Despite being one of the most popular games of this console generation, Gears Of War is the recipient of an unreasonable amount of abuse. The story is badly told, the characters are badly drawn, and the whole enterprise has the emotional sophistication of a spotty adolescent. I happen to disagree on all three counts, but Gears Of War’s critics always fail to mention it’s near flawless gameplay design. Why else have there been dozens of games since that can be aptly described as “Gears in space/ the jungle /Shanghai/Las Vegas”? Why else do we have Hunted: The Demon’s Forge?
If that sounds like a swipe at Hunted, let me assure you that isn’t the case. Gears Of War and its sequel have been so influential for a good reason, and its camera, pace, and cover-shoot combat philosophy are all present and correct in Hunted: The Demon’s Forge. There’s nothing wrong with taking pointers from elsewhere as long as it’s done with good taste, and in terms of gameplay inXile Entertainment has done just that.
The problem is the surface. I spent two hours playing the game with a representative of inXile Entertainment, and while I can’t know where the story goes or what its characters become, my first impressions weren’t the best.
Hunted: The Demon’s Forge is a dark fantasy romp following two mercenaries on the trail of a mysterious and very important plot device. He is Caddoc, all muscles, attitude and heavy sword attacks; she is E’lara, all breasts, arrows and unnecessary apostrophes. You can play as either, you can play with a friend, and even at this advance stage it’s clear that they, and not the story, will be the real reason to buy Hunted.
Both characters have melee, ranged and magical attacks, which you can switch between with a single button press. Caddoc is more effective at close range, E’Lara’s bow is faster and more accurate, but I didn’t sense a great deal of difference between them. No matter, because Hunted’s combat feels weighty and satisfying, all the more so when I started experimenting with magic.
There are nine upgradable spells that display a reassuring amount of variety, and the ability to combine spells and attacks with your partner adds much-needed spontaneity and depth to the gameplay. Better still is “Battle Charging”, which lets one character turn the other into a super-powered fighting machine using magical energy.
Each level contains a number of different distractions: secret areas, puzzle-solving, even full-blown side quests involving ancient runes and talking statues spouting riddles. This kind of superfluous content can make or break a game: when done well it can be the difference between a good game and a great one; if it’s just a clutch of fetch quests it can bring the experience to a grinding halt.
My abiding impression of Hunted: The Demon’s Forge is of fun, but with some major caveats. By dipping a toe outside the comfort of all-out action inXile Entertainment is walking a fine line, and the current marketplace has little tolerance for games that fall short in key areas. Vanquish, Alan Wake, Enslaved; all good games, all commercial failures, and if Hunted is to avoid their fate it needs to something that my demonstration, while fun, simply didn’t provide.