Top positive review
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Lacks polish but an absolute blast with the right mindset
on October 17, 2011
Going into Hunted, I had no idea what to expect. I took the leap because it was on sale for $13 (well worth it) and, almost in a panic of preemptive buyer's remorse, I started combing through reviews after the fact. I was initially scared by reviews talking about glitches and unsatisfying gameplay, and how the levels are too linear. Then I read a review at GameCritics.com that compared the game to the old Capcom Dungeons & Dragons arcade beat-em-ups.
What an apt comparison! If you're looking for an RPG, Hunted is not for you. If you're looking for Gears of War with arrows, Hunted is not for you. However, if you can keep an open mind and are willing to try a unique mix of, let's say, Demon's Souls art design and cover-shooter gameplay, Hunted might scratch an itch you never knew you had.
It's actually a very hard game to describe because while it seems to borrow conventions from other games, it doesn't fall neatly into any one genre. But much like Capcom's Dungeons & Dragons, you are essentially on a linear path in a dark, Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy world and killing everything in your way. There is no "leveling-up," no items to purchase. There is loot and gold, but the former has only minor variances (high-end weapons are reserved for the end of the game's elaborate optional puzzles) and the latter is used only to unlock features in the game's largely extraneous map-building mode. That's right, if you're so inclined, you can create and download new maps (some of which have been designed by the game's developers) ala LittleBigPlanet, although by no means as cohesive or extensive in its sharing capabilities. It's also extremely hard to unlock content for said map builds (by the end of the game, I had only 50% of content unlocked). Unless you just REALLY like amorphous dungeons, you'll probably avoid the creation mode altogether.
There are also plenty of secrets, and collectible items in the form of gold, gemstones (used for upgrades), souls (which are quite well voice-acted and used in the same way modern FPS's use voice recordings to tell backstory), and prisoners, with trophies/achievements associated with each.
Let's get the bad out of the way, because as you might have discerned from umpteen other reviews, Hunted is by no means perfect. The lack of polish in the game is discernible, from ugly/pop-in textures to broken scripted moments (that may require a re-load, although that only occurred once for me in an optional dungeon) and dubious collision detection for environments and your A.I. partner. A.I. pathfinding is also a problem at times, although it never once caused me to get irreparably stuck (the A.I. partner teleports in to meet you at checkpoints) and this won't be a problem if you choose to go co-op.
However, the biggest possible detraction--and one that very well may be a deal breaker for you--is that playing as Caddoc, the sword-based character, is not a whole lot of fun. That is, both characters wield swords and shields and both characters can shoot arrows, but each of the two characters is geared toward one particular style of combat. Caddoc is the aforementioned, requisite "melee guy." Now, to be clear, this game isn't trying to be Conan (which was a similarly uneven beat-em-up, but more in the God of War vein and not particularly fun), but when one of your two gameplay options is not really that satisfying to control, it may turn off fantasy lovers who are eager to hack some Lord of the Rings-style monsters. You don't HAVE to play as Caddoc (although if you're playing co-op, one of you will obviously have to), but if you do, get prepared to be disappointed by some lame/unwieldy spells, unresponsive blocking, and floaty hit detection.
However, if you choose to play as Elara (and you can actually switch between both characters at several points within levels, although I never opted to switch after the prologue), the game can be an absolute blast. The skill trees are very limited (this isn't a real RPG), but once you get the powerful frost and fire arrow spells, you'll be afforded some of the most accessible and satisfying archery combat ever put into a video game. Nothing says "badass" like freezing a group of orcs ("wargars," whatever), having your partner float their frozen bodies in the air, and then blasting them all apart into a million pieces with one well-placed fire-arrow spell. Unlike Caddoc, Elara actually controls pretty well. There are cover aspects of the fights, which are sometimes necessary to utilize, and because of this you'll accidentally jump into cover when trying to run forward (much like Gears of War), but for the most part, she is nimble enough to take down giant minotaurs with her arrows while evading their charges. It's not quite a shooter, not quite Elder Scrolls archery, but somehow it just works really well. Plus, while auto-aiming is enabled by default (and works very smoothly), distance aiming takes actual skill.
While we're on the subject of gameplay and controls, I should note that there are "finishing" moves mixed into the combat that seem to pop up randomly. They're not particularly elegant in their execution, but thankfully you can just ignore them.
The last problem worth mentioning here is the game's ending, both in terms of final boss (which is awful) and ending. There are multiple endings (I won't spoil what factor alters the ending), but the "bad" endings are short throw-aways and the "good" ending is predictable and trite.
Here's the (very) good, aside from the aforementioned archery gameplay:
The art and enemy design is excellent. Each of the six chapters features rather varied terrain (not all of them take place in dungeons, although the second and sixth are decidedly dungeon-filled) and while the texture work is not particularly solid, the design of the levels themselves is excellent. Similarly, the enemies and bosses LOOK ferocious, and while there isn't great variety in enemy types, encounters and puzzles are mixed up enough to keep the game's pace brisk and the battles fun. Similarly, the music is fitting and well orchestrated. Voice acting is serviceable although by no means remarkable (on the level of, say, Heavenly Sword or Enslaved), but with the exception of stranded NPCs who are likely to repeat their woeful lines ad-nauseum, the voices never really grate.
Difficulty balance. On the medium difficulty setting, the game hits that perfect balance of tense without ever being frustrating. You probably won't die often because, as with Gears of War, your A.I. teammate can "revitalize" you (and at a distance, too--something Gears could learn from). At the same time, there will be moments when you'll be scrambling for health and magic potions in order to defeat a particularly nimble foe, and enemy damage is quite significant, especially against Elara.
The characters. The story is hit-and-miss, although there are parts that are particularly well scripted, especially in a moment two-thirds into the game when Caddoc and Elara must come to terms with their misinterpreted status as "heroes" and choose to do something unselfish. The villains are, again, trite and predictable, and you never really care about their motives for evil. However, the world itself is beautifully fleshed out by the aforementioned "souls" scattered about the levels. The protagonists are fitting stars, not because they do a notable job of defying fantasy stereotypes (they LOOK the part of a dark fantasy aimed at teenagers, and Caddoc even comments about Elara's "slutty" outfit at one point), but because their banter is interesting, diverse, and fun to listen to. Furthermore, I should note how refreshing it is that, while dressed in skimpy attire, neither protagonist is particularly sexualized. Their relationship is completely platonic without seeming cold, and while a love story wouldn't necessarily ruin a fantasy game, it's nice to see a male/female pairing based on amiability and respect rather than hormones. You get the sense that these are two old friends who have come to terms with the shallow lifestyle they've chosen, and they often support each other, albeit begrudgingly. They're not particularly three-dimensional characters but they're FUN without being obnoxious.
My favorite part of the game is the handful of puzzle dungeons spread throughout the chapters. They're a welcome departure from the otherwise linear levels and while the puzzles therein aren't any more devious than, say, those found in a Tomb Raider game, they're satisfying to solve. More than anything, each puzzle is elaborate without being time-consuming. It's as if someone plucked some of the best dungeons from Oblivion and stuck them in a linear beat-em-up. You don't HAVE to complete them (if you can find them, although I didn't find any of them particularly difficult to access), but they're so interesting that you'll want to, almost like the optional dungeons in Assassin's Creed 2 and Brotherhood.
Even if you don't choose to play through the elaborate side-dungeons, the linear parts still feature plenty of secrets. Some are painfully obvious (particularly when pointed out by the voices of departed souls) while others are pretty well hidden. It's not Return to Castle Wolfenstein or Quake-level devious, but they're fun to seek out.
Still with me? If you are, I know this is a lot to take in, but just know this: Hunted: The Demon's Forge may not be for everyone, but I'd be remiss if I didn't at least recommend that you TRY it. I had zero expectations going in and had a blast. If you're not expecting the next Elder Scrolls, or Dark Souls, or even Gears of War, you just might agree with me that Hunted is a pick for Diamond in the Rough, 2011.