REVIEWS -- Hunted: The Demon's Forge -- PC
Clumsy but has potential
by Tim White
Fun factor: Average
Worth to: Rent
Hunted: The Demon’s Forge is a decent all-night marathon choice for a pair of dungeon-crawl enthusiasts, but falls prey to its own demons far too often.
I thought Hunted would be much more of an RPG than it really is. It’s actually more of a cooperative action-adventure in a fantasy setting, which is fine; the problem is that it seems to think it’s an RPG. It uses some very basic skill trees and level-gain mechanics, but executes them in ways that are generally sloppy, uninteresting or unnecessary. However, if you’re a fan of co-op games, Hunted is at least solid enough to keep you and a friend glued to the couch for a night or two. I suspect many people will find it’s more the jostling and joking with your buddy than the game itself that generates much of the enjoyment, but nonetheless, I’d recommend it for at least a rental.
Hunted’s not-really-heroes, Caddoc and E’lara, feel very much like a Lara Croft/Geralt of Rivia duo, and while their relationship is underdeveloped from a narrative point of view, it remains the driving force behind the story. Mercenaries with little on their minds other than the next pouch of gold, the duo finds itself on a job like any other, until ever-curious E’lara touches a super-dangerous artifact soon revealed as a Death Stone. Out pops a phantasmal woman in desperate need of some sun, who advises the pair that she’s a real person being held captive somewhere, and she needs the help of two brave heroes to free her. She apparently meant for Caddoc to touch the ancient stone, but since E’lara (an elf) did it, something got screwed up and now they pretty much have no choice but to accept the ghost’s quest, or something vaguely bad will happen. As eye-rolling as this setup is, it does get better, particularly in the game’s final moments, just before it crashes right back into Mediocre-town.
It is soon revealed that the hilariously-named Wargar, a race of nasty monsters that used to be human at some point, are (shockingly) up to no good. Entire villages of people are disappearing, being enslaved and transported to a menacing citadel far off in the distance. Their endgame isn’t immediately clear, but finally persuaded by the promise of riches, Caddoc and E’lara set off to get to the bottom of it, slaying a path through waves of alarmingly numerous bad guys. During the first boss battle, a mysterious substance known as Sleg makes its first appearance. Made of horrifically evil ingredients, Sleg is a silver liquid which, upon consumption, grants the imbiber near-invincibility, along with super-speed and strength. For a limited time, of course. Astute gamers will want to pay attention whenever the substance is mentioned; valuable clues can be garnered which will aid in understanding what’s going on.
Hunted features three possible endings – two “bad” and one “good” – but they all suck. They’re short, and while the good ending is less terrible, it still leaves you feeling ripped off. All three non-endings leave you muttering, “I spent ten hours carving my way through hell for that?” You feel even worse when you realize that they actually pulled a pretty clever plot twist near the end, and then crushed it, tore it in half and threw it out the window, presumably while cackling maniacally at your obvious incredulity.
First of all, Hunted more or less has to be played with a real, live partner. Not only are most games more fun this way, but the partner AI in single player is so bad you’ll begin to suspect you’ve accidentally selected some sort of challenge mode where your partner is secretly a traitor. And by secretly, I mean not at all secretly. If you enjoy being overrun by demon-spiders while your “friend” watches with a blank stare, or getting shot in the back of the head, or ignored when you need healing, then single player is the mode for you.
Gamers who typically prefer ranged combat will want to pair up with the arrow-slinging E’lara, while those who like to be knee-deep in the entrails of their foes will find more in common with Caddoc’s sword and shield. While E’lara is the primary shooter, she also has a sword and shield, though she isn’t as good in melee as Caddoc is – the reverse, of course, is also true. Nonetheless, this game is much easier if you practice and become comfortable with your character’s secondary combat mode, for there are situations where one tactic or the other just won’t cut it. Being skilled in both areas really helps to offset the sometimes insane shortage of supplies which occurs as a result of the sadistically inconsistent algorithm that governs potion drop rates. While some degree of cross-classing is possible, both characters do have a few unique abilities. E’lara can light her arrows on fire to provide a light source or ignite torches from afar, while steroid-abusing Caddoc can push certain walls or barriers to reveal hidden areas.
In addition to basic attacks, there are also six additional skills which can be unlocked and upgraded using crystals collected throughout each of six chapters. Three magic spells – one of which is of questionable utility even at high levels – are common to both characters. Elara’s battle abilities revolve around granting explosive, freezing or armor-piercing properties to her arrows, while Caddoc can dash, rage, or drop a whirlwind to suspend foes helplessly in the air. Only having six abilities makes your suite of options feel very small, particularly in light of how long the campaign is, but there is a silver lining. The skills are designed to be used cooperatively – any enemy suspended in Caddoc’s whirlwind takes triple damage from E’lara’s arrows, for example. You can also “charge” your partner with any of the three spells, granting them a short burst of insane extra power.
Certain types of enemies are nigh impossible to take down without well-timed cooperative tactics, leading to a strong sense of satisfaction upon felling a tough foe with good teamwork – at least initially. As praiseworthy as this concept is, the options available for implementing it are way too limited. By the midpoint of the game, you’ll be stifling yawns even as never-before-seen enemies make their entrances, because there are only a handful of tactics in existence. It’s simply a matter of quickly cycling through your abilities to see which one does more damage than the others, then spamming that button for a bit. This lack of variety robs every encounter of suspense or urgency, not to mention the general aura of boredom spawned by already having access to every ability the game has to offer within two hours. As overdone as skill trees are, such a solution would have been a vastly superior option in terms of feeling like you actually have a choice regarding how to resolve a battle.
Hunted starts with a good idea when it comes to establishing different roles for the two characters, but in some cases the divide is too wide. E’lara is meant to take down enemies from a distance while Caddoc intercepts the ones that get too close – that’s just good tactical sense. However, while most of the everyday baddies can be dispatched with equal efficacy by either character, there are some archetypes designed to be handled by one player or the other. This sounds cool on paper, until you notice that “weak vs. x” actually translates to “instantly killed by x.” There is a berserker-type enemy which, if he gets within melee range of E’lara, unleashes an un-blockable, un-dodgeable, unbreakable 782-hit combo which creates a good opportunity to go make popcorn while he wails on your corpse. On the same note, if E’lara fails to take down a minotaur before it gets close to Caddoc, it will take a while to scrape him off the wall. I like the idea of encouraging teamwork by balancing out your strengths and weaknesses, but it’s taken way too far by assigning different flavors of Kryptonite to each player.
In terms of actual button-mashing, Caddoc is much less annoying to play than E’lara. One button blocks with your shield, another attacks, and a third to dodge and dive. It’s simple enough – just a matter of practice and timing. Shooting, however, is another bag of Wargars entirely. E’lara can find three types of bows: fast, medium and slow, which refer to shooting speed and damage. As you might infer, slower bows tend to be more powerful. Each type of bow has a different aiming cursor, which is a nifty way to remember what you have equipped; the squinting doesn’t start until it’s time to fire it. Shooting while the cursor is over an enemy, but yellow in color, means you may or may not hit it (usually dependent on range). Once the cursor turns red, it’s supposed to mean a guaranteed hit, and it does. Sometimes.
Like many gamers, I love headshots. I shoot things in the head all the time; there’s even a section on my resumé for it. Indeed, I spent the entire first chapter of Hunted snapping off crazy long-range shots Steven Seagal would be proud of. As I progressed further, though, I began to come across sections where Hunted decided I was doing far too well, and it was time to knock me down a few pegs by refusing to acknowledge even point-blank, red cursor, center-mass flurries of arrows. My friend complained of the same phenomenon when shooting during the same sections, and the fact that it only occurs during certain parts of certain chapters led me to include it in this section of the review, rather than paint it as a technical issue. I don’t know why this happens, but it’s ludicrously irritating. When you notice it, just break out your sword and shield and block until Caddoc kills everything. Aside from the selective targeting issue, the controls are otherwise intuitive and responsive, except for an occasional tendency to accidentally enter or exit cover when you weren’t intending to.
The one RPG element that Hunted actually does quite well is the passive stat-upgrading system. Completing certain tasks, like killing a certain number of enemies or healing your partner, increases a relevant stat or ability. Some of them are common to both characters, others are specialized, but all in all it’s a fun, unobtrusive way to feel like you’re becoming more powerful, especially in light of how the active spells and skills fail to scratch that particular itch.
Hunted makes (poor) use of a mechanic which has a place in similar games, but not here: executions. Upon severely injuring an enemy, you can aim at them and tap a button to initiate a brutal finishing move. There are two problems with this: first, it’s a royal pain trying to pull off at range, and two, it sets up several seconds of slow-mo, which you can’t cancel or back out of. This means your partner may be screaming for your help while feverishly hacking away at the hellspawn pressing in all around him, to which you respond “Hang on, I’m being awesome.” Of course, you don’t have to use the execution moves – the problem is, sometimes you end up doing it by accident. The button to trigger executions is also the same one that picks things up and heals your partner, so trying to do either one of these things may find you instead abandoning the task in favor of riddling a guy who’s already dead with sixteen metric tons of arrows. The icing on this particular fail cake is the fact that there is one button on the controller which, for Caddoc, has only one infrequently used function, and for E’lara, no function at all. Why not map executions to that?
Healing and reviving happen via potions, which initially seems just dandy – until you stop finding them. Health and mana potions do pretty much what you would think they do, but there are two problems: you can only carry one of each (upgradeable to three, which is still woefully inadequate on harder difficulties), and whatever complex formula dictates your odds of finding them is designed specifically to turn you into a pessimist. When your health is full and your supplies well stocked, every jar you smash and Wargar you kill drops a potion. Conversely, when you’re limping along, leaving an impossible trail of blood everywhere you go, the game nonchalantly gives you anything and everything you absolutely do not need. Because I’m petty, I actually kept track for a while. During one sequence when my health and mana were both under 20%, and I had no reserves of any kind, the random number generator spit out six bows, eleven quivers of arrows, twenty-two pouches of gold, and a whole boatload of empty chests and boxes. Oh, and zero potions. Only after I finally clawed my way back up to full health did it happily leave me chest-deep in a sea of healing items. The lesson here is “don’t get hit.”
If your partner fails to apply that lesson and goes down, you can chuck a resurrection vial at them from up to a reasonable distance away. This is a good design choice; it encourages you to stay reasonably close to your partner, but if they’re surrounded by enemies when they go down, you can still help them out without exposing yourself to additional danger. Even if you don’t have any rez vials, if your downed friend does, you can take theirs and use them to get your buddy up and walking again. Stupidly, you can’t trade health or mana potions. “I feel great; I even have a few extra potions. What? You’re blacking out? Here, have a decanter of go f*** yourself.”
In the technical department, Hunted doesn’t fail spectacularly, but it doesn’t merit any awards, either. I honestly don’t remember the music at all, which at least means it wasn’t bad, but it couldn’t have been outstanding. Caddoc and E’lara trade good-natured jabs at one another, and while their banter is entertaining, the voices behind it are merely average. Bizarrely, E’lara speaks in a more or less modern tone and vernacular, while Caddoc drifts into a more “thee and thou” manner. He doesn’t actually say those things, but his manner of speech is jarringly out of place in contrast to E’lara’s. The various NPC’s you rescue, however, are so annoying in their whiny, repetitive, C-list voices that I want to drop-kick them into the nearest minotaur nest. Battle sounds are okay for the most part, but the twang of E’lara’s bow can become grating. Not because it’s a bad sound effect – it’s actually pretty appropriate – but you just hear it so much. It’s just the nature of the game; there are so many enemies that you end up firing like a medieval Gatling gun. The only suggestion I could make would be to perhaps have made it quieter, so it can fade into the ambient noise a little better.
Graphically speaking, Hunted looks like it came out in 2006. It’s not awful, just dated. Who knows, maybe the relatively unheard of developers are working with older technology for budget reasons. That’s entirely possible, but it doesn’t change the fact that nothing in Hunted is very pleasing to look at. The worst ocular offender is the gamma. Much of the game takes place in dungeons so black you literally may not even realize your TV is on if you don’t have a light source. Even if you do, the illumination provided by E’lara’s fire arrows or torches is weak and has a very small radius, leaving you squinting for hours at a time. The only viable solution is to crank the brightness way up, which leaves everything looking washed out and pallid. Emerging into daylight necessitates immediately pausing to tone the brightness down again, resulting in spending way too much time in the menu screwing around with the gamma.
There aren’t a ton of bugs, but the ones that do surface are fairly bad. Potions often fall through the floor or onto ledges literally six inches high, but for some reason you can’t cross that insurmountable height barrier to claim them. Invisible walls abound – not a glitch, but it’s 2011; we certainly have more organic, less stupid ways of saying “you can’t go there.” Checkpoints are also subject to mood swings; dying may put you five or ten minutes back, but this time, entering a room will trigger an auto-save that didn’t happen last time. On a related note, there are areas you can’t return to once you’ve passed a certain point. This wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal if it were a tall cliff you can’t climb, but it isn’t a cliff, it’s a door. One I just opened two seconds ago, actually. Let me go back, if you have any empathy at all. Again, not a glitch, but it’s not 1997 either.
Last on the list of controller-tossing irritations is something that really got my hackles up. Most gamers talk trash to one another or to the game itself, and I’m no exception to this rule. It’s usually in good fun and I’m not the type of person to scream at video games, but Hunted does one thing that made my blood boil. During most boss battles, the boss is accompanied by waves and waves of regular dudes. Most bosses are also fairly tough, so you burn through your reserves of potions pretty quickly. One person usually hammers away at the boss while the other handles crowd control, and this approach works well. The boss dies, and you get a cutscene. Caddoc and E’lara are both gravely injured, and the little doodads on their belts that hold potions now hold nothing at all. Oh, and all those dudes you killed – they all dropped an absolute avalanche of potions, money and equipment. Even during the cutscene, it’s all glittering away back there. Our heroes exchange witty one-liners, frantically bandage their mortal wounds, and jump into the pit of doom. Are you kidding me, Hunted? Are you absolutely, completely out of your digital gourd? I’m so close to death I can’t even blink. A violent sneeze will rend my insides asunder, and my head may just come off entirely. There is an ocean of life-saving panacea six feet away, and you are laughing in my battered, hemorrhaging face while cutscene-ing me to the next area. I hate you so, so much.
Hunted screws up a lot, but it’s not a lost cause. If it gets its act together, goes to study group every day, and stops doing drugs, the sequel could finally fulfill all that wasted potential. On single-player, it’s a nightmarish mess of confusion and archaic design. But if you have a friend who will play it with you, it can be partially redeemed. Games like this are difficult to review, because the two modes – awful AI or actual human partner- can vary so widely. Under the right circumstances, Hunted can really shine, as long as you know what to expect and how to deal with it. It can be frustrating, sometimes even a little boring, but with a good pal and some snacks, it can be charming enough to be worth it.
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: inXile Entertainment
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: May 31, 2011
Review Date: 22-06-2011
Numbers of Players: 1-2
Players Online: 2
Notes: Leaderboards, Downloadable Content
Some awkward movements and ugly environments seem more reminiscent of an Xbox 360 launch title than a game released in 2011.
Hunted plays like a weird hybrid of Gears of War and Resident Evil 5, but tries too hard in blending different styles; the result is a mash-up that, while a little off-putting, gets the job done well enough. Further demerits for limited character development options and repetitive combat.
Glitches are present, checkpoints are inconsistent, and some aspects of design just make so little sense that you have to scratch your head in puzzlement. Radically unpredictable potion drop rates artificially increase the difficulty, but in a rage-quit inducing way as opposed to offering a real, creative challenge.
Caddoc and E’lara are voiced competently, if not excellently. NPC’s are thoroughly annoying and have limited dialog, and battle sound effects leave something to be desired. Music is at least enjoyable.
If you stick with it long enough to finish it once, you’ll probably get some enjoyment out of playing again as the other character, but don’t expect too much freshness. I doubt many people will play through three times.