Developer: Mooneye Studios | Publisher: Mooneye Studios | Genre: Adventure/ Exploration | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
Video games often fall into the trap of over-promising and under-delivering. Sometimes a premise is too good to be true, and a game buckles under the demands of having so many moving parts. Lost Ember, out today for Nintendo Switch after a year of being out on Steam and other platforms, is the rare indie game that delivers on nearly everything it promises, with gorgeous presentation and a surprisingly touching story. It is also the only game that lets the player transform into a legendary wombat.
Lost Ember‘s central gameplay mechanic is perfect. The player controls a “soul wanderer”, a being that can freely move between and inhabit the bodies of nearby creatures. Though the player’s default creature is the body of a black wolf, the ability to possess any other animal they come across is instantly iconic. This is the main hook of Lost Ember, but there’s more to the game than simply swapping between creatures.
The story follows the Wolf and her spirit guide on a quest to gain entry to the City of Light. To make it there, they’ll have to traverse what feels like an entire continent. Progression involves confronting the past by revisiting the memories of a previous life. The world feels giant and is littered with relics and artifacts that give a glimpse into who lived here previously. Mooneye Studios have done an admirable job crafting a race of ancient people, with their own rituals, habits, and priorities. Interestingly, players can choose how didactic they want their Lost Ember experience to be.
From the start, players can toggle on or off whether they want their spirit guide to speak to them. This glowing red ball is the player’s companion for the entire game, but players can choose how clearly they want the story and character relationships laid out for them. Playing Lost Ember without commentary from the spirit guide is almost like playing a completely different game. Everything becomes much more abstract and feels like playing through a lucid dream. Lost Ember becomes more of a mood piece, with the already-fantastic music doing even more heavy lifting since there isn’t any dialogue to accompany the animation.
Subterranean Wombats and So Much More
Even with the spirit guide, there is lovely ambiguity to the storytelling. The animated memories feel like the storyboard to a Studio Laika film. But overall, Lost Ember‘s greatest strengths lie in its exploration-focused gameplay. Whether controlling a colorful parrot or a white, gleaming, legendary buffalo, simply moving around and interacting with the environment always feels fun and interesting. There are many incredible moments in gaming: recalling the Leviathan Axe in God of War, transforming into a Deku Scrub in Majora’s Mask, and snapping to cover in the very first Gears of War. But wombatting? That’s something new.
During the prologue, the wolf will encounter a tunnel too small to wriggle through. Luckily, there are nearby wombats, a sentiment that frankly isn’t said enough about any piece of media. Wombat-rolling through the hole is an excellent example of how exploration works in Lost Ember. Throughout the world, there are rivers to traverse, barriers to smash through, and steep hills to climb that can only be conquered by specific animals.
Each animal has its strengths and weaknesses, and some are certainly more useful than others. Taking control of a hummingbird renders most other animals moot, as the tiny bird can reach the highest mountaintops yet still interact with collectibles, making it ideal for exploration. By contrast, possessing a tortoise may be adorable, but is functionally useless unless the player has a ton of time on their hands. There are six Legendary animals as well, easily distinct by their glowing white fur or plumage. Scampering up the sheer side of a cliff as a normal mountain goat is fun, but doing so as a legendary mountain goat? Ever so much better.
Almost every fish and fowl has a use case, especially if the player is going the full completion route. Every chapter has dozens of collectibles to find, from different mushrooms to referential relics. They don’t add anything material to Lost Ember, but are a fun excuse to dip back in if the player has already finished the story and wants to spend more time in the world. It’s easy to dip in and out after seeing the credits roll, as players can choose which chapter they want to dive into from the main menu.
Towards the end of the story, the wolf finds herself in an icy cave with no immediate means of escape. But after looking around for a minute, a few wombats can be spotted bumbling around near a hole in the ground. To reach the final few memories and to see the credits roll, players must once again step into the paws of a wombat. It’s absurd, but by bringing back the first animal players can possess, Lost Ember comes around full circle.
A Noah’s Ark of Themes
For being a relatively short game, Lost Ember packs in a lot of different themes. There are systems of oppression to be rebelled against, murky family relationships, and a profound belief that anyone can be redeemed. It can feel like a lot, but ultimately, Lost Ember players get out of it what they put in.
If players want a redemption story about the damaged relationship between a father and daughter, they can find that. If they want to read into the political themes of an underclass overthrowing a system of power, it’s right there. But if they want to simply explore a vast landscape with a variety of different animals, the vibe is extremely good. There is strong Ico energy in the depopulated world of Lost Ember. It is to the game’s credit that even getting lost feels soothing. There is always something to see and discover and the ambient score is simply beautiful.
Lost Ember is a gorgeous game. It follows in the tradition of games like Journey and Papo y Yo, providing an emotionally resonant experience that’s a little on the short side. But for players who want something they can interpret on their own, playing this game with the dialogue turned off is a poetic, moody experience. The last two chapters in particular are moving, with melancholy visuals and music that cohesively try and tie the story together. It feels like a folk tale, or a legend to tell by the fireside. Lost Ember is a wonderfully enigmatic game that throws a whole lot at the wall to see what sticks, and the final result is a game that lets players control a wombat that can roll into a ball. If that isn’t a success, what is?