
But sometimes you’re between games and a discount comes up for a thing that’s on your wishlist, and since that takes it to 69p (nice) it seems almost rude not to pick it up. Thus is the story of how I bought RPG Ember.
Even having played it, I’m still not entirely sure how to describe Ember. Is it clearly an action-RPG, with fairly basic questlines and a lot of killing and loot? Yes. Does it also have real-time-with-pause controls and a party of two companions? Also yes. Is this a half-way house that works? Let’s find out.
There is no character creation. It begins with a question: do you want a sword, bow or magic staff? These actually define nothing. You are still a blank canvas. It doesn’t start to matter until you’ve levelled up a bit; specialisation only occurs once you’ve doled out some attribute bonuses.
The thing is that, in Ember, abilities don’t come from any class level or spent resource. No, they come from items. Intellectually, I really like this idea. I remember when I played Titan Quest, I invested in a set of skills that seemed like fun and got me through the game… until the final boss, whom I was completely unequipped to defeat. Load of shit. But imagine the same situation in Ember — need a more appropriate ability? Sure, just swap your sword (or buy a rune and overwrite the issue). This one does a vampiric attack, but that one lets you stun your target. Interesting!
Skills also scale with your attributes, so you don’t even have to worry about a respec putting you miles behind where you should be! As long as you stick to skills that match your best attributes, you’ll do just fine.
I say I like this idea “intellectually”, because in practice I’m recoiling a bit: this is where Ember‘s loot-grindy ARPG tendencies come out. There are a lot of skills. Enemies get their skills from items too. There are a lot of items. Enemies drop them with wild abandon and oh, goodness me, if you have to have “Sell All Crude Items” as a button on your shops, maybe you should just… give the player more gold and fewer pointless items. (There is, of course, also crafting, so not only do you need to track all the junk items you have, you need to keep in your head what junk components might be combined into something better when you get back to town.)
The usual rules are also quickly enforced: you cannot wear leather armour if you’re not dextrous enough, you cannot use a cool sword until you’re level 17 and so on. This is the kind of arbitrary crap that turns me off ARPGs every time, even though I might otherwise enjoy them. If you’ve given me a fancy sword for completing a quest or killing some bad-ass, let me use it immediately! It’s a reward, isn’t it?!
At least here we have a party of three, which means attribute restrictions may not be the end of the line. While my Lightbringer is a sword-in-yo-face warrior with piles of Strength and Vitality, those wizard robes that somehow require a lot of Intellect to wear (really complex zips?) can go to Corra; and after a while, dextrous Zannon came along to take on the bows and leathers. A neat triad which gives us full access to the full set of skills, even though we’ve built our main character in a particular direction.
The thing is, when it’s not being a straight loot-grindy ARPG, it’s really delightful. There is plenty of dialogue, most of which is fairly straightforward, sure, but it all adds plenty of colour to keep things moving. The biggest sin of the ARPG genre is never having much of a point to all that slaughter, but Ember‘s regular quest beats and fresh biomes keep the reams of combat from dragging too much, while painting a picture of a vibrant world.
Mind you, there is perhaps a touch of the lore-dump about its early stages. As a resurrected Lightbringer, you naturally have no memory of your past life or the intervening years when you lay dead, so you must catch up on… all of history. Traditionally this would mean a gradual unfolding of information as you progressed through a game… but not here, oh no. Turns out the people who resurrected you have been doing a lot of research in that time, and once you escape the starting dungeon and meet them, you’re explicitly told to go and chat to a load of scholars (plus encouraged to read the nearby books). It just comes a bit thick and fast at a time when you’re still trying to get to grips with the game and your place in it, though it does settle down.
Mind you, maybe that’s intentional. Maybe that’s how it would feel to be resurrected after a couple thousand years.
There are some other fun twists. Some food is capable of healing you right back to full, but you can’t eat in combat and can only rely on potions there — so you can reasonably safely get back to full readiness immediately after a fight, even if you only survived it by the skin of your teeth. You can only drink one potion every twenty seconds or so, however, so even in a fight you can’t spam yourself to victory.
Resting is also an option, with another interesting adjustment. After getting 8 hours of sleep, you are fully healed and recharged of course, but you also get an experience point bonus for the next set of enemies you battle. The fun part is that you get a bigger boost if you go longer without sleep, while the boost erodes with each enemy slain — so it encourages you not to cheese resting, but actually… well, do it once a day. It’s still as daft as it was in the Infinity Engine when you lie down for a kip in the middle of a dungeon, so it’s always there as a last resort when you’re out of mana; but to maximise the benefits you need to use it like a human being.
The blurb on gog says that Ember is a passion project ten years in the making. You can definitely feel a certain exuberance in the writing that could well have been dreamt up by an aspiring teenager who eventually managed to make it happen for real.
So too you can feel how its twists on the ARPG formula have come from somewhere else than what a focus-group understanding of the genre would ever produce, making Ember a refreshing play despite a few missteps like the loot-grind. Putting all special combat abilities on items really is a cool idea, and it does encourage you to experiment or just hot-swap for fun in a way that a fixed skill tree never could. It’s just that all of that is much less palatable when it’s attached to the same old this-one-does-5-more-damage treadmill.
Overall… well, it’s nice. I think it could have done with being a bit more concentrated and less meandering, but overall, it’s rather fine. It’s pretty, it’s fun, and it has a few neat innovations. For 69p, I’ll call that a win.