Earlier this year when I reviewed Flywrench, I talked about how, despite being unable to finish the game, I still came away from it feeling positive. How it being so difficult that I eventually was physically incapable of meeting its demands would usually leave me frustrated, but instead left me content. It all came down to how it was clearly telegraphed. The mechanics of that game were such that, right from the start, I could tell I was going to hit an impasse at some point, so I was able to adjust my expectations accordingly.
Embers of Mirrim, a side-scrolling platformer from Creative Bytes Studios, is one of those other examples. A game that starts off on unassuming note that soon ramps up its difficulty far too quickly. One I was enjoying quite a bit before I eventually hit a roadblock I couldn’t bypass.
Embers of Mirrim is based around its “split” ability. Mirrim can split itself in two. Specifically, they separate into two embers – one light, one dark. You control these two independently with the left and right analog sticks. It’s a simple idea on paper, and a fun one in execution. It makes what are otherwise tried and true platforming challenges feel fresh. The first few levels, while difficult in spots, struck a fine balance. The paths I had to navigate were reasonable, either requiring me to move both spirits in two mirrored directions or allowing me to move only one at a time.
The problem lies in how difficult the courses you’re asked to navigate become. Where the early game is careful not to ask too much of you, understanding the inherent difficulties of its core mechanics, it doesn’t take long for it to go the opposite direction. It was a few levels in that I met my match. The scenario put me in a chase sequence trying to outrun a swarm of bugs while a larger one fired projectiles at me from the front. Nothing terribly outrageous at first, but once I needed to start splitting Mirrim, it became impossible.
It starts by sending the two embers down separate tunnels. At first the insect fires off projectiles into one tunnel at a time, starting with the top then moving to the bottom. For the first cycle, it’s manageable because you only have to focus on one ember at a time. It feels like most of the game’s standard challenges at this point. But then it starts to switch between the upper and lower tunnels in rapid succession, forcing you to adjust your gaze between the two swiftly, with very little time to react. Eventually it reaches a point where it feels like you have to be moving the two in tandem constantly. By the time I noticed where the next projectile was, I was already dead.
Splitting my attention between the two embers in such quick succession just isn’t something I can do. If you’ve ever tried to play a game where you control two characters simultaneously, you’ll know how much of a tall order it is to do anything but the most basic of movements. I played through all of Ibb & Obb solo, a platformer where you control two characters in tandem with both analog sticks. It was tough. Only thing that made it possible was how I could always move each character individually and could take my time in doing so. I wasn’t forced into scenarios where I had to move both characters simultaneously or swap between them in rapid succession through increasingly demanding challenges. It came close a couple times, but in the end, it always stopped short of that. But even then, because the game was designed to play cooperatively, there’s a clear understanding that it’s going to be harder. You know going in you’re in for a tougher time.
Embers of Mirrirm‘s problem is that it doesn’t understand those limitations. Rather than push the difficulty as far it as it reasonably can while keeping the limits of what these sorts of mechanics, it just keeps ramping up the challenge until it proves to be too much. Earlier levels strike a good balance where the difficulty lies in coordination. Navigating complex courses during quieter moments or trying to keep forging ahead in ember form while outrunning some large monster provides more than enough of a compelling challenge. Had the game kept up with that pace throughout, it would have been stronger for it. But instead, I’m left having to abandon the game because I simply cannot proceed despite how much I’d like to. Frustrating.