Review: 'Embers of Mirrim' (PS4)

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It's a common turn of phrase to say that a video game has puzzles that are "mind-bending" or "brain-breaking" or what have you, but it wasn't until I played Embers of Mirrim that I felt like my brain might well and truly break. This game is a charming, lovely and creative puzzle platformer, but the mechanics of the game are designed in such a way that your brain, or at least my brain, will stop functioning the way it's supposed to, demanding all of your focus if you want to succeed and make it all the way to the end. It's an excellent game and it deserves your attention, and it may also give you an aneurysm.

This game puts you  in the shoes (paws?) of cat-like animals Mir and Rim, who gain magical abilities and then somehow combine into a single being, Mirrim. They have to use their newfound abilities to cleanse the land of the mysterious blight that fell from the sky and is infecting the land and the creatures there. The story is told entirely without words, leaving the exact details a bit ambiguous, but I think it's better that way. Words certainly aren't necessary, and it's easy enough for your brain to fill in the gaps. This is a game world that you can let wash over you, and omitting dialogue is one way of helping with that. It's told well enough that they aren't needed.

The game's main mechanic are embers. Mirrim can split into two embers of light, one green and one purple. Each of them can fly for a short period of time, at which point they snap together and Mirrim re-forms at the midpoint between them. You can extend the flight period by passing by certain structures that recharge one ember or the other, so a lot of puzzles are based around flying through them. Your embers have other uses, too: they can activate certain objects around the world, like cannons or slingshots, or they can have certain effects on enemies that will help you progress through the world. Certain areas will let you exist as embers indefinitely so long as you're in them, which they will sometimes do to have you solve mazes or what have you. Your embers can only fly so far apart, however; they're bound together by something like a rubber band, which will eventually stop one ember from traveling too far from the other.

This is one of a few games I've seen with really excellent tutorial stages. The game has some quick prompts to explain the highly simple controls from time to time, but the rest of the time they will serve up some excellently designed puzzles that teach you the game's mechanics. These tutorials never spell things out for you, but by the process of solving the puzzles you'll learn not only basic mechanics but the more advanced techniques for navigating the game world as well. It's some truly excellent game design and it deserves particular acclaim.

What makes these puzzles so tricky is that each of the two embers is controlled with a different analog stick. In the early game it's not a big deal, because most of what you're doing is symmetrical and vertical, but in the later game it becomes truly challenging. Most of the puzzles where you have to sit and think about the solution aren't too difficult to solve, and it shouldn't take more than a few minutes to get past any of them. However, trying to navigate each of the two embers through separate, asymmetrical and precise paths is something that my brain simply was not equipped to do. This becomes especially bad when you have one ember on top and one on bottom, because on top of holding the analog sticks in the precise right direction (which is much harder than I ever anticipated) you have to mentally translate "left" into "top" and "right" into "down". In the later levels, where your embers swap places while the paths are moving of their own accord, I could almost feel headaches developing in real time. I did end up completing the game, so it's all doable, but you need to really focus on the task at hand. Most of the time it's quite satisfying to complete a challenge, but on some of the really bad ones I was praying for it to be over.

There are some more kinetic parts to the game as well, in addition to the mostly stationary puzzles where you can sit and reason things out. There will be fast-moving chases through puzzle zones, or early on a waterfall will literally drop puzzles onto you, or you may end up chased by boss enemies and having to dodge projectiles quickly. The game also features several boss fights, which require a combination of quick reflexes and puzzle solving, and I generally had a lot of fun with these. Overall there ends up being a lot of creativity with all the puzzles they were able to develop, and the game ends before it overstays its welcome.

Having said that, the game does have some annoying puzzles. Some of them have to do with stick control, as I said, but others just had me yelling at the screen "what do you expect me to do?!" I did end up getting through them, but there was at least one that I still feel is unreasonable. A couple of puzzles involve you getting enemies to do what you want them to do, which is often very annoying and I took a lot of damage trying to get that to work. In the late game you start getting showered with armor, which is sort of an indication that the developers expect you to fumble your way through some of the endgame puzzles. Also, one of the very last puzzle sections could have used another checkpoint.

On top of the normal puzzles, you also need to keep your eyes open for hidden paths. They hold two different things: creatures and glyphs. Collecting creatures has you absorbing some of the corruption in the game, and saving friends that are the same species as you; collecting all of these is how you end up getting the game's good ending. There are also 28 glyphs in the game, which are fun little puzzles where you have to trace out two separate and simultaneous paths with your embers. Most of them are fairly easy and fun, but I ran into one that caused my brain to stop functioning entirely. It was just asymmetrical enough that it took me just about ten minutes to do it, and I felt like something was wrong with me.

The game has a great presentation to it. The visuals of the game are lovely, with well designed environments, especially early on in the game. You'll explore forests, mountains, waterfalls and more before descending further and further into the blight infecting the world. It's all brightly colored and very nice to look at and let wash over you. The enemies and characters are well designed, too, though I have to admit that Mirrim's jump always looked a bit goofy to me. The game has really great music as well; it's somewhat ambient, but it's well crafted and punctuating enough that it stands out, actively enhancing the experience. The choir early on sounded lovely, and the heavy bass later on caused my subwoofer to shake my entire entertainment center. The sound effects managed to go unnoticed by me, which generally is a good sign.

This is a great game for $20, but it's also very short. I completed the game and got the good ending in under three and a half hours. There are still plenty of glyphs to find, which will unlock the remaining three trophies, but if you're decently good at puzzle games and moving two analog sticks at once, this is a pretty quick gameplay experience. It can be played multiple times, since it's partly skill-based as well, but the puzzles will still be solved the same way. I did enjoy collecting trophies, though, as they all have excellent names. There were multiple instances where I would say something in response to what was happening in my game, and a trophy would pop up saying exactly what I had been saying at that moment.

Embers of Mirrim is a very fun and well-crafted puzzle game, and it will stretch your brain in ways that few games will. It's not the longest game ever, but the development team has clearly paid attention to the details here, and they've made sure that the time you spend with the game is thoroughly polished and enjoyable. You'll walk away from this game quite happy with the experience, assuming your brain still works well enough for you to walk away.

Final score: 9 out of 10

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