There’s a very exact blend of story, action, and risk which makes an excellent Action RPG. Screw up anything from the top-down view to the risk factor in facing hordes of enemies, and chances are you’re going to ruin your game. Nailing this exactly is what made Dungeon Siege such an enduring pillar of the gaming industry, and failing to capture that special blend of violence it was what helped truly ruin Sacred 3. N-Fusion Interactive seemed to understand this and, thanks to their careful efforts, Ember proves to be the stunning success Diablo III should have been on launch.
The promotional materials have made one thing clear time and time again: This was a labour of love. This was a decade in the making and built upon the standards set by the likes of Blizzard, and it most definitely succeeds. The story here hits most of the tropes you would expect. The world is in peril, things are quite literally going to hell, and conflict rages across the land. Small bands of heroes combat vast legions of monsters and their titanic brutes, all in the name of personal glory or duty. However, what makes it stand out is how it twists many of these tropes in its favour or finds a new angle to exploit.
Each and every fame captures the visceral joy of wading into combat, frantically hacking your way through an army of foes or racing to keep them back as you pepper them with spells. Flexible enough to support both tactical strikes and relentless attack spamming, the game's core mechanics encourage you to keep pushing forwards, to keep risking our hard won advantages in a bid to gain more experience. You're always just powerful enough to put up a fight against the hordes of unholy foes, but you'll often subconsciously push yourself into punching way above your weight. At these points, upon bumping into some nightmare of a mook out to revenge all the buddies you slaughtered, you'll have two outcomes: A quick death, or an uphill desperate struggle you'll win only by the win of your teeth. It's at these points where the game feels most alive.
What will likely keep you hooked alongside the combat are its exceptional crafting and loot systems. While nothing is truly plentiful and you'll have to spend time hunting for certain items more than once, it never reaches that point to sheer frustration or absolute tedium. As such, you get that all-important sense of accomplishment without the usual risks. Crafting, meanwhile is more akin to something you would expect from an Ultima title than anything else. Covering food, potions, armour and weapons, the sheer level of creativity is astounding, and adds a very welcome degree of preparation to each expedition into enemy territory. While vendors might offer certain necessary items, chances are they’ll lack something you need in bulk, or the right combination of potions, requiring you to deal with this shortcoming personally.
The environments themselves, while graphically limited, are fantastic, with a vibrant, broad range of areas from accursed forests to icy caverns. However, this is where a few of the game’s real issues start to creep in, as many lacked a real sense of exploration into the unknown. This was partially the fault of the overall mapping, but also the artistic direction, which was generic to say the least. This would be fine if you were always on the move, but there’s a surprising amount of downtime between combat. As health and mana does not naturally regenerate, you can be left waiting around for minutes at a time after being worn down by attrition, bringing the experience to a screeching halt.
More than anything else though, the worst failing is easily the user interface. Clunky and limited, many odd choices hindered its overall usefulness and seemed to forget a few essential basics. While hotkeys are present, you only have a minute number to choose from. This makes character customisation oddly limited, which is paired up with the fact you can only have three abilities active at a time, each tied into your equipped gear. Nine times out of ten, this causes you to become something of a jack-of-all-trades.
Still, with all that said, is Ember worth it? Definitely. Those who loved the likes of Dungeon Siege, Diablo and Torchlight should mark this one down as an essential purchase. It’s easily one of the best bargains we’ve seen in months and one of the most enjoyable Action RPGs of the 2010s, so don’t miss out on it.
EMBER / DEVELOPER: N-FUSION INTERACTIVE / PUBLISHER: 505 GAMES / PLATFORM: PC / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW