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Emberlight - A Lite Rogue

Red Thomas Posted:
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I appreciate roguelite games, but it’s not common that I find a really good one that gets my attention.  On very rare occasions, you’ll find one that wears it’s simplicity like a mantle of nobility, using clever design and interesting story to create something truly elegant.   All the rest are split between honest, but failed, attempts at finding that special magic and those that borderline scams as studios churn out randomized content in hopes of equally random purchases.

Still, it’s a genre that many indie studios try their hands in, and since I’m a sucker for the indies, I took it on when my editor asked if I’d be willing to take a look at Emberlight.  Early impressions were hopeful as I installed the game, and today I’ll be letting you in on a little of what I found as I played the game.

A Little Rogue

One of the things that stood out about Emberlight was the visual theme, and it was also the element that immediately made me interested in trying the game out.  It has this pseudo-Sumerian vibe to it that I thought was a cool art direction for a game.   That Mesopotamian aesthetic isn’t uncommon in games, but it’s not as central to the general theme as I was seeing here.

That blend of ancient Mesopotamian and ancient American cultures gives the game a unique and interesting feel.

Emberlight features this really interesting blend of Aztec and early Middle Eastern culture that sets a scene of prehistorical ambiance that’s just alien enough to grant a sense of unease.  I think it was an intentional choice that uses theme to create an emotional effect, and it was pretty well done.

Another thing I liked about the game was their use of the corruption mechanic.  Characters in Emberlight equip skills, rather than gear.  Characters start off with some initial skills based on class, more can purchase more from the “town,” or others can be learned from enemies while working your way through the dungeon.  Skills learned from enemies increase the character’s corruption, though.

This system is core to the game and one of the more interesting ideas.  You can equip skills learned from enemies after each fight, but each skill added to a character increases that character’s corruption.   Sometimes you’ll get special bonuses that make your character even more powerful, but it comes with a big downside.

Crystals and glowing runic characters further enhance the alien quality of the game.

At the end of the dungeon, corruption calls the tab due and your characters turn on each other.  The player controls the most corrupted, but whichever character wins becomes the new boss for the dungeon.  This effectively means that you’re creating the new boss each time you fight your way through the dungeon.  Loading a character down with the best skills will help you get to the end but makes the next run that much harder.

It’s a cool story mechanic that fits well into the roguelite concept and extends the playability of the game in a fun way.  I like that risk verses reward mechanic, and the idea of creating your own next boss is a unique concept that’s ideal for this genre.  Doing it by facing you with a choice of whether to stick with non-corrupting, but weaker powers, or to use more powerful skills that come with that obvious issue is a pretty smart move.

A Lot Light

Unfortunately for me, the cool ideas that clearly existed around the development of Emberlight didn’t translate as well as the developers might have liked.  For one, they violated one of the fundamental rules to the roguelite genre, which is that “less is more.”

All the rooms are revealed, so there’s not a lot of surprise involved. Generating a random map and populating it with random hostiles doesn’t really qualify as “roguelite,” though.

The game’s full of stats and numbers that detract from the minimalism that’s definitive of the genre.   Not that roguelites can’t be complex, but it should be the emergent gameplay that becomes complex, not the base system.  There’s a moderately sized list of stats for each character, which is further refined based on equipped skills and through traits gained through skill use and corruption.

The problem is that each of the skills usually has multiple effects and the effects are measured using algebraic equations that fluctuate between percentages and fractional numbers out to two decimal places.  Not only is the math not consistent, but the complexity means you spend the end of each fight weighing the differences of a handful of stat changes, a couple different effects, and different targeting types of several skills at once.   It’s a lot of data, which I would really like to see if it weren’t in a genre specifically identified by simplicity.

Comparing all the effects and stat-boosts in skills was a lot more complicated than it should be for a roguelite.

I also really didn’t like the way combat worked in general in Emberlight.  Because there are so many skills and they have so many different effects, I’d constantly find myself using a skill to get unintended consequences.  For example, there are beneficial and attack-based skills that can dispel effects, but because they’re combined with other effects, it’s easy to forget and accidentally debuf an enemy just to dispel all the other debufs it already had, or heal your own character only to also dispel all his dodge and armor enhancements.

Even something as simple as targeting was a problem in combat as the click detection seemed to be off.  If I had to guess, I’d say every model has the same defined selectable area, no matter how far outside that area the model appears to stray.  The result was blasting several of my own guys while thinking that I had selected on the enemy, or in several cases, healing the enemy on accident.  There’s a visual indication of who’s selected, but it’s very easily missed.  Combined with oddly defined click detection, it’s a system that comes off feeling very unfinished.

A Moderate Opinion

In the end, Emberlight feels like a freshman effort from a studio with solid potential.  There are a lot of good ideas and smart choices mixed in with a lot of mistakes that feel like inexperience to me.  That could be good news, as the game could get a lot better over time as the team gains a little experience and learns to refine some of their ideas.

The bad news, is that I don’t know that Emberlight will ever really be a roguelite, even once the game’s been refined and becomes a better game in general.   I’m not sure what genre it would be as it doesn’t really fit anywhere, but I do hope the team doesn’t get discouraged just yet.  The concept of the game was solid and the execution is just where it fell off the rails.

I’d like to see Quarter Onion try again one of these days with lessons-learned from this game.  I expect something interesting, different from the field, and ingenious from them.  I just don’t think that Emberlight is that game yet.  For now if I were asked whether you should buy it nor not, I’d have to say that it might be a good pickup while it’s on sale, but the full-priced $15 cost is a bit much for what you get out of it currently.

Full Disclosure: Game code was provided for this piece by publisher.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.