Embr envisions a world where you and your co-workers have independently entrusted dedicated gig workers (with minimal supervision) to the job of fighting fires, saving lives, and sometimes delivering meals. The tone and setting of the game could probably best be described as a partly crazy cartoon farce and partly a snappy social commentary by big technology and media corporations. This theme is at the core of how the player interacts with the game. The main menu is a broken tablet, in-game messages appear as push notifications from Embr, and ads for media and services act as loading screens. But as dystopian as some of these elements sound, the satire is always tongue-in-cheek. For example, early on, you met Hosr, a Canadian competitor of Embr, whose goal is to spread socialism in the United States and convert oil barrel factories into maple syrup factories.
The general goal of most missions is to save your customers before the burning building collapses. However, there is no set path; Instead, you are given a set of tools that will allow you to achieve your goals in any way you see fit. Sure, you could run right through the front door and walk up the stairs normally, or you could prop up a ladder and knock it through the window with your trusty ax. This flexibility makes each mission a kind of freeform puzzle to get from point A to point B efficiently, which is rarely an easy task. These buildings are full of clutter, obstacles, electricity and gas hazards, and of course, fire. In addition, these dangers can lead to worse problems. The hosing down of fire could clear the way for you, but if the room has an exposed electrical cord you could have made it worse as the water conducts the dangerous current through the room. No matter what level of difficulty you choose, your knowledge of the building, your tools and your efficiency will be tested.
At least at the time of this review, your patience may also be tested. There’s no getting around it, Embr on Switch looks rough and plays rough. Aside from the very noticeably low resolution, there are a number of issues that made playing this promising game a disappointment. Pop-in is disastrous with objects appearing meters away from you, and some of the visual effects have been downgraded beyond what is reasonable. For example, chopping through doors with your ax on other systems will show damage. A switch only darkens the doors. Worst of all, however, is the particle effect for fire, which is a thorn in the side on Switch. When porting to weaker hardware, compromises are to be expected, but Embr oversteps a limit. And even beyond fidelity, these levels are full of repetitive assets, bright, saturated colors, poor effects, and clutter that make prolonged gaming a strain on the eyes.
The controls look even worse, with some of the most frustrating physics and motion sequences I’ve dealt with in a while. Let me try to unwrap this. Your character’s movement is relatively quick on firm ground, but various hazards such as fire and electricity can slow you down to crawl. It’s all fair and good. The problem is, you can slow down pretty much anything else, too. These houses are crammed with garbage bags, furniture, and other debris that can either slow down or stop your character if you come in contact with them. Over time, this leads to constant friction that is frustrating to just move around. There are tools to either destroy or move objects, but this is a pesky solution to an unnecessary problem. It is enough to fight the clock, fire, and other dangers while pursuing primary and secondary objectives; Difficulty moving your character is a tedious addition.
Another problem is how movement is detected. Sometimes I was pushed backwards at random, apparently at random. I couldn’t tell if this was a product of rubbing against objects or a bug that hadn’t been ironed out. After playing around with the controls a bit, I think I may have figured out the problem. Embr has no gradation between standstill and a full sprint when reading player input on an analog stick. A slight forward movement is interpreted as being just as fast as a full incline. This also applies to the backward movement, which is just as fast as the forward movement. Every time I tried to shift my position back a little, my character jerked back. To be honest, I’m still not sure if this is the problem; Maybe the movement is incorrect or I’m experiencing some form of input lag in single player. Anyway, the inadvertent jerking back and forth resulted in irritating gaming sessions.
When playing online, an important selling point in the game’s marketing, Embr’s weak light is allowed to shine a little brighter. The maneuvering around frustrating physics and rough controls is easier to endure when the goal of completing a mission is shared by multiple players, which can even turn part of the tragedy into comedy. So far I have only been able to attend meetings with friends with no success finding public games in lobbies or in quick play. Whether it is a system matchmaking problem or a simple player population problem is difficult to say. The private games I played worked fine with no connection issues, and allowed for a more inventive collaborative game that was way better than stumbling through some of these levels on your own.
The core gameplay is fertile ground for some great, up-and-coming moments in solo or multiplayer, and the game is full of content. Each mission has bonus challenges like food delivery or demolition, and there are escape missions, boss fights, difficulty options, equipment, upgradeable items, and cosmetics. Even if you’re only playing in single player mode, Embr has so much going for it if it wasn’t marred by the visual noise, performance and control issues, and the really frustrating physics. In many ways, playing Embr felt like a promising early access game that would be worth waiting for a polished 1.0 release to arrive. The developers even included a simple feedback system for bugs, frame rate, controls and gameplay issues in the main and pause menus. But I can only rate the product at hand, which is built on a solid foundation, but quickly falls apart.