Hunted: The Demon's Forge
What's It All About:
Caddoc is a massive bruiser who works with the sultry E'lara as mercenaries for hire. After Caddoc experiences a vision, they are "hired" by a spectral being named Seraphine to battle an evil force, while picking up a side gig from her father that will pay them handsomely. Far from heroes, they are all about the money, and will see this job through to payday, despite concerns cropping up, as they find themselves in the midst of a war, and Seraphine seems to be lying to them. The key here is working together, as there's not much that can be accomplished on your own.
Marry a run-and-gun shooter with a fantasy hack-and-slash game, and top with a bit of RPG-style leveling, and you have a good idea of the gameplay in Hunted. It's kind of like God of War: The FPS Version. You take control of one of the stars (E'lara is the obvious favorite, as aside from her alluring form. her bow and arrow keeps foes at a distance, while Caddoc has a slower, less effective crossbow, using his melee weapon mainly) and team up with either an AI partner, or co-op pal to battle evil. You're in for hours of hacking up cannonfodder goblins and skeletons, before taking on increasingly difficult creatures. The game is not "easy" (offering three difficulty settings (along with an unlockable (and ridiculous) old-school setting)) but it's not truly challenging either, in large part because there are so many aids along the way. You'll find better weapons, can buy better spells and enhance your defenses, while additional sources of health and mana are placed all over, while also being dropped by dead enemies. You can only carry one melee weapon and one ranged weapon at any time (though you can earn an additional slot later) and can only arm four spells at a time, but after a short time playing, you'll realize why some skills and weapons are far preferred over others, making your choices easy.
Playing together is the only way to win, as most everything is predicated on teamwork, including the generous healing system, where players share the plentiful healing crystals to bring each other back from the brink. The big reason to team-up, other than the tasks that require two players to complete, is the ability to combine abilities. Certain skills work great together, increasing the damage inflicted, while you can also earn the option to provide a Battle Charge or Spell Link, where you pump up your partner. It's pretty sweet when your teammate uses a Battle Charge on you, and you go on the warpath, destroying everyone and everything in your way. There's just something very satisfying about using an exploding arrow to blow apart goblins levitated by Caddoc. The combat here is definitely the story, as it makes the most of the blend between two styles of attack.
When you aren't fighting, the game is your standard collection quest, trying to find gold and crystals as you travel through the six chapters of the story, while picking up side quests, rescuing prisoners and interrogating the dead via the Deathstone that Seraphine provides. These interviews will reveal hidden items, including a sub-quest that pays off later in the game. The path is pretty straightforward and mostly linear, and a spirit guide is available if you find yourself lost. The guide also helps you find bonus items, as the path at a fork not chosen by the guide pretty much always holds extra gold, weapons or crystals. While you have a defined quest to complete, there are challenges throughout (called riddles, despite rarely being even close to a riddle) and you can feel free to complete them at your leisure (though some must be defeated to advance.) While this may seem like a lot of different options, they all blend into one big hunt, with the exception of the Deathstone interviews, which are actually interesting and round out the story. So in the end, it's either kill everything that moves or pick up everything that doesn't, which makes things rather repetitive. While the game does have a sense of humor, as the characters make reference to the many, many doors, being self-aware doesn't cure the problem, especially when they make the same door joke four or five times.
While battling groups of baddies is not the easiest way to pass the time, especially when the bigger enemies arrive, like the minotaurs and demons, the biggest challenge in the whole game is based around a choice you must make, which will affect how you play and the ending you see. Credit is deserved for making it a hard choice to make, rather than just an option. If you're paying attention to the story as it unfolds, you'll see it coming your way, but it's still interesting to see it integrated into the game the way it is, and it helps craft the story, making you more of a part of the game. Considering what the game's characters have been through, it felt like the story just sort of ends abruptly, but I can't say I was looking for much more after feeling a genuine sense of "when will this end?"
Once you're done with the main campaign (or during it if you're looking for a change of pace) you can check out the Crucible, where you can create and play custom maps. You can put together up to 30 arenas, with various foes, special rewards, punishments and load-outs.The only limit is you must unlock the various options by collecting gold in the main campaign, activating new items by hitting a number of tiers. You can do this step by step or load up random entries, but if you just want a different kind of challenge, you can play maps made by the developers or uploaded by players (including yourself if you feel like sharing.)
These challenge maps are a lot of fun, because it's just pure chaos and you can blast away at wave after wave of varied attackers, but with no clear path to "victory," pure fun can quickly give way to mind-numbing repetition, which is once again a problem with Hunted. I played one map, and after two hours of non-stop slaughter I was about six rooms in, and there was a possible 24 to go. It's more of an endurance test than a game at that point. Something as simple as an indication that this is Arena 6 of 12 would have made me far more willing to slog through than I was not knowing if I had another eight hours ahead of me. Lord knows knowing there were just six chapters of the main game allowed me to actually finish it.
It's worth noting that the game feels too glitchy for a final product. There was more than one spot where I got caught in an animation cycle and had to restart the level, while it feels like hit detection can be sketchy. I was able to fiire at enemies just paces away, with a targeting reticule that indicated I lined up a shot, only to see the shot fly into the background, wasting my magic.While this possibly makes sense with the skeleton fighers (who have plenty of open spaces to sail through, it shouldn't happen with the meatier foes.
In theory, there is co-op play available over XBox Live (or via system link,) but I was unable to get a game going, despite many attempts over many nights. I got close, but since you can't have a bot playing with you before someone drops in, you need to find the right teammate, which is nigh on impossible in my experience. But based on my previous online play and the structure of this game, I imagine playing alongside an AI partner would be far more enjoyable.
For the most part, the controls here are solid and responsive, letting you battle a room full of enemies smoothly, backflipping away from danger, slashing foes in front of and behind you and lining up a shot from across a courtyard. The controls for the bow and arrow are especially intuitive and makes switching between melee and ranged weapons a breeze. Where it doesn't work is in the "take cover" maneuver. It's inconsistent in how it responds and can kick in when you're attempting to run around a corner quickly to evade an attack. One boss battle in particular shows this problem clearly, as you'll be running for your life, and suddenly duck down behind a wall, sentencing you to a brutal death. This happened more often than I would have liked, but outside of this issue, the biggest issue was the quicktime events you needed to do to move between areas that aren't wide open. Thus, you have to hit B to cross a thin beam or duck under a gate. It's an odd choice that destroys momentum, and it makes me think it's an attempt to camouflage loading times.
There are a ton of achievements to earn in this game, with 50 entries worth a total of 1000 points. What's nice is the variety in the achievements, as you have a mix of completion awards, cumulative achievements and a bunch of randoms (my personal favorites.) Since you can play as two different characters, you're rewarded for achievements with each of them separately, which gives high achievers a reason to give the game another run through.
When you start the game, you're asked to adjust a brightness slider to make the screen darker. Why they want it so dark isn't clear, but it's probably either to hide/enhance the bland coloring and OK graphics, or make the game even harder, since using the suggested setting makes it almost impossible to see enemies (who, because of coloring are already well hidden) or where you're going in many places. There are some pretty impressive character and gorgeous set designs throughout, coming off like an up-close version of God of War, but the movements of the characters aren't the smoothest, and there are frequently framerate issues, especially when you're in aiming mode, and later in the game when you're being swarmed. The bigger problem though is the camera, which can get you into trouble. Too many times I'd move near a wall, only to end up with the camera looking down at the top of my head in an extreme close-up, so I couldn't see the enemies. Yes, you can move the camera, but when you're battling a horde, it's nothing you want to worry about. Playing split-screen co-op locally is another issue altogether, as it makes a visually difficult game even harder to see clearly,
The audio is equally impressive, largely due to the impressive voice actors, including Lucy Lawless as the sexy witch Seraphine and Laura Bailey as the equally sexy E'lara, working from a fun script that isn't just grim and gritty. This has to be some of the best voice acting I've heard in a game, right down to the voices of the dead heard throughout and the creepy things the bad guys murmur as you get near. Unfortunately, it's very easy to activate more than one voice track at the same time, which makes them unintelligible. The sound effects and music are good on their own, but there are some issues in the context of the game. For instance, when you pull a club off your back it makes the sound of a sword being unsheathed, which sounds good, just incorrect. And the music, which can be stunningly dramatic, doesn't always match up with what's happening on-screen, building to a crescendo while simply walking down an empty hallway.
And in the End...
When you start playing, it's easy to think "This is my new favorite game." Then, when you've opened your 70th door and battled your thousandth sword-wielding skeleton, it's easy to think "Again?" There's just not enough variation to keep interest in this game over 36 stages, despite a really great core concept, solid controls, a story you might actually want to follow and impressive voice acting. The many glitches and the fact that I couldn't get an online game going in a title built for co-op play didn't help either. Flaws aside, there's enough to enjoy to say it's absolutely worth a rental or worth picking up if the price comes down.