Embers of Mirrim is on the surface an old school, 2D action platformer with modern visuals. If you look a bit deeper, you might be inclined to call it a puzzle platformer. While it’s near certainly going to tax your brain, it’ll be in a much different way than a puzzler. Embers flirts with absurd difficulty at times, but it’s the kind of hurt that will have many coming back for more. Gameplay focuses on controlling two creatures simultaneously, often in precise synchronization.
Developed by: Creative Bytes Studios
Published by: Creative Bytes Studios
Release date: May 23rd, 2017
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4 (review platform)
Price at time of review: $17.99 USD
Embers of Mirrim Features
- Gorgeous 2D Platforming: Beautiful backdrops might have you staring long enough to cause the occasional death
- “Split” Personality: The game focuses on having you controlling two creatures at the same time
- Gameplay with layers: Core mechanics used in numerous ways adds creative depth
Story and Setting
If you check out the official information. the developers tell us that an alien presence is corrupting the world. Two races (the “Mir” and the “Rim” which represent light and dark) must come together “literally” to help stop the corruption. Much of that is near vebatim. They also proudly state there’s zero dialogue, telling the story with audio and visuals. Short and sweet from the Devs, so here’s my explanation.
The game shows us two types of Cat Monsters (Blue and White) in a temple, where an Elder Cat Monster with horns shows them a scene of something slamming into the area where the two Cat Monster types presumably “live.” This scene shows triangles which represent the Cat Monsters racing back toward the temple.
You start as “Blue Cat Monster” who can jump and slam into the ground. An absolutely stunning forest/water area leads to this Cat Monster racing from right to left toward the temple.
After that level, we’re “White Cat Monster” racing from left to right toward the temple. This type can jump and glide. Once inside, a strange orange force (colors are important) slams the two Cat Monsters together to make a…White and Blue Cat Monster that can jump AND slide. Just before the cats merge, they each gain the power of an ember which allows them to temporarily turn into a spark. The game allows you to Ember either creature separately, or both at once.
Now it might sound like I’m being a sarcastic jerk on the story, but I’m hoping to illustrate a point. My version was in my head before I decided to read the presskit. My version of events is almost exactly the same as the official one, with different wording. With no way of knowing one creature was “Mir” and the other “Rim” my brain filled in the blanks. The point is that the devs effectively tell the story without having you read or hear it. For the record, the creatures are more complex than cats (owl and bat features are prominent), but the first place my brain went to was feline.
The setting is varied with the Blue Cat starting in a woodland. The White Cat in snowy mountains. A waterfall features prominently early on. Later on; tunnels, thick brambles and thorns and even some areas that feel fairly alien come into play.
For the most part, controls follow your standard 2D platformer style. Jump and slam down to break things, hold jump to glide. Chase scenes have you running and jumping to avoid things. However, the hook is the Cat creatures’ ability to go all Ember. This is not the Ember we’re all used to here at FextraLife. It’s turning into a spark with free movement ability.
As mentioned, colors are a key aspect. Each Cat’s spark is assigned a color to interact with the world around them. The White Cat interacts with Green objects and the Blue Cat with purple ones. You can freely move for a short duration with one or both cats. Regardless of which cat (or both) you go Embers with, they’ll come back together in the middle. If the middle is say…in the middle of a rock…it will form the Mirrim (more accurate than “White and Blue Cat”) back where you first split. The Embers have a limit on how far apart they can spread. The game shows distance and the middle via a line between the two Embers.
Tasks commonly involve diamonds that allow for extended Ember mode. Naturally, there are green and purple ones. The player must simultaneously guide BOTH Embers at once (white cat with left stick, blue cat with right). If either one runs out of Ember time, it will halt in air. There are extended sequences where you need to guide both Embers quite far using diamonds. Also present are colored grids which allow unlimited Ember time as long as the Cat is in them. Also orange grids that prohibit the use of Embers altogether.
In all, the “techniques” the player must use are few. It’s the use of a varied environment and how your abilities interact with them that drive what I feel is a fairly complex platformer. Beyond the grids, certain creatures and environmental elements come into play. Mushroom creatures are an early example. They can create a bridge (Green Ember) or the tried and true platformer trampoline (Purple Ember).
All of this MIGHT sound like I’m describing a puzzle platformer after all. Nope. Just about everything is color coded. Where do you go? Well you follow the purple things with the purple Ember and the green things with the green Ember. It’s not completely void of puzzle elements. Sometimes sequencing the Embers takes a few tries. However, with a good roadmap via color coding there’s not generally a question of what to do.
As the game progresses, the bar is continually raised. Challenges start off simple by having the purple Ember’s objects on the right side, and green on the left with some vertical practice. Horizontal movement with purple generally below the green is next. By the end, you’ll be crisscrossing Embers and changing orientation mid task and much of it is very delightful.
Like many games there are collectibles and secrets. These come in the form of corrupted Mir and Rim creatures you save, and Glyphs you illuminate in Ember mode. The corrupted creatures are no more than find and save, but are often in interesting areas. Glyphs are also hidden and will take your ability to control two things at once to the limit. Glyphs are essentially connect the dot pages, even giving the courtesy of showing you which dot is next. The difficulty lies in that each successful dot gives only a short time extension to do the next. And you need to steer both Embers at once, each connecting half the glyph. Designs become more and more intricate as the game progresses. While you can’t “die” here, you can fail which means the Glyph starts all over again. This is a very engaging inclusion to the game.
The twin character control is not unique, but is uncommon. Two games that come to mind in my experience are Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and Entwined. Brothers is a more pure puzzle experience and Entwined is a reaction and timing based game. While both offer the experience of running two characters at once, neither translates precisely the same way Embers does. Even so, I feel like I have a leg up on many gamers in that I’ve had good exposure to this mechanic.
I still die a lot.
The developers did the single greatest thing for a game where death is common. They prioritized the ability to get right back to it with little to no wait. The game doesn’t have a visual checkpoint system, but checkpoints are frequent with death setting you back a fragment of the level. Loading times are snappy, and I found myself routinely exploring areas I felt were sure death because I knew I’d be right back to it. Glyphs immediately reset the second your Embers merge back into Mirrim. Lots of recent games have included the concept of “gonna die,” and waiting on loading screens or travel time to try a challenge again sucks. Embers thankfully avoids this.
Bosses are a thing of course. They combine level elements and the slam move of the blue cat to create a retro boss feel. Anyone who has jumped on a boss’s head the magic three times knows what I mean and as a result I felt a high level of affinity for them and their design.
Audio & Visual
The audio is quite good. The music is atmospheric and adds to the chosen style of storytelling. Nothing particularly stands out as singularly impressive, but it weaves in nicely with the rest of the game.
As far as visuals are concerned, Embers is nearly universally stunning. Little details like branches or little glowing mushrooms swaying as you run by, convey a sense of depth that’s generally missing in a 2D game.
The developers take major gambles with their camera work by routinely altering perspective. This is done via either the zoom, or once in awhile changing camera orientation. This mostly pays off as it creates intensely cinematic experiences. However, a few blips do occur. In the tutorial stages before the cats merge, the zoom can get pretty wonky. The camera flipped between close shots and distance ones very rapidly at times and it’s jarring. Setting the trigger a little sooner and slowing the zoom effect would make a world of difference. After the tutorial, this is mostly a non-factor, but occasionally it’ll pop back up. Also related to zoom, is that sometimes when they pan out…they REALLY pan. The character is already small, so as not to dominate the screen when splitting. When it’s zoomed out, you have a tiny speck of a character. This isn’t always a problem as the benefit of being able to see and plan ahead is a tremendous advantage at times. Anyone prone to vision concerns though might find themselves losing their spot on screen.
For some more intense areas (like being chased) the camera will re-orient itself to be at an angle. This gives the appearance of running toward the player. Between this and the detailed environment, you’d be hard pressed to find a 2D world with more visual depth. It’s very easy to forget it’s a sidescroller. But, these portions of the game require precise platforming. After practicing the game from a sidescroll view, it can mess with your judgment on distance. I don’t consider this a failure, but rather a trade-off. It’s probably gonna kill you at least once but you’ll love the view when it does.
For less than $20, there’s a lot to like. You’re getting an excellent entry into the field of “modern sidescroller.” With that said, there are a few reasons to be cautious.
The game is pretty short. I’d estimate my completion time was between 4-5 hours (6-7 for Platinum). And as an avid explorer in games, if anyone could drag it out it would be me. This isn’t an issue for games with high replayability, but I don’t feel Embers is particularly strong on that suit either. Even going for Platinum won’t require a complete second playthrough as you’ll get credit for collectibles via Chapter Selection (where you’ll also get some indication of what you missed and where). If you missed rescuing any friends, you’ll need to replay the last level, which is pretty short. If you’re worried about price as it relates to time played, this won’t be the best return.
For anyone who hasn’t attempted a game where you’re controlling two characters at once, this could be an extremely challenging (or frustrating) place to start. While it’s a brilliant example of taking chances in games, it’s not anywhere near as accessible as most 2D Platformers. Be aware that Embers sets a high bar.