Embr Early Access Review: Fight Fire with Fun
These days you can get pretty much anything through an app. Need a ride? Call Uber. Hungry? Postmates will be there in 30 minutes. Looking to get your face made into a cartoon? There are like 10,000 people willing to do that online right now.
It makes me wonder, "Where does it end?" Which jobs will we not outsource to a market of independent contractors?
Built deliberately without unions or benefits, we've traded worker's rights for consumer convenience, and it's all starting to get a bit dystopian. In comes Embr to offer a sarcastic, darkly humorous future where even firefighting runs through an app. If only that possible future could ever be as fun as Embr is.
Embr Early Access Review: Fight Fire with Fun
Embr is a new game hitting Early Access for Steam and Stadia on May 21, making it the first-ever Stadia Early Access title. In it, up to four players can strap on their helmets and ride off in first-person co-op to the next home or business engulfed in flames. The cartoonish colors and bouncy soundtrack tell players right away that Embr is meant to be silly, and that's one of its best qualities.
Answering an app as an Embr Respondr, your task is to get people out of these burning buildings before they die, only instead of valor and community service, you're in it for the tips and the ever-desirable five-star rating.
Typically, there are two types of survivors inside any burning building: the apathetic phone-scroller, who doesn't even bother to look up as you pull them to safety, or the panicked survivor, who is running around the place like they're already on fire themselves.
In both cases, your task is to get them outside to a safety zone. Sometimes there is more than one of these areas, and once the rescuees are in one, they're safe for good. No need to worry, the game even encourages you to chuck them across the threshold, provided they're at a safe distance from the ground.
It's getting them there that makes up this puzzle platformer disguised as a chaotic co-op experience. Using customizable loadouts of ladders, water hoses, trampolines, axes, and much more, players are expected to bring the right tools for the job and work efficiently.
There's a great sense of player choice in this aspect of Embr. Earning cash and unlocking and upgrading my gear has been one of my favorite parts of the game so far. It reminds me a bit of Sea of Thieves in that the game hardly suggests what to do with any of its items. It gives them to you and lets you use them how you'd like — "tools, not rules" as Rare calls it. Given there are always countless ways to solve each level, this sense of freedom is exciting.
Do you bash down the front door and spray your way up the stairs, or do you prop a ladder against the house and climb through the second-story window? Either way, there's never a level where you can totally put out the fire and you shouldn't bother doing so. You're here to rescue customers so they can tip you, not save a home from burning down.
You can merely quell the flames momentarily while you get people to safety, even if they're too busy tweeting to thank you. Electrical fires cause additional problems, while other obstacles like classic red barrels can make things worse too. Each level gives players a new mix of layout, objectives, and funny, frenzy-inducing obstacles.
Then there's the moral quandary of deciding how many people to save. Each level tends to have you rescue only some of the total number of humans left in the fire. For example, you might only need to save four of the would-be victims, or you can stick around for all eight. Hidden stacks of cash can sometimes be more enticing than the humans too, which only furthers the game's comically cynical view of late capitalism.
Billboards seen throughout the game do well to establish that cynicism too, like a takedown of Deadspin's recent fall from grace through an ad for "SportsShow: Just Sport. No Politics," or a beverage called H2Oh! with the tagline "It's almost water!" It's clear who Muse Games sides with in the ongoing struggle for consumer and worker advocacy, and it's not the bigwigs at the top.
Scurrying around each level makes replaying for better scores and more cash enticing, especially as you unlock better gear and can clear prior areas much faster. If only I was able to enjoy it all with others. In my time with the game ahead of its Early Access launch, I wasn't able to find any co-op partners.
It seems the game doesn't yet offer crossplay — hopefully, that's planned for later — so I was left fending for myself during the review period. I expect that problem will be solved quickly, but it does mean I'm missing an important portion of the Embr experience.
Speaking of what's missing, given that the game is in Early Access, there are currently several areas that need improving. Though the core gameplay is a joy, the controls can sometimes feel a bit too loose. Some of this is deliberate, like a ladder that can easily topple over if you don't prop it up well, but just climbing the ladder feels off too, and not in the same broken-for-laughs way.
I love the physics-driven gameplay of Embr. Being able to move the contents of any room around to solve platforming problems and complete objectives is inventive and rewarding, making me feel like I'm thinking outside the box often. But controls need to be tightened up. There's a fine line to walk between floaty and unwieldy, and currently, Embr is stumbling to the wrong side.
In the menus, the ability to rename loadouts is apparently not working at all. This isn't a huge concern as at launch, you start with two loadouts and one of them is the default loadout that you'll quickly outgrow, but it does remind me that this game isn't done yet. There are also too few levels right now, so hopefully those keep getting added over time.
Embr Early Access Review — The Bottom Line
- Inventive and chaotic gameplay
- Fluid level design lets players choose their playstyle and change it on the go
- Cynically comical world-building
- Enticing upgrade tree
- Welcome accessibility options
- Wrinkles to iron out such as unresponsive menus and a dearth of levels
- Controls are a bit too floaty at the moment
I noticed the game has several smart accessibility options right away, including a fine-tuned difficulty slider, reduced gravity (I assume to make trampolines less deadly), and even a profanity filter. With that last one, Embr is a game my son and I can enjoy together, and I wish more games offered such a feature.
I know to expect growing pains in an Early Access game, so today, I don't consider them dealbreakers for what is otherwise another great game in a string of titles that take stressful jobs and turn them into colorful romps with friends.
If you've enjoyed games such as Overcooked, Tools Up, Moving Out, and Get Packed, there's every reason to expect you'll also enjoy Embr. Grab a seat in the firetruck, because Embr is just getting warmed up.
[Note: A copy of Embr was provided by Muse Games for the purpose of this Early Access review.]