Embers Adrift finally launched into its full 1.0 release last week, and the indie MMO made by Stormhaven Studios is out to show the world that a niche, old-school pen-and-paper style MMO can still work in 2022.
Unfortunately, after a weekend of playing the MMO pretty much on the regular, I have to say I'm not sure when I would be logging in again.
Let me back up.
Embers Adrift has launched to some success, especially when you consider most MMOs and live services have hitches and issues on day one. Whether it's down to population size or just the fact that Adrift held enough world-breaker tests to get their servers in order, it was a nice change of pace to be able to log in and just play on day one.
The game world was full of players entering Newhaven Valley, eager to see what all the buzz was about with the new crowd-funded MMORPG. Considering crowdfunding your way to release isn't always a guarantee you'll see a game, that in of itself should be praised.
However, there are quite a few things that are stopping me from actually enjoying my time in Newhaven, and a lot of it can just be chalked up to the fact that I might not be the target consumer for this MMO. And that's okay.
A Distinct Old-School Feel
As someone who played RuneScape and only dabbled in old-school EverQuest when I was a teenager, I can't say that I long for those old, nostalgic feeling MMOs. The oldest MMORPG I play is EVE Online, and it's so different than anything else in the genre that I hardly feel it counts when comparing the gameplay to the older, pen-and-paper inspired games of yesteryear.
Ember's Adrift is clearly trying to recapture some of the magic that got many older players into the genre in the first place. From a world that requires you to truly explore to learn to quests and challenges that demand you bring allies, the game from Stormhaven is distinctly trying to capitalize on the second "M" in "MMORPG."
From the moment I entered the world the differences between Embers Adrift and, say, New World were all too apparent. Not even speaking from a graphical standpoint (though if you're looking for cutting-edge visuals, Adrift ain't it), but from just a presentation standpoint. I love New World's UI, especially since it feels muted compared to some other MMOs like The Lord of the Rings Online or Black Desert. However, Embers Adrift takes the idea that you should go and explore to a whole new level with a distinct lack of real UI.
Sure, you've got your health bar, your XP and skill bar, and a few other toggle-ables such as a Torch (necessary at night). But that's about it other than the chat and combat log. There are no quest markers, no mini-map or even compass headings. You are required to remember landmarks and your position in the world as if you were actually traveling through it yourself.
And on the one hand, that's bold. In a day and age where attention spans are nonexistent (myself inclu---squirrel!), not putting modern conveniences such as your location on the map that you do have (unless you're at an Ember Ring, one of the many campfires that restore your health) is a bold commitment to your central design philosophy.
On the other hand, player experience has to also factor into this. Finding my way around the world was difficult at first, especially when quest logs are vague with descriptions of what to do next, or you're unsure of the direction you're even facing thanks to the lack of a compass.
I mean, come on - one could assume I'd carry a compass if I was adventuring, right?
What also feels distinctly old school is its approach to questing. While new titles will make quest-givers stand out like beacons on a lighthouse, no such indicator is present for Embers Adrift. Instead, you'll fill your time walking up to every NPC to see if they have anything for you. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't - it's hit or miss. Additionally, while you have an adventuring level, the quests themselves don't tell you if you're underpowered for that adventure.
One early quest had me investigate a lost apprentice, taking you to the far eastern edge of the Newhaven Valley. Along the way I ran into various creatures, such as bears, does, and more - some more challenging than others. However, when I came upon the monolith I needed to investigate, I was waylaid by a group of bandits, all of which were way over leveled for me to handle.
It was a situation where I wished the MMO itself had better prepared me for the quest, especially since it's given by one of the very first NPCs you encounter. One would imagine that this could be tackled by a low-level character or even a small group of them.
The Combat is.....yea
When I discovered this, I ended up finding a small group of adventurers who were also struggling to tackle this part of the quest. We quickly grouped up meeting at the nearby Ember Ring (I see what they did there....). We were a rag-tag group of adventurers: two Defenders (tanks) and myself a Striker (DPS). We were also all different levels, ranging from just a wee level one character (myself - this was, after all, my first real quest) to level four. The hope was that with our numbers we could overcome the challenge.
Combat in Embers Adrift is slow. While it feels sped up from the betas since the last time I played, it's still plodding, with each auto attack taking a long time to strike, while cooldowns on the very few skills I did have access to taking ages to complete, only to be met once again with long induction times.
There is no flair, no style to the combat. Animations are stiff, the actual combat itself is dry and, dare I say, boring. This is likely where the MMO lost me, especially when I considered I would be doing much more of this over the next few days, especially as we try to tackle bigger and stronger threats.
We ended up making our way back to the bandit camp near the monolith, eager to put our numbers to the test. We got the floor wiped with us. My two defender companions found themselves unable to absorb the damage being meted out, especially as each bandit seemingly called up 15 more on their own. It was overwhelming.
I think I could deal with the slow combat if it was more interesting. Instead, I find myself looking at my phone in between hits, timing my cooldowns to press one of the few skills I have access to (and by all accounts there aren't going to be very many skills to use in this title). While the aspirational goal of adding a second specialization isn't too far out of reach as you can choose this at level 6, progression feels just as slow as combat. Early-level progression in other MMOs feels rewarding. Oftentimes you're quickly leveled up by the few starter quests and creatures around you to give a sense of accomplishment, with the grind and walls hitting later on in the MMO.
However, with Embers I felt like I was hitting that wall right away.
For the night is dark and full of...dark
One thing the MMO's team has really honed in on is this idea of actual dark nights - and boy did they do it. However, it's less interesting and more just frustrating. It feels like I'm watching a Game of Thrones episode while furiously trying to adjust the brightness of my screen.
You are effectively required to use a torch at night just to see where you're going. But if you find yourself in combat anywhere, you're then forced to drop the only source of light in order to fight whatever is in front of you.
I get the appeal of requiring some challenge at night instead of it just being a slightly darker presentation versus day, but like...could I get a little starlight or even light from the moon? I've spent enough pitch-black nights in the wilderness away from civilization in my Boy Scout days to know that while a flashlight is definitely necessary in spots, the stars and moonlight can give enough light to at least see more than a few feet in front of me.
It also doesn't help that performance, especially at night, feels wholly unoptimized. Playing this on my RTX 4090 (yea, overkill I know), I was finding framerates in the high 20s when using my torch. While I'm not playing at 4K (3440 x 1440p here), the MMO just doesn't feel optimized. When asked on Twitter, the official Embers Adrift account responded stating that they are still working on the optimizations and hope to hire a dedicated graphics programmer in time.
To me, night is less interesting and simply more frustrating. What I found myself doing during night was just logging off to play something else for a while, coming back when I thought it was day again. And that's really the last thing you want a game to do: give you a reason to stop playing it.
It's not for me, and that's perfectly okay
After a few days of playing hours of Embers Adrift, I simply came to the conclusion that this MMO was not made for me. And that's perfectly okay. Not every game is going to appeal to every one. I've become spoiled by the modern MMOs I love, such as Elder Scrolls Online, LotRO and New World. I desire the modern conveniences that come with playing games in 2022, not hearkening back to an age where I was still more interested in Call of Duty than Ultima.
The amazing thing is, while I don't see myself sticking around Embers Adrift much in the coming weeks and months, I do think there is appeal here. While we don't know exact numbers of players, the times I was one throughout the weekend (and especially on launch day itself), Newhaven was brimming with excited players all eager to try out this new PvE MMO. Groups were being formed easily, something you just can't rely on in modern MMOs. The Help chat channel was buzzing with excitement from new players asking questions of those who have come before. It was awesome to see, especially for an MMORPG built by a small team as their first-ever title.
This is especially so after the rebrand and fallout with one of the studio's co-founders. The fact that in just a few short years, especially during a pandemic, the team was still able to put out an actual game, is commendable.
While I obviously can't speak to how the MMO stacks up long-term, or even late-game (our reviewer Emily will have that as we move through the next month), I can say that while I'm not sure I had a ton of fun in hours, there is something special here for those longing for a PvE, community-driven experience.
The Embers Adrift players I encountered were all incredibly excited to be playing, eager to help, and all-too-willing to group up and help someone overcome a challenge. Crafters were on hand willing to help get new players gear enough to start tackling the MMO's challenges, while guilds were cropping up left and right, bringing new players into their fold. There is clearly something at work unlocking that desire many older MMORPG players have held onto in a genre many feel has moved too far away from its roots.
Not every game is for everyone, and that's fine. My only real concern is whether or not the sticker price and the fact that this is a much more difficult and purposeful MMO versus the themepark and "on-the-rails" questing we tend to see nowadays will drive players away.
Time will definitely tell. And as much as I feel this MMO isn't for me, I want to see it succeed. I want to see small teams that take a chance like this thrive, if for no other reason than a reminder that it can be done if developers are willing to take the risk to create something special.
Whether Embers Adrift will stand the test of time remains to be seen. We'll have more in our review in progress later on this week.