Embr casts the player in the role of a Respondr, utilising the Embr app on their phone to locate fires and do a spot of firefighting. If this premise informs us of anything, it’s that development studio Muse Games have an agenda against the letter ‘e’. As do I. In fact, if I had my way, thn this whol sntanc wouldn’t hav a singl ‘e’ in it.
Now on both Steam and Stadia Early Access, Embr is an FPS, though this is less First Person Shooter and more of a First Person Squirter, as it were. You and up to three pals will be sent into a burning building to douse fires, rescue dim-witted civilians and solve simple puzzles – all before the timer runs out and the building collapses into cinders. The frantic action isn’t depicted as realistic simulation though. This is firefighting seen through the prism of co-op party game madness.
Starting off with little more than a water pistol, an axe to chop down doors and a collapsible ladder to scale walls, your Respondr must climb their way up to the peak of the rickety Embr corporate mountain. They’ll do that by rescuing civilians and getting paid, buying better equipment and unlocking trickier missions.
Action is frantic and fast paced, and with missions lasting no more than ten minutes they certainly don’t overstay their welcome. It’s a game that, despite its comic and cartoony aesthetics, is surprisingly exciting. You can’t put out the fire entirely, only temporarily douse it, so you’ll be constantly managing the flames flickering all around you as you desperately try to rescue the last few civilians from certain doom.
Those civilians certainly don’t make it easy for you. You’ll find them stuck on top of buildings, trapped behind a sea of electrical fire or – more likely – sat on the bog playing on their phone, entirely oblivious of the flame-grilled death all around them. It’s vital to work as a team, splitting your resources in order to rescue as many people as possible to reach the mission’s quota. In a nice touch, the timer can be extended by putting out fires, so giving members of your team actual firefighting duties whilst others get to rescuing can be a surprisingly effective tactic. For what could easily be dismissed as a silly mad-cap actioner, there’s a lot of freedom for strategic problem solving here as well
There’s a ton of tools at your disposal, each of which can be comprehensively upgraded. Some of these items really help change your approach to beating a level. Auto-Sprinklers can be set up in hotspots to fight the fire before it can take hold, whilst teammates can set up a sequence of precarious ladders to climb even the highest building. It’s fun, and thanks to the physics, things become even more fun when everything inevitably goes wrong, when the sprinkler system is accidentally knocked into the ladders sending everyone plummeting to the ground – cursing and laughing all the way.
There are far too many tools which are utterly useless right now, though. A water slide proves impossibly fussy to set-up and so simply goes unused, and the same goes for transportable trampolines. Throwing yourself from the top of a tower to bounce up to another building would be great, but at this stage of Early Access, it doesn’t work as intended.
I can forgive all of this thanks to the throwing axe that I upgraded so that it would returned to my grasp like a boomerang. Oh, and it was a flaming throwing axe. It’s not the best idea for a firefighter to have a flaming anything, but it made me feel like Thor and that’s fine by me.
Overall, Embr is a fairly messy game right now. You can be hurt by both flames and electricity, but the game is a little woolly on what is a safe distance. There’s also, as you might expect at this stage of development, a ton of hilarious and/or frustrating glitches to contend with.
Towards the end of one level, the game randomly chose to shoot my avatar from one end of the map to the other. Like a boulder on a trebuchet, my fire fighter was catapulted high in the sky before splatting to his squishy death on the ground. Then there was the time I tried to set up a water slide, it levitated in front of my eyes, twitching like a marionette, and then it flew flew off to the horizon like a UFO zooming back to its home planet. I never saw that water slide again, I just hope, wherever he is, that he’s happy.
But all that glitchy silliness is to be expected in Early Access and, when you can share the shenanigans with your friends, can be part of the enjoyment. Do I want them to be there when the game gets its full release next year? No. Will it put me off playing the game until then? No, it won’t.
My only remaining concern with Embr is purely personal and of an ethical nature, so feel free to ignore it as you will. It sits uncomfortably with me the fact that you can leave people to burn to death. In other comparable party co-op games like Get Packed, Moving Out and Overcooked, the player is doing nothing more risky than potentially scuffing up a chaise lounge or burning a soup. By choosing firefighting as their theme, Muse Games have based their game around an profession with very serious real world connotations.
People lose their loved ones to fires and firefighters risk their lives to stop that from happening. Depicting a firefighting game in such a cartoony, kid friendly and slapstick manner is fine, but being able to kill innocent civilians’ feels a bit off. You can inadvertently throw civilians off buildings, their bodies instantly reduced to a grinning skeleton on landing, and you can pass a mission whilst leaving civilians to burn to death. On one occasion a client choose to give me three stars because ‘you left my uncle behind’.
I don’t know what the answer is to this, but tonally it doesn’t fit and it’s something I found myself reflecting on during my time with Embr. Take that as you will. Otherwise Embr is shaping up to be a promising and unique multiplayer game, something that Stadia surely needs as it tries to find an identity in a jam-packed marketplace.