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12:45pm on Monday, 19th December, 2016:



I finished playing Ember a couple of days ago. It's a party-based RPG along the lines of Divine Divinity, with a setting in which sources of magic ("embers") are, unbeknown to most people, living beings. This was something of a relief, as I sketched out a plot for a novel about 20 years ago that had this same premise, and now I don't feel I really ought to get around to writing it some time.

It wasn't long after I started playing that something about Ember didn't seem right. The technical aspects were fine — the art, the animation, the interface, the coding in general — but the design was utterly pedestrian. It was as if the designer had gone for the blandest solution in every case. You don't get to create your character's appearance — it's always male and wears a mask — and as for its other details, you have only four attributes to play with: strength, intelligence, dexterity and vitality. When you level up, you add two points to the one associated with what you want to do (melee, magic/heal or ranged weapon) plus, occasionally, vitality. You never add anything to the two attributes not associated with what you want to do.

Equipment slots are helmet, armour, weapon, amulet, ring and (for a single-handed weapon) shield. All gve you bonuses to your stats, plus an additional effect. Amulets and rings have passive effects; helmets, armour and weapons have active effects. Active effects can be used in fights, so you basically get three per character. They each cost a certain amount of energy to use. There aren't many of these effects anyway, but even fewer that you'll actually want to use. The rest are pretty well useless. Needless to say, there are three types of armour and helmets: metal, leather and cloth. Also needless to say, you can craft your own from the limited number of resources available. I did make some metal armour and weapons, but didn't bother with leather or cloth because the ones I could make were never as good as the ones I looted from fights anyway.

Recovering health from fights is easy: just eat some food, of which there's plenty lying around (and you can cook your own, too, once you learn the recipe or find it by experimenting). Recovering energy is not easy, as only alcoholic drinks will do it, and they don't give you much. You need a potion to recover a meaningful amount, but potions need a particular herb to make and there aren't many lying around. Thus, if you want to recover fully, you need to rest. Strangely, there is absolutely no downside to resting: you get all the health and energy back, you get a temporary XP bonus multiplier (the longer you went without sleeping, the higher it will be), and you can do it anywhere, anytime outside of a fight. I've done it in front of bosses, while surrounded by 20 enemies — it really doesn't matter.

The characters in the game are OK, but your party can only have three members including you. Fear not, though, because you only have three NPCs who'll join you anyway (at least before the endgame), so it's really just a case of dropping the one who has the same party role that you have.

The story is blindingly obvious. I knew when I was going to be sent to which different zones ("please don't ask me to visit the sewers — aw, dammit!"), and I knew what was going to happen at the end (which has two plot twists that you can see coming a mile away). There were few side quests, and those there were were hackneyed. I even had to go into a cellar and kill rats at one point, although thankfully there weren't ten of them.

What I found hard to fathom was why a game with decent production values, reasonable music and voice acting, a nice look to it and so on, was so completely banal in terms of its design.

The answer came in the end-game credits. Who was the designer? "Everyone at N-Fusion contributed to the design of Ember".

That explains that, then.

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Copyright © 2016 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).