(Xbox 360 Review) Hunted: The Demon’s Forge

Developer: inXile Entertainment
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: Action / Adventure
Players: 1-2
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 6 = Fair

Being muscle for hire is never easy. Whether you’re dealing with giant spiders, haunted tombs, or stingy mayors, there’s always something to worry about. As the elf archer E’lara and human fighter Caddoc, you’ll be hired by the ethereal adventurer Seraphine to track down and rescue her physical form. There’s a small problem, though: between her and them lies the sprawling battleground where the Wargar (re: orcs) and their allies wage a bitter war against mankind. As the two make their way through besieged cities and forest ruins, they will have to rescue prisoners, seek advice from the dead, and gather crystals to gain strength. And kill Wargar. Lots and lots of Wargar.

Despite the fact that E’lara and Caddoc look absolutely ridiculous (and uncomfortable) in their outfits cribbed from the doodles of a nine-year-old Boris Vallejo, consisting of tight pants and a few leather straps, the two actually make a decent pair. They trade barbs about their age (E’lara being far older but Caddoc looking the part), skill, and yes, even their gear. The camaraderie comes across as genuine, and there are a few chuckles to be had. Sure they can be a bit thick—nothing about Seraphine indicates that their dealings will end well—but they do a good job of injecting some personality into a dreary hack-and-slasher.

The two also represent different styles of play. E’lara’s focus on long-range combat gives the game a third-person shooter feel, while Caddock’s bruiser style is straight out of a brawler. The idea of a Gears of War-style action title worked into the mold of a dungeon crawler is undoubtedly attractive, and the developer’s efforts do indeed pay out severalfold whenever everything clicks. It’s a shame there isn’t more clicking.

Hunted shines whenever the pair truly complement each another. With E’lara acting as the support class, holding back reinforcements and thinning the ranks as Caddoc serves as the tank to run in and mix things up. If Caddoc is hard pressed and E’lara is out of arrows, then she can rush out from behind cover to close with her lengthy light sword to scatter the horde; alternatively, he can utilize his slow but powerful crossbow to offer assistance with pesky snipers. For this to work properly, not only do the areas have to be designed in such a way that each character can play their part effectively, with enough objects for cover as well as room to maneuver, but also that the enemy types and composition of enemy waves allow for each to shine. It’s not an easy act to maintain, and unfortunately, that’s the case throughout much of the adventure.

At times, it seems as though the game forgets what the characters are supposed to be doing. It’s nigh impossible to take any sort of tactical approach to most fights because of kamikaze attacks and explosive arrows negating what use cover might provide. The covering system itself is a bit slapdash, with some objects not technically being ‘cover’ objects, despite appearances to the contrary, and others having a nasty surprise: an invisible barrier around them that blocks arrows from passing. The very things that need to be on point for the mixture to work often seem to work in consort to do the exact opposite.

Another problem is E’lara and Caddoc themselves—they end up being too similar. Granted, each having access to a secondary weapon makes sense, but it’s their sharing of the same three element-based spells that really blurs the line between the two. Each character has three spells and three skills, with each spell and skill having three levels of power and three mini upgrades for the first two levels. The ‘points’ to allocate in this case are crystals that are found either whole or in shards off of the corpses of enemies, with waypoints of sorts at set points offering obelisks to switch between characters and portals to trade in crystals. Despite sounding like a healthy leveling system, it’s quite limited. The spells—lightning, fire, and sigil of pain—and skills are all tied to the directional pad, leaving some, including less costly but still effective weaker versions, by the wayside. The skills are a joy to use, though, with E’lara spitting out explosive and freezing arrows while Caddoc lifts enemies into the air with a whirlwind and breaks his shield over their faces with a powerful charge. Spells are doubly effective as they can be both directed at enemies and charged to buff characters, but even though they are very powerful, I tended to stick with the abilities just to emphasize each of their roles.

Spells and skills are actually only one component of the leveling system; the other component is their talents. Talents enhance basic stats and abilities, from increasing the amount of health vials that can be carried to allowing them to hold two primary weapons. Unlike spells and skills, talents are only leveled through fulfilling a variety of objectives. Many of these can be completed simply by going through the game, such as killing enemies with a certain weapon type, finding a set amount of hidden locations, and reviving one another. While it’s a little irksome to have to wait to stock up on mana vials or hold more arrows, I found the progression system to be fairly natural and a good fit for the game.

While that gamble paid off, others didn’t. One of the key elements of a dungeon crawler, or action role-playing games in general, is killer loot. Exotic weapons of various types and capabilities are a great hook to keep playing and brave dangerous situations, but what Hunted offers is a lot of the same. A handful of weapon types offer very little variety, with differentiating factors being attack speed, strength, and a possible enchantment; also, a rage count for Caddoc, who can unleash stronger attacks once enough has built up. Enchanted weapons are often not worth keeping as their powered attacks are random and limited, and their base stats often inferior to most else stored in surrounding weapon racks. What really struck me was the ambiguity, whether it was the vague descriptions (what is “Fast” in relation to “Slow”? Two shots for one?) or the near-identical icons for E’lara’s bows. A streamlined approach to equipment stats is understandable given the pace and style of game, but at least make the drops exciting—or at least the elite items worth striving for. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue if there were shops, but there aren’t; gold is only being stored, not spent. The only thing the coins in the game are good for is unlocking new enemies and features in the game’s map editor, the Crucible.

Having to acquire gold to unlock Crucible items is a double whammy. First, there goes the characters’ motivation; they can’t stop talking about riches, but they don’t actually do anything with them. And with their motivation went some of mine, as amassing wealth for powerful items is an integral part of my interaction with a game’s world. It also imposes a needless restriction on one of the game’s main features, and for no good reason. You just braved a massive skeleton warrior’s wrath for a chest of gold. Have fun not spending it.

For a game based around a hard-fighting pair of warriors, the game suitably supports several ways to play with friends: Live, system link, and split screen. Crucible maps, several of which designed by inXile come pre-installed, can be created and shared with others, offering a few extra hours of play after the campaign has been finished. The actual process is done with a few icons and is pretty simple, though most of work was modest (to be very kind to myself). Several waves of enemy type and strength can be set, as well as a theme, penalties, perks, and gear. I wouldn’t want to challenge the pros with my creation, but thankfully, there plenty of much better player-made maps ready to download. The inXile maps are largely good as well, and they include a few grueling marathon maps that last for quite a while.

For those wanting to experience the story together, online games use a negotiation system. What this entails is players creating a persona that allows them to preconfigure their optimal experience by setting preferred character, level, and difficulty. Once a player has been found, this can be further tweaked to sign off on whatever the other person has in mind. The latter is actually the preferred method as it is extremely difficult to get a solid connection, so once you link up with another player, you’re ready to accept whatever terms they are offering just to play. This will actually be a sticking point for many people because the ratio of disconnects to games played is pretty bad. I’m not sure what’s going on, but it is way too difficult to get in a game; disconnects were far more common for me than connects.

The system link option is likely to be the best solution as split screen had problems of its own. A full screen is absolutely crucial because of the game’s heavy use of earth tones and the muddy textures. Trying to see a brown Wargar against gray and brown bricks is a pain when the view is both halved horizontally and limited vertically by black bars on either side of the screen. On top of that, there are some weird tweaks to the menu system. In all multiplayer modes, like single player, both characters must engage the portal to level up their spells and skills. In online multiplayer, each player can then allocate their character’s crystals, but in split screen, the player who initiated contact with the portal has sole control of upgrading both characters. On the flip side, when defeated, it was the second player who had to give the okay to exit out. And needless to say, the game’s many performance issues, including frequent object pop in, half-loaded textures, and slowdown in larger battles, are made worse when everything is doubled up—not to mention the time I found myself under a floor I wasn’t supposed to be under.

Poor Live performance is the biggest bummer about Hunted, because it’s the co-op experience that really brings the game to life. Whenever you and a friend break from the game’s linear path to explore one of the handful of side areas, there is a real sense of excitement and danger as the two of you slowly make your way down winding stairs, ready to pounce on the first thing that makes a sound. For those who don’t play online or prefer playing solo, the AI is more than capable of handling itself and will perform many of the same actions as a player-controlled character.

The rudimentary puzzles are not only easy to figure out, but a handy focus button will also command AI partners (or give a friendly reminder to other players) to stand on a pressure plate, fire off a lit arrow, help open a door, etc. Although some small things, like having to manually pick up coins amidst other loot (and accidently dropping a nice shield which is then immediately scooped up by your partner—Caddoc!), can cause some confusion as you’re hustling about, it’s also great to be tossed a regen vial in the nick of time. The combat system itself is satisfying, though greater interplay between the two’s skills would’ve been nice; there are only really one or two skills that work well together, and it’s awesome when they do. A few more options would’ve been nice as well, possibly a more varied move set or, heck, a way to get out of one of the enemy’s nasty life-draining four-hit combos. Maybe next time.

Hunted: The Demon’s Forge
comes close to being a great game, and the glimpses of what could be, as well as the character interaction and crunchy combat system, are enticing enough to warrant a rental. However, its lack of polish, whether it’s entire objects appearing and disappearing; getting stuck in objects; a mishmash design that fails to capitalize on the hybrid approach; and poor online performance, a particularly serious blow, make Hunted more of an interesting idea than an interesting game.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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