As anyone who has ever played a game with me will testify, I am to stealth games what Pee Wee Herman is to powerlifting; the ideal person to be set to review a new entry in the stealth genre. Don’t get me wrong, I like to try and be stealthy as much as the next gamer, it just sometimes appears that my character has turned up in full on Morris Dancing attire, complete with bells.
Anyway, what this somewhat meandering introduction is leading up to is the release of Winter Ember, a new stealth game from Skymachine Studios. So, come with me, quietly if you don’t mind, and let’s see what is going on.
Now, every good snake-em-up needs a compelling narrative, and it is here that Winter Ember comes out of the blocks strongly. I have to mention the presentation of the story cutscenes first: they are styled like an anime film, and set the scene fantastically. The voice acting and animation of the scenes are really top notch, and set the scene perfectly. The story itself is also pretty good. Arthur Artorias seems to be the dissolute heir to a rich family, more interested in partying than in living a responsible life. That all comes to end one fateful night, when his entire family is murdered, and Arthur himself, while still alive, is disfigured and is now known as the Faceless Man. Obviously, what else is a man to do but seek revenge? I suppose he could spend his life quietly doing good works behind the scenes, but that might not make for a compelling video game. Nope, its blood and vengeance all the way for ol’ Art!
The presentation of Winter Ember is mainly fine. The viewpoint is from above, slightly canted to one side into a kind of three quarter view, and while this does make for some interesting viewpoints occasionally, all in all it works well. Of course, light and shadow play a big part in staying out of sight, and while Arthur has the ability to either light or extinguish the lamps he comes across, mainly he is more comfortable in the dark. Which, given that the enemies dress purely in black from head to toe (what other colour were they going to wear?) makes the going somewhat problematic at times. You see, you can easily miss the guards, but they never miss you. More on this later in the review.
Sounds of the game are pretty good, and as you sneak about you’ll overhear guards yawning and chatting amongst themselves; keeping your ears open is often a good early warning system. The breath sound as Arthur puts out a candle is bang on, and while the noise of blood escaping an unfortunate guard sounds more like an airline at a garage, overall, the presentation is pretty good.
Winter Ember is divided, as is traditional, into the two halves: combat or the avoidance of, and the exploration and side missions to find and sort out. Starting with the exploration aspect, and this is a game which is pretty large, and as Arthur explores, he will come across various obstacles such as locked doors and inconvenient safes. It’s here where you’ll utilise a lock picking mini game, something which is very imprecise, and the difference between success and failure seems to be about two nanoseconds of pressing A. Basically, you have to line up with the tumblers, hold A until the tumbler has gone down sufficiently (signified by the pad rumbling) and then release and move to the next one. However, it never works quite as cleanly as that, and I have gone through ten picks on a hard lock and not got one tumbler released. Oh, and if you stop, you have to start all over again. The safes are a bit easier; there is usually a clue in the neighbourhood as to what the code should be.
The actual wandering about is quiet relaxing, to be honest, and this bit of Winter Ember is pretty enjoyable. Finding the parts and crafting the exact arrows that you need for Arthur’s bow is also pretty fun, from blunt arrows that smash through barricades to electric arrows that can start machines working. This adds a bit of tactical play to the game, although why Arthur doesn’t just shoot all the guards through the head from fifty yards away is a mystery to me.
Combat is another kettle of fish altogether. If you are spotted (and you will be, as the guards all seem to have Sam Fisher’s night vision goggles on) then the combat is simply a case of pressing RB until one of you falls over. Don’t think you can run from a fight either, as the guards all appear to be part bloodhound and will pursue you relentlessly. It’s kill or be killed all the way here, I’m afraid. If you do, somehow, manage to sneak up behind a guard, then you can choose to knock them out or cut their throats, but make sure you hide the body afterwards.
Another annoyance with the combat is this scenario: you are creeping up behind the guard, and you cross the view of an off screen guard. Via the medium of telepathy, the guard you are following becomes instantly aware of your presence and a fight ensues, usually with the result that the second guard will rock up just as you are down to your last scintilla of health and finish the job. The checkpoints are somewhat far apart as well, adding to the frustration. I’ll admit that for some of Winter Ember I abandoned stealth altogether and just ran through the level; upon reaching the magic line in the sand, I was moved to the next level. Somewhat jarring in a stealth oriented game.
So, should you play Winter Ember? That’s a tough one to call. If you have the patience of a saint and are prepared to wait until every guard is in the perfect place, Winter Ember can be a fun challenge to make it through undetected. However, balance that with shonky combat and dodgy cover mechanics (you only seem to be able to move into cover from a certain distance) and to be honest, there are better stealth games out there. Aragami 2, for instance, which is a lot more fun to play.
Winter Ember is available from the Xbox Store