The dungeon crawler is among the oldest genres in gaming; as such it is probably in need of a restyling to make it more appealing to a modern market. Developer inXile Entertainment attempts to provide that very thing with its newest title, Hunted: The Demon’s Forge. The single player or two player co-op title tries its hand at the hack and slash genre.
Usually a game’s success or failure often rests on the little things that it does. In terms of success, an ordinary game can soar to great heights by nailing the details, or fall from a collective of small flaws. I found Hunted is the latter type of game, sound in its conception, but clumsy and flawed in its delivery. As a result this cooperative action game feels a little lumbering and clunky in spite of its attempts to use modern gameplay elements.
Right away most will recognize the cover system employed so well by Gears and copied by many others since. It’s a shame that a game with such promise feels so unfinished. I found the games button placements fairly intuitive and easy to figure out, although the button presses had a slightly delayed reaction time from time to time; overall I began to think the game engine was not as solid as it could have been.
Imagine yourself taking up your bow, and a buddy grabs his mace and shield. Together, you cut through swaths of monsters seeking the most effective ways of ridding your fantasy kingdom of a rising menace. When Hunted comes together it captures the premise of a great co-op hack and slash, but sloppy locomotion and technical glitches galore rise up to smite you.
Hunted’s good aspects follow from that mishmash of gameplay elements. Both in-game characters wield melee and ranged weapons, but E’lara is best when shooting from afar while Caddoc’s strengths are more realized when he wades into the fray. When you’re wielding a bow Hunted plays like a cover shooter, you crouch behind low barriers or press your back against a wall lean out and fire. This is okay until you find out the game has certain sweet spots that you have to find as you hug the barriers. If you do not find the sweet spot your character comes off as useless and they do not fire while you take all kinds of damage. The result is completely frustrating to the point of anger. With the sword or axe in hand you fair much better, as you swing away at varieties of savages rolling and blocking when necessary. This is really the best way to tackle the game although the aforementioned delays in button response rears its ugly head. You will get pummelled with cheap shots as your character does not react or goes by the way side; the result is more frustration than anything else in these instances.
On the brighter side, either character can cast spells that work well in tandem with your partner. E’lara freezes enemies, and Caddoc smashes them to pieces. Caddoc lifts monsters into the air and slams them into the ground, while E’lara fills them with arrows. Two brands of action plus varied magical skills make for some enjoyable battles. This diversity goes a long way toward veiling just how linear Hunted’s levels, enemies, and puzzles are.
If you don’t play a co-op game with a friend, the AI takes over and does a respectable job. Usually the AI companions in games like this are there to distract enemies and soak up a lot of damage rather than to dish it out and indeed Hunted follows this path. They rarely need reviving on medium difficulty, and as a result, the AI makes playing on your own seem easier than joining a friend.
I found the game had a very limited number of health potion drops, which made the combat frustrations that much more difficult, but bearable overall.
Should you like a challenge, you can play around with Hunted’s level creator called the Crucible. I found it pretty easy to use, but the results are fairly limited. The player levels are simply a series of battle arenas separated by doors that open when you have defeated every spawning monster; this gets pretty repetitive and boring quickly. However, the more you play the more you can unlock new enemies, new items, and new arena environments by accumulating gold. To earn the most interesting toys you will need to collect a lot of gold, which means playing a lot of Hunted. In my opinion this is a disappointing restriction in which the reward doesn’t match the effort.
One of the game’s notable faults is the lack of consistency. In some cases you can simply walk over fallen booty in order to gather it. You will stumble upon plenty of random equipment on your adventures, though most of the items are of no real use. Also, equipment or items on the ground are only for the character that smashes it, so no sharing. This is a small gripe, but it is one of many senseless, clumsy elements that crop up time and again in Hunted. A list of such oversights could continue for pages. You automatically pick up potions by walking over them, but to collect gold you have to press a button. Why not have your characters collect it automatically as you do other items? Again this becomes an exercise in tedium.
One of the biggest complaints I have is the Gears inspired “roadie run”. The run is pretty useless as this barely controllable aspect of the game often causes the screen to jitter uncomfortably, and offers no real changes in direction. It’s either straight ahead or nothing, and in the case of a particular boss battle when you have a limited time and space it compounds the shortcoming tenfold. The whole process looks good, but has zero practical use. For some reason developer inXile chose to throw in useless cover spots between you and your destination, making it easy to slide into cover by accident when really, you need to charge forward.
For a game built around cooperative play, Hunted lacks a number of features I would have thought obvious. There’s no drop-in, drop-out option, which means every multiplayer session has to be intentional and a friend cannot join in mid-quest. Also odd are the character-changing obelisks that must be used if you want to switch your hero during a session. These are set throughout each chapter in the campaign, perhaps cool in theory, but again utterly useless in gameplay. As a mostly solo player, I would have loved to hop back and forth between the characters to set up better combo attacks.
There are other things too, like the lack of a map and a poor inventory system, but they’re not as critical to the experience. All you need to know is that for every time Hunted does something right, chances are something goes wrong elsewhere. Poor AI, environmental glitches, and a host of other nasty business interfere with an otherwise enjoyable quest. It seems for a hack and slash/shooter mix, the problem is none of them are fully fleshed out systems. There are nine melee/ranged attacks and nine spell attacks that are gained through the collection of Deathstones. While the nine attacks are acceptable, the egregious length of time required to unlock and use them makes it pointless to have them. Finally I also had the game freeze and lock-up multiple times on two different Xboxes. It comes suddenly with no warning, and of course anything that has not been saved is lost as a complete re-boot is required.
The world of Hunted is dark and twisted. At first look, Hunted looks pretty dated even though it uses the much-vaunted Unreal Engine. I found that there is certain cloudiness to the game’s look. The texture detail is low quality and the lighting generally tends to be on the darker side, thus hiding some of the low quality details. One of the biggest issues is the abundant amount of white lines that show up between textures, especially in dark caverns. It is almost like the individual texture maps are coming apart at the seams. The issue is almost non-existent in brighter conditions, but inside caves or anywhere dark it is a monster of its own becoming quite ugly in areas. The character models are well rendered, but the animation is a little basic and uninspiring. Complaints aside, you’ll find on occasion some very impressive looking environments, which remind you that there is a more open world out there.
The game’s main redeeming quality in my opinion is in the area of audio. The voice acting and soundtrack are both dramatic, giving the world an air of urgency and occasionally interjecting the drama with a touch of wit. You sometimes commune with the dead, their spirits rising from their corpses, mourning their own lives and telling you of demons and dragon hunters. These soliloquies are well acted and well written, and well worth pausing to listen and soak up the ambience. The two main characters have a witty and somewhat engaging banter between them as well, which helps in relaying the story.
The ambient sounds and effects of the game are also well done, with typical sounds of swords clanging and bows twanging throughout. It’s not spectacular though, as most gamers have heard it in some shape or form in other games. Hunted: The Demon’s Forge is encoded in Dolby Digital which actually makes good use of the surround speakers. On some occasions I had to turn my subwoofer down, as I got into some good bass thumping boss battles.
Hunted: The Demon’s Forge isn’t going to win any awards for originality or for its looks, that for sure. That being said, what it does provide though is a mediocre action adventure game that can be enjoyed by most gamers willing to overlook the somewhat dated presentation and flawed execution. For me the game is good for a quick and somewhat enjoyable diversion. In the end Hunted is far from the perfect co-op game or fantasy dungeon crawl, but the storytelling almost makes up for it.