Games don't need a "message" to be gratifying or meaningful, but Embr: Über Firefighters grabbed my attention with its satirical premise. You're a gig economy worker in a world where social services like firefighting no longer exist. Your semi-employed character hangs out in a dirty alley waiting for notifications about nearby fires; the more people you rescue, the higher payday and in-app rating you receive.
Elevator pitch aside, this title falls into the same category of stressful, physics-based co-op games as Overcooked and Human: Fall Flat, though it differs with its first-person camera and destructable environment. It certainly succeeded in stressing and challenging me, but not always in ways the devs likely intended. Weird physics proved far more dangerous than fire in the dozen or so hours I've played.
As an Early Access title Embr will receive plenty of updates and new content in the coming months. It's also likely that some of the problems I faced will be patched out in subsequent weeks. What isn't certain is whether most gamers will continue find the core ticking-clock gameplay fun after putting out their first few fires.
Disclaimer: This review was made possible by a review code provided by Muse Games. The company did not see the contents of the review before publishing.
Embr What I liked
|Players||1 (single player) to 4 (online co-op)|
|Platforms||PC / Stadia|
|Full Release Date||May 2021|
You start out in Embr at a job fair that introduces you to the basic mechanics of firefighting. You get a quick grasp of the controls and learn some of the weirder quirks of the game (and there are many). For example, you can't open doors; you have to break them down with an axe or unlock them with volts of electricity. From there, you'll use your in-game embr app to select jobs.
For each Rescue mission, you can't actually put out the fires. Instead, you want to get a 5-flame rating by rescuing as many clients as possible, and earn a larger tip by flinging clients' furniture and money out of the house before it burns down.
You switch between your hose to douse flames, your axe to break through obstacles, and smartphone to track down client locations. You'll also have to interact with your environment. Rooms on each map will frequently have dangerous hazards — sparking electric wires, clouds of poisonous gas, or oil-filled frying pans — that will quickly kill you if you simply rush in.
When clients are trapped and dying in those rooms, you must deactivate the hazards quickly before their health runs out. This usually means finding an off switch, throwing something to knock a hazard out of the way, or smashing through a wall to avoid it entirely. The movable and destructable environment gives you plenty of potential solutions to any given problem.
Each completed level grants you access to new neighborhoods with more difficult houses to move through or more clients to rescue. Aside from the main missions, each neighborhood will also have sporadic timed missions to let you earn additional flames.
With the money you make from each job, you can buy new tools or upgrade current ones with money you make. My favorite moments were unlocking new gadgets like the grappling hook, trampoline, and breaching charges, then seeing how I could change my strategy to get through levels more quickly. It's admittedly a grind repeating levels to make enough money to buy new toys, but they're worth the wait.
Regardless of my toolset, I was impressed with the way the devs designed each map as an intricate maze filled with traps, puzzles, and alternative routes. Depending on your playstyle, you can methodically extinguish fires as you go, break through windows and climb the sides of buildings, or rush through hazards to trade damage for speed. The buildings make no architectural sense, but that only makes the maze more interesting to explore.
While the Rescue missions are the main focus of the game, they offer nothing in the way of story and little in the way of satire — though it's certainly telling that you leave fires burning to focus on making money. Embr also has a couple of Escape levels that take the story in an absurd yet funny direction. Your character is kidnapped by Hosr, a competing firefighting app, and thrown into deadly escape rooms while Hosr's CEO monologues, in a friendly Canadian accent, about the benefits of socialism.
The satirical message here is a bit wonky (more on that below), but I enjoyed these levels as a necessary change of pace from the breakneck speed of the main maps. You're still timed, but without worrying about rescuing anyone but yourself, you can stop to think how to neutralize dangers. Once I solved the puzzles, I had a better understanding of certain gameplay mechanics and solutions that I could then bring back to the main game.
Embr What I disliked
While some of Embr's issues come down to bugs that will likely be patched by the full release, not every issue can be chalked up to its Early Access status.
Embr's maps may be intricate mazes with demanding logic puzzles, but you won't have any time for that. You must rescue a minimum number of clients before the map's fire meter depletes and the house burns down. On almost every map you'll use the vast majority of that time reaching the minimum. My strategy often devolved into "cheesing it" through levels, bunny-hopping through fire and electricity and taking damage to avoid wasting time clearing out dangers.
Embr's biggest threat isn't fire; it's bad collision and physics.
Limited time is part of the challenge, obviously, but even when replaying levels over and over I never found time to explore without getting clients killed. Each level is so vertical and vast that dilly-dallying will mean you don't have time to reach top-floor users before they burn. Even playing the "right" way, you end up backtracking along the same cleared paths over and over again. Even worse, clients mostly spawn in the same places when you replay levels, so you end up rushing straight to the same rooms.
This may all be because I was playing solo, and the game expects you to have a squad of amateur firefighters beside you. Unfortunately, with only one pre-release code and no couch co-op available, I had no chance to review multiplayer to see if levels balance better with two or more people.
Also, on certain levels, AI targets will spawn in burning rooms or immediately step on electrified traps — and they'll just stand there, health depleting, until you rush directly to them. Muse Games designed its AI to either be uselessly panicky or completely distracted by their phones even when dying. I'm sure that's meant as a funny commentary, but it is a bit ridiculous to rush to save bots that don't care if they burn alive.
Once an AI dies, you may want to start over to go for a perfect run, but there's no restart option, so you have to go back to the main map to reenter a level. This wouldn't be so bad except that, sporadically, Embr had aggravatingly slow loading times. At best levels took only 30 seconds to a minute to load; at worst, they would take upwards of 3-6 minutes, per reload. I started reading a book to pass the time.
Once you boot back into a level, you'll find your biggest threat isn't fire or electric traps: it's bad collision and physics. I can't count the number of times I tried climbing up or down a ladder, only to fall off the side. Walking into objects would make them clip into walls, bounce back out and slam into you, dealing damage. I frequently got stuck inside of crates or window sills I was trying to jump over. Items I picked up had a life of their own and were difficult to hold onto. All together, I felt unnecessarily frustrated platforming through levels, and took much more fall damage than fire damage.
Finally, the twist of evil Canadians trapping poor gig workers in Saw-like traps because they can't compete with American companies while providing worker benefits was weird enough to be funny in the moment. But considering all the marketing about Embr being about a "hypercapitalist" world, it's odd that the game doesn't focus much on politics or capitalism except for these missions, which focus instead on socialists as polite mass murderers. I'm curious where future missions will take this story, but I'm less than optimistic that Muse Games' "satire" will go beyond absurdity.
Sign up for embr today? Yes, with a caveat
Muse Games plans to exit Early Access and fully publish Embr in May 2021, and will release new gadgets, campaign missions, and game modes during this time. Embr already has decent depth for a $20 game, and I'm eagerly anticipating more encounters with the antagonist and new maps to explore. However, I must admit that as a single-player experience, Embr ended up being more stressful than enjoyable at times.
I do recommend you give this a try, but only if you can find some friends to buy it. Teaming up with other firefighters to rush through houses and rescue all the phone-obsessed idiots and their giant stacks of cash would undoubtedly make the overall experience more enjoyable. At least so you can laugh with someone when a ladder glitches through a wall before flinging you across the map.
We may earn a commission for purchases using our links. Learn more.