"Less is more, but sometimes less is just simply less."
I'll preface this review by saying that I've never particularly enjoyed isometric RPGs. Most of my gripes with the genre involve steep difficulty curves and seriously inept tutorials that do little to really explain any of the game's mechanics before throwing players into the thick of things. Less is more is a phrase that would often pop into my head as I scrolled past dozens of pages of information, turning me off of playing not five minutes into the game. With this in mind, Ember is a game that addresses many of those issues, but not without a plethora of its own.
In terms of story and presentation Ember doesn't tread far from the beaten path, if at all. You play as a Lightbringer, a long extinct race of semi-divine beings, who has recently been brought back to life. The world of Domus has seen better days and your main purpose is to cure the Embers, tiny glimmering beings of crystal energy that act as a source of power and magic for Domus, from their slow and seemingly inevitable death. The journey is rife with tropes and clichés from the genre such as slight amnesia as to who you truly are, backstabbing allies, ambiguous antagonists (who never get explained, by the way), etc. Ember plays it incredibly safe in terms of storytelling, something that unfortunately isn't quite made up for with its cast of characters and world building.
First off, the world itself doesn't feel terribly alive. Yes, the game looks great; yes, there are day/night cycles; yes, there are many NPCs to be found throughout the world, but a fully fleshed-out world is more than just the sum of its parts. The glue that should hold these things together such as genuine interactions between NPCs, dialogue choices that do more than add just a bit of fluff to conversations, etc. are all sorely lacking in Ember. This results in the world feeling like a robot doing menial tasks, rather than a living, breathing ecosystem.
Exploration is also a big aspect of the game that I found to be lacking. Every single acceptable quest is marked on the mini map from the get-go and the fact that there are no other hidden sidequests that you can accept by talking to the right people was disappointing to say the least. Loot is marked on the mini-map before you even know it's there, and there are almost no hidden nooks and crannies for you to discover for yourself. The most adventurous thing to happen in my fifteen hour playthrough, during which I completed every single side quest, was just exploring the cemetery during the opening two hours of the game. The awe of discovering the world for yourself is the kind of magic that makes games such as the Elder Scrolls series so memorable, and that magic isn't to be found anywhere in Ember.
Characters do little to improve Ember's empty world, either. Most of them only offer a quick quip when you try to talk to them, something that feels jarring when their voice is telling you to leave them alone yet in the dialogue box they're asking for your help. The lines themselves also read like they come from a B-movie script, with most of the humor falling flat, and most of the serious moments coming off as just cheesy. The music is just as forgettable as most tracks sound like something you'd find by searching "medieval music" on YouTube.
In terms of gameplay, Ember tries to fuse various elements of the best games in its genre, but ends up being a half-baked amalgam of ideas that don't mesh very well. Battles take place in real time meaning that you're constantly in the thick of things, but you also have the option to pause during battles in order take more strategic steps towards earning a victory; at least that's how it should work in theory. In practice, most battles just come down to the general brawn of your party and trying to utilize actual tactics ends up with you just pausing every two seconds which completely kills the flow of the game.
The whole tactical aspect of the game is further diminished by the incredibly limited pool of abilities in the game. Each party member can only equip three abilities at one time, as the abilities are tied to your gear rather than your specific character. While this does offer very flexible leveling, it actually just masks the overall blandness of the gameplay. The different "builds" that you go through as you acquire better gear are not a result of tailoring your character to your playstyle, it's just picking up equipment that has better stats than your current gear with an ability thrown in as a bonus. I didn't choose the necromancer's staff because it offered a cool, unique ability that fit my playstyle (which it didn't anyways, it just had a standard fire bolt spell), I chose it because it dealt over twice the damage of my current staff. This is alleviated somewhat towards the endgame when you can afford to purchase the runes to swap out abilities, but once again the limited selection hinders your ability to mold your character.
Your skill points can be put into four stats: strength, dexterity, intelligence and vitality. The first three offer damage and defensive bonuses to physical, ranged and magic damage respectively, while vitality offers an overall health boost. No matter what kind of character you want to play, the allocation of your skill points is an incredibly straightforward matter. Strength builds in particular seemed heavily favored on the harder difficulties as high strength allows you to both wear tanky armor as well as wield the heaviest weapons, making you a one man slaughtering machine if you high roll on your loot drops.
However, I will say that the crafting aspect of the game does deserve a lot of praise. You can discover recipes on your own by tinkering with various ingredients found throughout Domus or you can find them scattered throughout the world, whether they be in treasure chests or in merchants' stores. The hours that I spent at an anvil trying to craft a better greatsword for my strength-focused party member were most definitely the highlight of the game for me.
Ember's greatest strength lies in its accessibility. The simplicity and straightforward nature of its storyline and gameplay serve as a great gateway for newer players of the genre. However, its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness, as the simplicity of the game dips dangerously into the waters of mediocrity more than once. As the saying goes, less is more, but sometimes less is just simply less. If you're looking for an introduction to isometric RPGs Ember might be the game for you, but if you're looking for a deeper, more memorable experience, I recommend looking elsewhere.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.