FBT finds the lost ember. And loses it.
Essentially a four-legged Walking Sim, Lost Ember is the work of Mooneye, a tiny German Indie Studio (so tiny, the six-person team includes the office dog). A critic’s darling on release, it earned multiple awards and reviews like “endlessly fascinating” and “laudably ambitious” - it often deserves a superlative, but equally it’s just lative.
In some faraway land the human civilisation has died out and a human spirit, reduced to a ball of light, is blocked from entering the ‘city of light’. It finds a reincarnated spirit in the body of a wolf, with the ability to possess the wildlife - neither can remember their past lives, or their sins, so Wolf and Ball-soul team up to resolve their pasts and reach the City of Light.
As Wolf and Ball-soul progress through ruins reclaimed by nature, certain locations trigger their memories, recalling the events that led to the human’s downfall, and their part in it. It’s almost immediately clear the two souls are not strangers, and within two hours of this six-hour game you’ve figured it out – which means those next four hours feel a lot longer. It should be compelling, thought-provoking, moving - and occasionally it is, but the game falls quickly into repetition, while the plot is nothing new. Least we have a menagerie to play as.
At first it’s beautiful being those animals – a parrot flying through the canopy, a humming bird buzzing through fields, a mole-thing digging tunnels, but you never really get to ‘be’ them – there’s no threats, no predators, it’s not an animal sim – we’ve done this kind of soul-slinging, NPC-controlling thing before but here it doesn’t matter what you are, you just hold down Forward. If you come up against a problem, an animal with a very particular set of skills will be nearby. The animals often have quirks – take a rest, burrow for food etc., but it seems unnecessary when the animals are just facsimiles, not realistic experiences.
To its credit it keeps dropping new animals, but it doesn’t feel particularly natural, this is closer to a zoo where random animals are forced together. You never look at, say, a jungle and think “right, I need to find a monkey to scale those trees’, you just get a prompt, click and go ‘oh, I’m a grub?’ and get it done in a linear fashion rather than go play. It means no more, experience-wise, than if you’d changed your character’s clothing.
The lack of immersion in the animal-world means you focus on the human story, but that’s not exactly compelling either. Plus, stopping you from investing in it is the decision to have narrative scenes play out as static statue-like shapes. Those scenes go on for several minutes, often without voice-over yet characters are curiously one-dimensional.
That’s not entirely fair. The story does have a nice way of unfolding, with the Wolf seemingly cast as a villain early on, while their acts may become justified the further you go, while Ball-soul’s innocent Dory from Finding Nemo act starts to become tarnished. The game does have some larger themes and comments it’s trying to make, but it’s heavy-handed and character motivations feel forced. It would have served the story so much better to actually have the Wolf be a Wolf, see the human story play out from the point of view of both a human and an animal as they navigate a world healing itself.
On top of which, Ball-soul is a ball-ache. Constantly banging on about how great everything is, how impressive humans were before they all died, it’s like being followed around by Brilliant Kid from The Fast Show. They’re the most uncynical dead person I’ve ever met. It’s like having a developer commentary on and they’re pointing out all their hard work. And Ball-soul repeats itself endlessly. I get it, impressive building work.
The art design is lovely, but after a while you lose the sense of grandeur. I’m not saying I’d want it photo-realistic, but the simple look limits the amount of awe I’m experiencing. Another drag is a completely redundant collectables. Why?! It’s frustrating enough to be searching for a cut-scene unlocker, but to discover it’s just a collectable is annoying. The world does feel huge though, and we travel massive distances, across almost every kind of terrain you can imagine but it often feels a bit overstretched and the design reveals its limitations. I only have so much awe to give.
But I do occasionally aww at the animals and get surprisingly attached to them. When I possessed a duckling, I found myself waddling him back to his parents rather than abandoning it, and when I beached a fish I went back and jumped into the water so it could swim off. There are moments of absolute breath-taking beauty, and a few edge-of-your-seat moments, like the hummingbird caught in high winds or the wolf running with buffalo.
Other games have pulled this off with varying degrees of success – Journey or Gris for example, but this feels like a proof of concept that needs filling out. I get what it’s going for but it’s not as affecting as Mooneye think. I was moved by some later moments as the two lost souls eventually collide, but the final scene where the game tries to even it all out and make it all okay grates after what we witnessed. So close.
You do often feel wild and untamed, reclaiming the ruins and world, but its not what we’re here for, we’re just charging ahead in a mostly linear way with no time to look around and not much to do. The idea that we’re reliving the final moments of this human race and at the same time get to see a world that’s doing really well without them is grand, but it doesn’t really land. I’d be perfectly happy to let them stay dead and go play with the guppy’s doing white water rafting or teach that duckling to fly.