Those who know me will attest that I am not an old-school MMORPG player by heart. Every time I thought about getting into EverQuest or Asheron’s Call back around the turn of the century, I’d read about how obtuse and player unfriendly they were, and I determined to wait until a game came along that was more accessible for a casual soul like mine. (That MMO was 2004’s City of Heroes.)
So without any sort of personal connection to that earliest era of MMO gaming, why would I willingly jump into a title that revels in the design and attitude of that era with the recently launched Embers Adrift — once upon a time known as Saga of Lucimia?
I suppose it’s curiosity — curiosity to see whether a throwback MMORPG has anything to genuinely offer today’s player. Curiosity about whether a slower, tougher, more group-centric world might actually create a magic I have yet to experience. And curiosity about whether it’s actually worth the cost of a box plus a subscription… or Embers Adrift is setting itself up to fail with a combination of business model and niche appeal.
Let’s take a look.
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a character creator that’s genuinely freaked me out, but Embers Adrift filled this apparent void in my life by delivering character models that stand there twitching in such unnatural ways that I thought they were possessed and coming for my eyeballs. A little movement is always acceptable, but I think we’d all agree that jerking around as if someone is jamming on an unseen cattle prod is a little much.
That wasn’t the end to the weirdness of this screen, either. For whatever reason, the devs thought it’d be a good idea to divvy up hairstyles into three separate sections (top/sides/back) and then deliver pretty atrocious art for almost all of the options.
On the plus side, I did appreciate having a selection of body shapes (helpfully represented by easy-to-understand geometric symbols), it’s easy to pick out good-looking colors and makeup, and you’re certainly not going to be fretting about class selection when you have just three generic roles from which to pick.
Options and UI
I don’t know about you, but the second an MMO spits me into its game world for the first time, I completely halt — often frustrating those tutorial prompts — to fully explore all of my options and get a handle on the UI. Happily, Embers Adrift is a very orthodox MMO with its setup, and I had no problem figuring out what’s what, rebinding my keys, and getting the chat box set up just so.
As for the UI itself, this game isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but it’s perfectly serviceable. I actually like the name plate and health/mana bars the most — they have a pleasing slight gradient too them. But it was about here that I discovered that you don’t naturally regenerate your health in Embers Adrift; you’ve got to find another method, such as resting at an “ember ring” (i.e., campfire) or use some sort of skill or salve.
One glaring omission is a minimap or radar, although I should’ve expected it from a more retro approach to gaming. There is, however, a really spiffy map screen you can pull up. This starts blank and fills out as you explore the area. Points deducted for not being able to see where your character is on that map, however. Without these normal navigation tools, keeping track of landmarks and direction is incredibly important in this game.
Another important UI element is the social tab. This isn’t just for keeping track of friends or guildies (although it’s that, too). Its “find” tab pulls up a list of all currently running groups, in case you want to message one to join in on the fun. In a group-centric MMO, this is the bare minimum. It’s too bad that there’s not some sort of matchmaking system that could get you into a group with a click, but I guess that’d be going against the spirit of being “social.”
I was perhaps most intrigued and most trepidatious about this game’s combat. I had heard it was slow and not very solo-friendly at all, and after experiencing it, I’d say that’s mostly correct. If, for whatever demented reason, you really miss days of agonizingly slow auto-attacks with the occasional special attack thrown in, then this is your game. It’s so slow that you actually have time to read your combat log. I’m serious.
And to make matters worse, the sound effects are all over the place (I had to turn effect noises down because a boar’s attacking sound was booming out of my speakers about five times louder than anything else). Don’t forget you have to keep running back to healing circles if you don’t want to use up your precious salves!
I’m also sure the combat skill tooltips were blatantly trolling me with tooltips like this:
Sorry guys, my mom is making me come home. We’ll play Dungeons & Dragons another time!
So what happens when you die? For me, I found out when I attacked a buck that was meant to be tackled by a party of two (you can tell by the chevrons next to its name, but I wasn’t paying attention that time around). There’s an option to lie on the ground and hope that some other player has pity on you for a rez, or else you can wake up back at a camp without your inventory bag but with a fresh new set of wounds. Those wounds have to be healed up by waiting next to a campfire, and then it’s off on a corpse run! How… EverQuesty of it.
I suppose there’s a laid-back charm in glacially paced combat like this, but I had to meet the game more than halfway on enjoying it. I should also mention that you have to futz about with unsheathing your weapon if you want to be able to attack, but that slows you down and prevents you from using a torch at night. Bit of a trade-off there.
The super-dark nights might not be the massive game-changer that Embers Adrift’s PR would like you to believe, but I’ll admit that it’s moody as all get out. When the sun almost abruptly goes down, everything gets pretty shadowy, pretty quick. Having a torch at the ready is a must for any nighttime navigation.
Group combat and questing
By now you’re probably wondering the same thing I was: What, exactly, do you do in Embers Adrift? What’s the gameplay loop? Is it like every other post-WoW MMO?
As you may have suspected, this game wants nothing to do with World of Warcraft, so there are no exclamation marks, casual questing, or murloc infestations. As far as I can tell, the core gameplay is simply grouping up and killing mobs too tough for you to handle alone. Farm camps, in other words. Yes, there’s a bit of questing (if you find NPCs with quests and remember what they told you to do) and some crafting (which I did not get into because life is too short for me to learn yet another game’s crafting professions), but most everyone I encountered or saw chatting was grouping to steamroll mobs or take on bigger dangers.
I took my cue from this and got into a group as soon as possible. As a support class, I felt that this was where I belonged, as I could use my First Aid skill to keep tanks and DPS alive while also whacking on mobs with my quarterstaff. At level 6, players can choose one of three class specializations, each with its own style and skillset. It’s a great early game goal to chase.
I should point out that Embers Adrift is kind of, sort of low fantasy, so it’s not rife with overt magical effects and attacks. But tanks do get to throw urine on enemies to taunt them, which is… unique! And memorable!
One nice touch of this game is that you can designate a friendly target as well as an enemy one, allowing for painless transitions between hurting and helping. If groups do get split up — it happens more than you’d think — at least there are pointer arrows next to portraits to guide you in their general direction.
Loot is, like progress in this game, slow to come and stingy when it gets there. After hours of grinding, all I had was a few coins, one vambrace, and a plain belt. Whee.
Is there more to the game? Probably, but it’s really not going out of its way to tell or show me, so I don’t feel like the burden is on me to learn all of its secrets. In all honesty, I felt lost for direction and constantly wondering, “What is the appeal here?”
Verdict on early gameplay and pricing
As with all first impressions pieces on MassivelyOP, this isn’t a judgment on the game as a whole, just its first few hours. And from what I’ve seen of Embers Adrift’s early game, it’s sorely left me wanting. I get that it is wearing its hardcore old-school attitude as a badge of honor, but it really wouldn’t hurt the game to have a better onboarding process than three meager quests and then a general scooting motion toward the wilds.
The weird thing about Embers Adrift is that its tougher approach would lend itself far more well to survival mechanics, yet that’s something that this team hasn’t done. Instead of fusing the old with the new, the team has essentially recreated people’s memories of early EverQuest. And since we still have that experience on servers like Project 1999, I have to wonder whether that’s really necessary.
What’s far more concerning is Soulhaven Studio’s decision to gate this game behind both a box price and a subscription. Far greater games than Embers Adrift couldn’t make that work, and I don’t see it happening here. It might be shiny and new, but it’s not worth that kind of asking price. If anything, it’s almost certainly going to ward off curious folk and keep the population limited — and thus keeping profits very low.
I think the best approach for Soulhaven would be to completely drop the box price, give out a two-week free trial to anyone who wants to check it out, and then ask for a $10/month subscription after that. The game obviously needs a steady influx of funding and (to its credit) doesn’t have a cash shop, so a sub is more mandatory than a box price for long-term success.
Kudos are certainly in order to Soulhaven for having launched the game smoothly, without any gamebreaking bugs, crashes, or account issues that I could see. It’s also a good day in the genre when any Kickstarted game makes it to the finish line, especially one that was once plagued with drama seemingly generated by the original developer, who left the project back in 2020. A lot of us didn’t think the game would survive that split, but the current dev team has clearly pulled it off.
Ultimately, there’s some fun to be had in this game, especially if you gel with a good group and enjoy slowing the pace of MMORPGs down to a crawl; there’s some throwback appeal here for old-school fans or folks who missed out on the early days of the genre. It’s definitely a game that’s going to live or die based on community word-of-mouth. But personally, I see it as too niche, too expensive, and lacking any strong hook to make it in this cutthroat MMO market. But then, I also wouldn’t mind to be proven wrong.