Review: Hunted – The Demon’s Forge

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Throw the words “old school” into an RPG conversation and you might get a number of different answers depending on who is in the room with you. Visions of spreadsheets filled with statistics, inventory menus filled with +2 weapons, or a hack ‘n slash slog through deviously crafted dungeons rife with hidden horrors and HP draining traps are only a few that you might get.

And that’s what Hunted delivers – deep, mysterious ruins, hidden treasures, weapons, and plenty of monster fodder to wade through. Remembering my own time with Stonekeep on the PC, it was as if inXile had shaken loose the good bits from the games its founder, Brian Fargo, had made in the late 80s and distilled them through the Unreal Engine’s alchemy. What came out the other end, though, is slightly sweet with flawed grit.

The personalities of its lead characters are part of what works. Caddoc, the burly warrior-esque ground pounder is actually a smart, savvy veteran who carries himself like an experienced soldier. E’lara, the elven huntress equipped with her stereotypical bow and little else other than a few “strategically placed” leather straps, is the rash, explosives-loving slayer who prefers running in as opposed to sneaking about. The banter between the two, and the collected lore detailing the backdrop of Hunted’s world,  are probably the best things about the bare bones story.

Taking place in a grim fantasy world ravaged by an ancient war in the distant past, Hunted’s look is a mix of wonder and disappointment. The architecture and details worked into its crumbling, medieval downtown spaces and the darkened caverns deep beneath the ground hint at the fantastic, but the bland lighting, map seams into the void beyond, and invisible walls are just as obvious. It’s not the best looking of ravaged medieval, but it gets the point across.

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It’s also as linear as a string of rooms yet there is the occasional “hidden” room or forked passage leading to a puzzle area or a cache of ‘rare’ weapons and gold. There’s nothing wrong with the concept and the riddles sometimes tucked away in these places provide some interesting flavor, though the ease at which they could be solved made it so that was all they were there for. The ‘rare’ weapons, like most of what you will also find from smashing weapon racks, are randomized to keep you on your toes but were generally unexciting. Most of the rares were good for only the limited magical charges they usually came with to make them more dangerous, but I often already had something that worked just as well.

Hunted’s linearity also shoves you forward and makes it impossible to reuse doors or squeeze back through holes and narrow fissures, even if a cave-in or an explosion hasn’t closed them off. You just can’t go back so if you forget to smash a few vases or pick up a few potions, too bad. It’s worse when in-game cut scenes do the same thing after a huge battle. Instead of being allowed to wander around to pick up dropped gold or potions from the massive blitzkrieg that Caddoc and E’lara had managed to survive, it kicks you into the next area after the cut scene plays out like an impatient dungeon master determined to screw the players over.

Thanks to snapping up crystals left lying around, either in whole pieces or as bits that can be collected, these can be spent on upgrading a small number of battle and weapon magic that both characters have to bolster their martial abilities. Both Caddoc and E’lara have the same battle spells to work with though which ones you want to develop for each one is left to your imagination.

What are more unique are their individual battle ‘spells’, whether it’s E’lara’s explosive or freeze-based arrows or Caddoc’s berserker rage which can help tip the scales of battle. Both draw on magic that can be replenished with potions, or dropped refreshes from enemies, in the same way that valuable vitality can also be healed. Each can also carry a limited number of resurrection vials along with healing and magic potions. By performing enough ‘special’ acts, however, such as resurrecting either character a number of times, their carry capacity for potions and vials are automatically upgraded.

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If you have a friend, you can also co-op your way through the game. If you don’t, you can put your trust into the somewhat competent AI – though it also has a tendency to fail in resurrecting you in time or simply stand around if it isn’t bothered. That will also introduce you to an old-school checkpoint system – old school, in that it won’t hesitate to make you repeat throwing buckets of enemies at you all over again to get back to where you were because of how far back you are sent.

Jumping is also left out leaving seasoned mercenaries such as Caddoc and E’lara at the dubious mercy of three foot high unbreakable barrels or rubble unless using the cover system. And that’s only a temporary band-aid since it works only with specific surfaces and barriers leaving everything else there to frustrate foot traffic and remind you more of what is missing than what is already there.

Hunted also employs plenty of area-sized monster closets to jump our heroes. Occasionally, there will be a pot of “sleg” – mystical steroids – that can make both heroes even more powerful for a limited time with consequences on getting sloshed over it worked into the story. But like everything else so far, it’s a nice concept buried amidst how mediocre the experience feels thanks to a number of shortfalls.

The actual fighting using missile and melee doesn’t so much elicit a “Gears of War” vibe as it does a third-person Gauntlet. As either Caddoc or E’lara, there’s plenty to shoot and smash at whether it is a monster with a mouthful of fangs or an angry barrel hiding a potion. It can be fun, especially later on when the game begins pouring stronger enemies into the fight, but it can also get tediously repetitive thanks to a few more problems that splash cold water all over everything.

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One thing you can’t do is swap roles on the fly if you’re playing solo. Instead, switching between characters is restricted to specific points in this linear dungeon crawl thanks to a special stone that doesn’t seem to play any role in the story. It’s just a “magic McGuffin” that allows the player to take on a new perspective. I suppose that makes sense given how rigidly forward everything else is in the game – if you think you could do better playing Caddoc in a specific fight, you’d better hope you had swapped into his bloody boots several minutes earlier.

But that’s not entirely a good idea, either, as Caddoc can’t lock onto enemies as you could in a game such as Demon’s Souls. Holding up your shield and swinging your weapon will depend largely more on how accurate you can be in roughly assessing where you should be hitting. This also goes for E’lara, though her melee skills only get her killed more often than they actually help especially when mobbed. At least missile weapons can snap to targets using zoom, or simply hit their marks without aiming by keeping enemies in the center of the screen, something that E’lara excels at doing resulting in a brief brushes in being a medieval “Gears of War”.

The camera isn’t much help, either, and you can’t shift shoulder perspectives as you can in another third-person game such as Infamous 2. And with how close the camera is fixed, getting smashed by attacks from the back or the sides without knowing just where the shots are coming from or who might be rushing you in a crowd is just part of the gameplay.

There’s also an incredibly worthless “kill shot” mechanic where a weakened enemy will fall on their hands and knees providing a convenient target. The problem is that this also launches into a mini cut scene that you can’t skip if you decide to perform the coup de grace. There’s no real reason for it in the game when just going in and killing the enemy is faster, but opportunities to use it will fall like arrows everywhere to waste your time.

Gold serves only as a kind of score to unlock assets in the Crucible construction set for making your own dungeons. Outside of that, it serves little else despite both heroes crooning over it.

Finishing the game will also unlock a New Game Plus mode in addition to the Old School difficulty mode. The Plus mode, on the surface, invitingly draws you in with the idea that it will preserve your earned skills and weapons while unlocking more powerful ones for another playthrough. What it actually does is strip the skills from the characters and give them thirty crystals to get a few early upgrades and nerfs whatever powerful weapons they might have.

Even enhancements which required a number of special actions to earn and upgrade, such as resurrecting your partner so many times, are reset to ground level. That’s not exactly clear in the manual or the game, so it might be an unpleasant surprise to players that opt for it and find out the hard way that Hunted’s New Game Plus simply sets the stage to grind up all over again.

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The Crucible feature makes it easy to build your own slaying ground without having to know too many nuts and bolts. Devoid of any storytelling tools, it’s basically there for you to construct your own death dealing marches and tailor the challenges for yourself or for whoever might be foolish enough to step into your creation. There are even sample dungeons already available online for you to try out so if you can’t get enough of killing monsters in the main campaign, Hunted provides the solution.

The in-game journal leaves plenty of RPG meat at the table and the game is a decent excuse for co-op dungeon crawling. Dropping bits and pieces of Caddoc and E’lara’s mercenary background into the mix through their banter, the solid voice acting especially from Lucy Lawless (Xena, Spartacus), wonderful soundtrack, and the potential for even greater adventure beyond these lands feels deeply entrenched into the overall atmosphere that not only follows these two into their quest but through the ending and beyond into a potential sequel.

Hunted isn’t a terrible hack ‘n slasher – it genuinely has moments of fun when the characters start badgering each other with stories or when you take them off to explore paths and passages off of the beaten path or take down a mighty monster. But when I hit that adventuring groove, it hits back with a grating reminder of its problems when a cut scene kicks me away from the loot for no good reason.

At the end of this quest, despite the ten or so hours of blood spattered corpses that it laid out before me like a weathered map, it was with a sense of relief that I had made it to the finish. No more did I have to wrestle with being unable to backtrack through doors that mysteriously seal themselves, or checkpoints that save before every upgrade point so you get to do it all over again if you die. Yet at the same time, part of me wants to return to that world, but only if it were in a different game.

Hunted: The Demon’s Forge
Bethesda Softworks / inXile Entertainment
Xbox 360 / PS3 / Microsoft Windows (reviewed on PS3)
Rated: M for Mature