‘Indie exploration/walking sim type games with animal protagonists’ seem to be as common in 2019 as ‘indie retro-styled genre mashups with hidden complexity’ were in 2018. Even moreso, among those titles it’s members of the Canidae biological family that have championed the field. Games like The Lost Tree and Spirit of the North had fox protagonists, and this latest example counters those with a lithe, mysterious wolf. I’m absolutely here for it though, and Lost Ember is probably the year’s best shot at it yet.
Now, Lost Ember’s wolf hero isn’t strictly just a wolf. The game’s human civilisation are of the fictional ‘Yanren’ faith, which believes that true Yanren disciples go on to live in the City of Light when they die while those that falter are destined to wander the Earth as ‘Lost Embers’, taking on the forms of wild beasts. This is where we find our dual human/animal protagonist, Kalani, a religious rebel who finds herself reincarnated as a wolf. Upon joining up with another, mysteriously non-animal Lost Ember, the two set off on a journey to discover the events leading up their deaths and to figure out how to finally pass on to the City of Light. Though it winds up being largely predictable, Lost Ember’s narrative is heartfelt and manages to stick the landing on its emotional themes by the end. Though its cutscenes composed of vague, static 3D models can seem stiff and cheap at first, they wind up doing a good job of carrying the game’s themes with a visual language that’s consistent with its moment-to-moment gameplay and helps to mitigate some of the awkwardness in its script.
Lost Ember’s core gameplay, like so many of its peers, largely consists of a linear, on-foot journey from A to B, traversing environmental hazards and puzzles along the way. The unique gimmick here is that Kalani is not bound strictly to her wolf form, and can inhabit the bodies of other animals that she meets in order to overcome new challenges. As a wombat she can utilise small networks of tunnels, for example, or fly clear across huge chasms as any number of bird species. Describing any of these moments as ‘puzzles’ is probably a stretch of the term, given that the right animal for the job is always waiting just where they’re needed, but they still do a good job of injecting some variety into an otherwise straightforward journey. It helps that all of the animals look wonderful too – their adorable, boxy designs are backed up by some really nice model and animation work. The wolf in particular looks striking and moves beautifully. I feel like I use the term ‘wallpaper generator’ to describe a lot of games that I play, and maybe that’s by nature, but it definitely applies in abundance here. Some of the landscapes on show are absolutely gorgeous, despite a slight lack in variety over the course of the game.
It’s difficult to talk about Lost Ember in much more detail without spoiling some of its more exciting moments – there are some outstanding scenes throughout the game’s handful of hours – but suffice it to say that this is a game that will speak to a particular type of gamer. Fans of these contemplative, abstract narrative journeys know exactly what they like, and they will definitely find what they’re seeking in this game. Importantly, Lost Ember manages to keep its momentum going throughout, culminating in an ending that genuinely surprised me and made me excited to share thoughts with others who might experience it for themselves. That’s a commendable feat in itself.
Lost Ember is a prototypical example of a staple indie genre and, taken on their own, there’s nothing particularly surprising about its individual elements. As a whole though, it winds up being greater than the sum of its parts, thanks to an easy-going approach to both gameplay and storytelling, plus an absolute corker of a final chapter.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher