Hunted: The Demon’s Forge
When examining some aspects of Hunted: The Demon’s Forge on paper, one might expect the game to be pretty mediocre, if not outright bad. You’ve got two seemingly generic fantasy hero archetypes (a scantily clad elf ranger and beefy human warrior), a simplistic, overarching plotline and gameplay that has you wading through the same (or very similar) enemies throughout most of the campaign. Sounds dire, right? It’s not. Impressively, developer InXile Entertainment has taken some ostensibly bland elements, added a truckload of unique and carefully-crafted features and fused it all together with such skill, clarity and, well, heart, one can’t help but be impressed with the resulting outcome.
So what type of game is Hunted, exactly? The answer: Gears of War in a fantasy setting. That may be grossly over-generalized and more than a bit misleading, but there are certainly some similarities between Epic’s popular series and this game, including a third-person viewpoint and a heavy emphasis on hopping from cover to cover (sprinting is even handled in classic Gears low follow cam style). Hunted differentiates from that game, though, by adding a heavy dose of melee combat and a skill-up system that allows the heroes to learn weapon skills, upgrade abilities, and unleash devastating magical attacks. It’s not incredibly deep, but there’s enough RPG-esque character-building here to give players a good sense of progression and to keep that shiny carrot enticing enough to pursue.
Hardcore RPG enthusiasts may be disappointed to know that you can’t actually create your character from scratch in Hunted, though this ends up being for the best, as one of the game’s top features is the characterization of its two protagonists – Caddoc and E’lara. As mentioned above, at first glance these two heroes appear to be bland fantasy character archetypes, but in reality they are anything but. Yes, E’lara is a bow-wielding, dead-eye of an elf. She is also, however, bull-headed, brash and constantly itching to leap headfirst into any fray. Caddoc, despite being the warrior, is much more deliberate, sheepish, and unnerved by some of the more freakish creatures the two encounter on their trip into the depths of Kala Moor. The constant banter between these very different personalities is clever, engaging, and never juvenile (a rarity in this industry); InXile has built characters who are real people with real personalities, replete with emotional baggage and unique peculiarities.
The overarching plot that drives Caddoc and E’lara’s quest is much more banal than the intricacies of their personalities and resulting interaction, but it serves its purpose – to propel the characters through the game’s many linear environments towards a satisfying and memorable climax. The decaying world presented here is notably similar to Dragon Age’s Ferelden – bleak, grime-smudged, blood-caked and rife with suffering. Painted overwhelmingly in muted shades of slate gray and brown, the game’s environments could hardly be considered eye-candy, though this was clearly the developers’ intention. Technically and artistically, the environments are complex, detailed and organic, and the various ancient ruins, razed towns and cavernous underground lairs that Caddoc and E’lara find themselves traversing add much to the game’s predominately stygian and foreboding atmosphere.
The enemy hordes, too, are effectively creepy and aberrant, coming in sizes ranging from your run-of-the-mill, Middle Earth-style orcs (or wargar, as the game calls them) to gargantuan arachnid beasts and even dragons. Here the game breaks away from Dragon Age’s look and theme, however, by infusing the wargar, minotaurs and other enemies with an almost Clive Barker-esque grotesqueness. Throughout their journey, Caddoc and E’lara will hack and skewer their way through wave after wave of these grotesque beasties, with often quite some time between rousing boss battles and encounters with new enemy types. This repetition could have been detrimental if the combat mechanics weren’t as solid as they are, but, thankfully, taking out cannon-fodder enemies like wargar and skeletons is quite fun, especially when playing cooperatively.
And that’s where the game truly shines. Clearly built from the ground up with co-op in mind, every puzzle, boss battle and set-piece is made that much better when tackled with another person. Because the game is designed so each character balances out the others’ weaknesses in combat, simply rushing into battle with little strategic thought or or situational awareness will usually end up with both players overwhelmed. It must be said, picking off crossbow-wielding wargar and other long-range threats as E’lara while a buddy-controlled Caddoc tears into creatures rushing your position can be one of the most frantic and gratifying co-op experiences on the Xbox 360. Factor in great co-op centric abilities like Arctic Arrow (E’lara freezes enemies and Caddoc shatters them) and Wind of Wrath (Caddoc raises enemies off the ground and E’lara pelts them with arrows) and it becomes obvious – this is a must-purchase game for fans of cooperative play.
Hunted is not without its flaws, however, though none are particularly severe. First off, the puzzles in the game are easy. Most simply involve pushing some faux walls or pillars around, stepping on pressure plates or lighting braziers with fire arrows. The brooding, atmospheric environments are generally compelling enough to keep things interesting, even when running back and forth between strategically placed piles of burning wood and unlit braziers, but additional complexity and variation would have given the puzzles some much needed oomph. Also disappointing is the game’s lack of drop-in and drop-out co-op functionality; it’s certainly not fun being forced to start at the beginning of a level segment just because your friend has to leave the session. There are some other minor quirks, such as slightly-too-accurate enemy archers and some awkward gesturing animations during cut-scenes, but overall, Hunted rises above these niggles and remains a decidedly excellent game experience throughout.
With a dearth of comparable games on the market, a title like Hunted stands out simply due to its unique, cooperative take on the third-person action/adventure genre. Thankfully, InXile’s offering deserves your attention for far more than just its focus on co-op; this is a well-crafted, engaging adventure with some great wargar-skewering action and compelling interaction between its two protagonists. Add in an epic, bombastic orchestral score by Kevin Riepl (he also worked on Gears of War) and a surprisingly robust and easy-to-use level creation tool and you have one of the better games to be released so far in 2011. Highly Recommended.