I'm not usually a picky person when it comes to my gaming habits. Anyone who's ever taken a gander at my reviews list will see that immediately. I've played games that were great, games that were awful, games that were middling, bizarre, difficult, easy-peasy, and everything in-between. All that being equal, trust me when I say that the early access build for The Ember Series: A New Fire is about the most broken mess I have ever seen.
(Just as a note, I downloaded this game on Sept. 9th, a few days after a patch was made to the game, so it apparently could have been an even worse experience.)
We should start with the positives, at least. This game's setup is generally good, though not without its faults. It begins with Derek, a hardcore tabletop gamer, getting his pre-ordered rulebook for Demons and Draughs (sic) Edition 2.5 in the mail a day early. He's so ecstatic about it that he doesn't pay much mind to the strange little tome that arrived with it. That very evening he invites his friends over for a practice run at Demons and Draughs (sic), which doubles as the actual game's class selection scene. The gaming session goes badly, as Derek is an absolute pill of a game master who revels in killing off his friends' characters pretty much immediately after they choose a class (a strange choice of events that could have been written better). After a bit of an argument over said TPK, Derek storms up to his room and his friends see themselves out. The next day, however, Derek is nowhere to be found. His friends search his house, only to find that strange little tome, which is now narrating the adventures of Derek in the magical land of Mörja. As they read on, everyone else gets sucked in as well. The main goal of the first part of the game appears to be to find Derek in this strange new land, though the alpha only has a couple of quests and a limited area of land to explore before it's all over.
Now the real game begins, and so do the problems. In fact, there are so many issues at hand here that we'd be better off doing bullet point notation, so here it goes:
- While it's pretty minor, this game is as laggy as smurf. Lag to exit an area, lag to enter an area, lag to start or finish a battle, lag to do anything involving a menu, and even a lag of several seconds to play the sound cues at times.
- The Random Number Generator is a greater fiend than any Dark Lord this game could provide. Not only do random encounters come uncomfortably close together, but the game itself seems to work against the heroes at all times. Weapons have descriptions involving damage range or D&D-like dice stats, but the results often fall far outside those parameters. Consecutive hits by the same weapon on the same enemy in the same battle can result in damage totals as disparate as 40 and 1 — and when this happens on a two-hit combo attack, it's really obvious and annoying.
- The same thing applies to magic and special skills. Physical special attacks are rarely worth the points it costs to use them, and attack spells require a huge investment in stat-building before they come into their own. Most egregious is that healing spells seem to use the exact same mechanics, both in and out of battle, making the game's healing class essentially useless for anything other than bashing monsters over the head with a stick. Droughts (sic) of Healing are the only reasonable option for recovering HP, if the player can stock enough of them. It's also possible to use a tent to restore all the party's health, if the player uses one outside of a dungeon. Inside of a dungeon, the tent gets used up, but there's no healing done.
- Monsters level up with the party. There have been games which manage to make this work, and generally they 1) warn the player beforehand, 2) give the player a slight edge in stats, and 3) don't make it too easy to level the opposition up quickly. Ember does none of the above. Monsters jump in attack power seemingly without warning, characters must allocate limited skill points for both skills and stats, and the escape button in battle has at best a 10% chance of success, so there will be a whole lot of battles fought.
- Experience rewards go up drastically as monsters get stronger, but leveling requirements are not balanced to match this, so my party was gaining at least one level per battle for half of my time with this game — and frequently two, three, or even four levels. By the time I actually finished, everyone was around level 58, and that was with only the first quest done. I almost broke down in tears when I realized there was a second quest available (and I have yet to find the courage to try).
- For the last fifteen levels or so, all I did was pour skill points into Vitality for the HP and defense bonus, and it was still a slog getting through it all. It did not help that I couldn't afford the number of potions necessary to restore everyone to full health by this point.
- The game clock is a lying liar that tells lies. It says I have an hour and twenty minutes on my save file. Steam says I've put five hours into it, so even if we discount the time lost due to one early game over, that's four hours to beat the introductory quest filled with an endless supply of enemies. I'm not sure if I could have shaved any time off of that, between the encounter rate and the burgeoning challenge rating of all minor encounters.
The above points aside, this is an early access build. It's supposed to be a bit smurfed up at times. There's time and hopefully impetus (and oh, so much need) to fix things up and iron out kinks. While I've been pretty harsh so far, I really do think the premise and the story show promise, so let's try one more bullet list for suggestions on how to proceed.
- Fix the damage formulae. This one should be pretty obvious.
- Make the healing spells work at a fixed amount plus a character stat bonus. Nothing ticks a player off like expending 10 MP to heal 2 HP, and the fact that the potions always heal more is not a good sign.
- For that matter, if possible make the potions give percentage-based healing. That would've helped immensely, especially later on when it might otherwise take twenty of the things to restore a character to full health.
- Give the Rogue class an escape skill. Trading a few MP for a guaranteed getaway is well worth it.
- Possibly introduce the ability to regain some MP by defending. This could balance out the fairly high MP costs for most spells and skills, especially towards the beginning.
- Allow magic-using characters to keep low-level spells when they get more powerful ones, instead of just overwriting the previous ability. Sometimes we want the less MP-intensive option.
- Provide a bit more of a tutorial at the start. Yes, Derek mentions needing to allot skill points in the character creation scene, but a lot of stuff happens before the player has the chance to actually do that, and it's easy to forget.
- Include more environment interaction. The buildings in each town are full of random knick-knacks, and it would be fun to see our outworlder heroes react to some of them. Fun fact: one of the first things I did upon arriving in Mörja was to check a clock to see if an elixir came out (#raisedonFF6).
- Let characters gain vital stats besides HP and MP at level up. Leaving stat growth completely up to the skill point allotment at the expense of skill learning (or vice-versa) is a recipe for trouble.
- Tidy up the dialogue a bit. There are a few standout spelling errors (draught = potion or drink; drought = no drinks, or water for that matter), and there are a few stilted scenes as well. I already mentioned the class selection scene, but there were some other bits of lore-bombing and world-building that went into an unnatural level of detail, a lot of which could have been spread out a bit for a better slow-burn. On the other hand, thumbs-up to whoever wrote the entire main cast as an oddball collection of grognards and future murderhobos.
- One last thing, but the battle sprites could stand to be a lot bigger. As it is, their half of the combat screen has a lot of empty space that's never going to be filled, and it throws the entire visual presentation out of balance. I can understand that there's an intention of mimicking the SNES-period Final Fantasy games in this regard, but even those games had larger in-battle sprites, when taken as proportionate to the entire screen.
In conclusion, I'm kind of interested in seeing how the developers at Forthright Entertainment deal with this game from hereon out. Since it's hard to imagine the game getting any worse, it has nowhere to go but up.