Lost Ember wants to take you on a journey through a beautiful world in pursuit of a tragic story. Mooneye Studios’ shape-shifting animal exploration game had one of its own to even reach us after three years in the making. Lost Ember‘s developers and Kickstarter backers will no doubt be enjoying the emotional payoff, and they won’t be the only ones. After our initial impressions from EGX, it’s time to experience this story in full.
In Lost Ember, humanity has seemingly vanished from the world, but their souls persist in some form. Nature has reclaimed the land and animals wander among the stone ruins of once-great towers and cities. You play a lone wolf that’s befriended by a roving spirit. Recognizing you as a fellow human soul reincarnated in an animal body, this cheery red spirit urges the wolf to accompany him on a journey to a place where they can both reach a true afterlife — the city of light. This involves finding the relics of “memories” that play out scenes from the past. By finding and unlocking these cutscenes, you can piece together what happened to cause the collapse of civilization — and more importantly, the past lives of your wolf and ember.
The wolf is fast and agile, but the journey to uncover your past and reach the afterlife is long and difficult, across rivers and cliffs, wide deserts and deep tunnels. That’s where the shape-shifting aspect comes in. Your spirit guide grants you the ability to transform into any animal you approach. If you need to cross a chasm, just find a nearby bird and borrow its wings. The wolf’s slow doggy-paddling is frustrating in water, but slip into a fish and you’ll be dashing downstream in no time. Smaller creatures can be used to fit through small gaps or to tunnel under obstacles.
The main appeal of Lost Ember is its gorgeous visuals. The story can be powered through in a day, but to experience it fully you’ll want to take it easy, look around, and enjoy the view. And what a view! Mooneye has clearly poured its heart and soul into representing the beauty of nature. The art style leans more impressionistic than realistic. Intense colors and grandiose vistas take precedence over fine detail. There are still lots of little things to appreciate, however, such as when you scatter thistledown while running through the fields.
The game’s light effects are also gorgeous. I often stopped to enjoy sunlight reflecting off the water. In particular, there’s a scene around the mid-point of the game that presents a night sky complete with aurora and fireflies that scatter in your wake as you run through the grass. ”Breathtaking” isn’t just hyperbole here; at times I genuinely gasped or exclaimed aloud.
Lost Ember isn’t an open-world game. Rather, it’s divided into chapters. Each chapter contains several environments of varying size, some of which are large enough to roam around in looking for secrets. Some, like when you barrel down a bunch of natural waterslides as a fish or join a buffalo stampede, are more linear set pieces that still have plenty of eye candy in the background. The story scenes from the human world are uniformly an ashy red and more abstract, contrasting the darker human story with the vibrant world of nature.
The game’s soundtrack is often present to complement the visuals with appropriately warm and gentle notes. At times it swells to an epic crescendo and breaks out into full song complete with lyrics. Some sound effects, like the wolf’s mournful howl to summon the spirit guide, are spot-on. The voice acting is also excellent. Although, there are some short segments of the journey where the music and ambient noise are so unstated or absent that it can be a bit jarring.
A gentle touch
Lost Ember isn’t here to challenge you. For a start, the nature it celebrates isn’t red in tooth and claw, but rather romantic and idyllic. There’s no combat to speak of. Certain animal forms can munch on berries and fruit, but the wolf never thinks about snacking on the various small mammals and waterfowl, despite being a predator. It’s not even possible to “die” from falling — the game quickly reloads to your last place of safety. While you can’t save at will, checkpoints are rather liberally scattered.
Sometimes it actually feels like the game holds your hand a little too much. Often I was “rescued” from what I thought were rather short falls. But Lost Ember is up front about what it is. You’re here to enjoy the trip, and much like your friendly spirit guide, the game is here to help. The game has three kinds of collectible items — mushrooms, relics, and legendary animals. These don’t really have any significant game effects. You can spread mushroom spores to add a tiny bit more color to the world. Relics of human civilization sometimes have some lore tidbits or Easter egg references. Legendary animals are just glowing versions of regular ones.
The collectibles are well-hidden enough that I couldn’t catch ’em all in one run, adding some incentive for completionists. Lost Ember is pleasant enough to replay for its own sake, but these extras give a goal after you’ve finished the story.
A “walking” sim on the wild side
A big part of the fun with the whole shapeshifting mechanic is how the different animals move. The wolf is the fastest animal, and that’s how you’ll mostly want to get around. It’s also the most lovingly animated and expressive in its movements. Other animals have special abilities that are sometimes required to progress, other times just fun to play around with.
The wombat has a roll move that’s delightful for going down slopes. The various birds also have different ways of handling flight, from flapping to gliding to hovering. The armadillo can tunnel to bypass obstacles but also undermine buildings and discover buried secrets. Larger beasts can simply smash through wood or even stone.
There are over a dozen different creatures to possess, though some of them are much more heavily featured than others. Some, like the caterpillar, duckling, turtle, or sloth, are nearly useless in terms of mobility but still have some nice unique animations to play with. Most animals can perform mundane actions to eat or just lie down to rest.
A few things still seem missing
As much as I enjoyed Lost Ember, it wasn’t without its rough spots. Clipping into the environment is pretty common, and the positioning of the models can be pretty awkward sometimes. Some nice screenshots were spoiled by the wolf having some feet stuck through rock or hanging in the air. A couple of times in my playthrough I did glitch out and get trapped while looking for secrets. Thanks to being able to skip back to the last checkpoint at will, this wasn’t game-breaking but still frustrating.
There’s also the fact that some areas and creatures seem to have received a lot more care than others. In general most of the early areas seem more fully realized, with more to see and do. Quite a few of the areas that are duller visually also lack background music, adding to the feeling that this is filler in-between the highlights. Some animals are also more limited and less expressive in their animations.
So there are moments in Lost Ember that blew me away, and some that seem like they passed with “good enough.” But on balance, the best parts more than make up for some lackluster sections. Those who have been holding their breath through years of development will likely not be disappointed. But the inconsistency does leave this feeling that Lost Ember doesn’t quite live up to its full potential.
An uplifting adventure with plenty of charm
The highest praise I can give this game is that in the moments that everything — environment, music, movement — comes together, I was swept away by a beautiful, wholesome, uplifting feeling. Dashing through vibrant fields, splashing down river rapids, soaring over a twilight sky all inspired an innocent, instinctive joy that felt like I got what Lost Ember is trying to achieve. There are more than a few of these moments, and after finishing the game, I’ll be visiting my favorite parts again for a combination of eye candy and emotional uplift.
If you’ve at any point gotten a fuzzy feeling inside from the preceding screenshots, and you like the idea of a relaxing game without combat or tricky puzzles, then you’ll be glad to find Lost Ember. It doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is — an emotional journey through beautiful scenery with cute animals. Even if at times it falters, Lost Ember came to tug at our heartstrings — and succeeded.
Lost Ember is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam, and GOG now.