You don’t see a lot of original IPs in today’s game market, but the genre that sees the least innovating per new franchise has got to be the fantasy RPG, followed closely by the space marine shooter. Like it or not, American gaming owes a huge chunk of its mechanical and thematic heritage to Gary Gygax and his groundbreaking creation, Dungeons and Dragons. On the other side of the coin, the remainder of the American gamer’s psyche is rooted firmly in James Cameron’s film Aliens, from which countless space marine shoot-em-ups have respectfully (Doom) and not so respectfully (Halo) ripped off their entire theme.
It’s kind of appropriate, then, that the latest game to tackle these two trends combines them into a single effort and is at least up-front about it. Hunted: The Demon’s Forge from InXile Entertainment tries its best to be a traditional fantasy dungeon crawler/hack n’ slash, but also proudly touts on its box that Kotaku billed it as “A dungeon crawl for the Gears age.” So, is that a good thing? Well…
The box also forbiddingly challenges you to descend into darkness, and that’s also a pretty good tagline for Hunted. The setting for the game is decidedly grim and filthy, evoking yet another Tolkien-esque world of typical fantasy tropes, but without the white-washing that always distracted me in Lord of the Rings. No, there isn’t any running water sewage system in this world. Yes, it’s obvious. Yes, there are mercenaries and other unsavory types around capitalizing on the misery. Just imagine that you’re smack in Middle Earth’s little-talked about brush with the black plague and you’ll get a good idea of Hunted’s setting.
The story follows two gun-for-hire anti heroes, the Elven archer E’lara and the hardened veteran Caddoc. It’s implied that these two have been working together for some time but the partnership thankfully eschews any sexual tension or romantic subtext. Caddoc is more like a weary dad to the smarmy and trigger-happy E’lara, even though it’s humorously stated that E’lara is twice Caddoc’s age.
While there is a compelling banter between the two their dynamic falls back on worn buddy film clichés too often; they do the “we’re not heroes, just pays us!” thing too often and E’lara strays toward obnoxious manic action girl territory enough that she started to annoy me. I liked Caddoc and E’lara best when they were being refreshingly candid about the whole fantasy-adventurer thing that gets glossed over so often in favor of Tolkien-style romance and pretense. At one point our heroes notice a foul stench, and E’lara comments that while it has been some time since either of them bathed, it hasn’t been that long.
The adventure starts with Caddoc having dreams about a seductive ghost, who conveniently shows up and wrangles the duo into a curse. Before long the two are doing this shade’s bidding, all in an effort to escape the monster that is pursuing them. This conveniently leads to a lot of cooperative dungeon crawling, which is the game’s main draw.
Hunted kicks off with a surprisingly long and somewhat tedious tutorial, which seems a little unnecessary considering the relatively simple gameplay. You play as either hero in a series of drab dungeon crawls and pitched battles with the “we-swear-they-aren’t-Orcs” Worgar. Caddoc is clearly attuned to melee combat while E’lara is a crack shot with the longbow, but due to gameplay limitations either character can substitute for the other in a pinch. E’lara is competent with blades and bludgeons and Caddoc can fall back on his crossbow, although it’s painfully slow to reload compared to E’lara’s quiver-emptying speed and Caddoc can carry less than half the arrows E’lara can.
The only significant difference between the two mercenaries is the game’s occasional environmental puzzles. Certain torches can only be lit by a fire arrow from E’lara’s bow, and the occasional obstacle or loose wall requires Caddoc to roll up his sleeves and use some good old fashioned elbow grease. It’s a little frustrating that you can’t swap heroes at will, but there are always conveniently placed switcher obelisks close to the puzzles, although these swap stones feel superfluous and make me wonder why they limited character switching at all.
Don’t be fooled, however; just because there are puzzles and dungeons doesn’t mean Hunted is a complex, multi-path game. The environments are strikingly linear, especially considering the amount of gritty detail worked into every nook and cranny. While it’s refreshing at first, this grim and gritty Gears of War take on classic fantasy gets monotonous and dreary within the first level or two. InXile apparently didn’t realize that there’s more to the Gears art style than filth and grime. Gears does inhabit a dirty, depressing world, but that world at least has some variety in it.
The vistas in Gears of War have a kind of beautiful desolation to them, a bitter irony that the war you’re enjoying and playing through is also shattering majestic cities into rubble and laying waste to vast swathes of natural splendor. Hunted is just dark and dirty, teasing you with a lush tutorial level and then dropping you into a tedious succession of dim, grimy dungeons. There is some tantalizing architecture here and there but it would’ve been a lot more striking if there wasn’t so much crap smeared all over it.
There are occasionally side quests to enchanted weapons and gold, but for the most part it’s a straight shot through a dungeon, which kind of defeats the purpose of dungeon crawling if you ask me. A Fable-esque sparkly trail will always lead you back to the objective path so there’s no need for a map, and if you’re expecting an epic loot collection prepare to be disappointed: Hunted doesn’t even have an inventory screen.
This is odd considering there are multiple weapons and armor available, but you can only ever swap for what you have, Halo style. There are collectable crystals that upgrade a rudimentary magic tree, and accumulating kills opens up “talents” that expand your base abilities, but everything else is context sensitive or scripted. InXile was clearly leaning toward the streamlined Gears side of things. It’s just too bad that they couldn’t replicate the one thing Gears excels at: combat.
I concede that it’s tough to do a cover based shooter in a fantasy setting. Ranged weapons are limited to bows and arrows or, if you’re feeling fancy, projectile spells, and to be honest Hunted pulls off the shooting decently. It’s relatively easy to pop out of cover and let a few arrows fly, even though the enemy is uncannily accurate at sending a few right back into your face. If you’re currently stuck with Caddoc this can complicate matters and make a shootout much longer, and he can’t very well charge the enemy lines without acquiring a few holes in his hide. This is one of those times where switching between characters at will would’ve been nice. You also can’t focus your vision much and there’s obviously no zoom scope on a bow, so you’ll often have to distinguish between the distant light gray pixels of a Worgar and the muddy brown-gray background behind him.
All of this gets better with practice but Hunted forgoes the cover shooter staple of recharging health in favor of HP potions. Now I typically despise recharging health—it’s lazy, far too common and often completely unrealistic—but in a linear corridor crawl like Hunted it’s damn near a necessity. Instead you have to scrounge for health potions, which aren’t exactly scarce but at the beginning of the game you can’t carry very many of them. Even worse, you have to spend one to revive a fallen partner. With enemies raining arrows down on you, or getting close and somehow sneaking cheap melee shots past your shield, this makes most battles an exercise in frustration and blind luck. Don’t have a health potion? Too bad! You have to retry from that checkpoint from half an hour ago. You can always be cheap and spam your strongest attack spell, but there isn’t recharging mana either. The combat just feels half-broken.
The reliance on health potions, combined with the inane, sparse checkpoint placement give Hunted a steep difficulty curve. The game was obviously intended for cooperative play and offers both online and split-screen co-op, but progressing in Hunted requires dogged persistence and an unusual amount of coordination for such a linear game. While playing Gears of War solo almost feels like you’re wasting the game, Hunted misses the crucial element of the game it so desires to emulate: it just does not lend itself naturally to co-op. Any friends you invite to the slog will probably quit early on—not a good sign for a 12-hour plus crawl like Hunted—so if you do find someone patient enough to see the campaign through, be prepared to show them the ropes.
Hunted contains a mode called the Crucible that lets you build your own dungeons, but I can’t see more than a very dedicated core community using it much. While it may be fun to devise a truly sinister labyrinth and, in true D&D fashion, challenge your friends to survive it, the gameplay is just too obtuse and the setting too generic to make such a crawl memorable. I do long for a return to user-friendly, Timesplitters-style map makers in modern games, but Hunted isn’t the game that’ll give amateur mapping a comeback.
I can appreciate the idea behind Hunted: The Demon’s Forge. Fantasy games have long struggled with the complex pen and paper RPG mechanics that keep mainstream audiences from diving into them. Grafting fantasy tropes onto a Gears of War skeleton seems like the best approach to the problem. Sadly InXile misses most of what makes Gears so intuitive: the over-the-top characters, the organic combat, the immersive world. Hunted gets most of these things half-right but the end package is too generic and obtuse to spark the addiction of either a straightforward shooter or a dense fantasy RPG. It might be worth a rent, but go in expecting to get frustrated.