That Hunted: The Demon’s Forge exists and is a game that came out this year is deeply odd. I cannot remember the last time I played such an unpolished game that was a full-price retail release, especially one that wasn’t based on pre-existing intellectual property. There are plenty of good ideas in it, but few of them are truly implemented well. That said, and despite having a dumb, non-sensical name, I had a pretty fun time with it.
For those who missed it (the game was pretty low-profile) Hunted is a co-op focused action game set in a medieval fantasy world. One player controls Caddoc, a gruff bald fellow whose gameplay is melee focused. The other controls Elara, an impractically-clad Elven woman who mostly plays a 3rd-person cover-based shooter using a bow. (In solo play, the player chooses a character, and the AI controls the other one.) Both characters carry a sword and a bow, but based on their special abilities and inventory, the separation in gameplay between the two of them is quite strong. Speaking of special abilities, there’s plenty of opportunity for synergy between the two characters. Elara can freeze a group of enemies, or smash their shields, making them vulnerable for Caddoc. Caddoc can lift enemies around him into the air and stun them, leaving them vulnerable for Elara.
The basic combat feels pretty good. Caddoc’s bow attacks feel flimsy (also, every fifth reload of his takes extra long for some reason) but the melee attacks have a good sense of impact to them. It’s maybe a bit to easy to get stun-locked, and some swings have to big of a wind-up to them, but on the whole, it’s pretty good. Special attacks and magic feel quite satisfying, as enemies explode or freeze en mass.
I played most of the game as Caddoc, so let’s burrow down into his mechanics for a bit. When in melee mode (both characters have three modes: melee, ranged and spell-casting – more on this later) the camera isn’t tied to character-facing. For example, while steering while running, the character turns, but the camera doesn’t follow. This makes it a lot easier to change targets while in a melee, but it also has some weird repercussions, like not being able to block in one direction while moving in another, so that Caddoc can’t block and back away to kite an enemy into an exposed area, and he can’t defend against ranged attacks unless he’s moving straight towards them, which is unfortunate since my natural instinct was generally to move around to their side to try to flank them.
Caddoc has three mana-using special abilities while in melee mode. One increases his attack and damage for a time, which is great except that using either of the other two abilities instantly cancels this mode. One is a dash attack, which feels great, and shatters shields, knocks down enemies, and does a tremendous amount of damage. The one little problem is that between the dash and the attack, there’s a pretty lengthy wind-up animation. It’s long enough that melee enemies can get in an attack on Caddoc, even if the dash is initiated from outside of their melee range. Given that even Caddoc, the heartier of the two characters, can’t survive all that many melee hits, this is frustrating.
Caddoc’s third special attack floats enemies surrounding him up into the air, holds them aloft as long as its button is being held, and then slams them to the ground. This is a great idea, since it gives Caddoc a way of dealing with multiple melee enemies in concert with Elara, but there’s a risk, since he’s exposed to ranged fire during it. As should be expected, its implementation is flawed. First of all, the amount of mana that’s used is proportional to the amount of time the button for the ability is held down. But regardless of how long the button is held down, the full levitating and slamming to the ground animations will play, three or four seconds worth of them. This means that by just tapping the button, Caddoc can stun every enemy around him for several seconds with essentially no mana cost. The other, even more serious problem is that when the attack throws down enemies, they tend to fall forwards a bit and flop down prone on the ground for a second or two. Since they fall forwards, then tend to end up under Caddoc, who glitches around on top of them while the collision detection tries to resolve the situation. What’s more, once he’s off of them, Caddoc can’t actually attack the enemies on the ground, since there’s no contextual detection that the enemies are lying on the ground, and so Caddoc just whiffs his swings over them. So almost every time I used this attack, I got a nice reminder of how unpolished the game is. This could be fixed by giving Caddoc a quick, high-damage contextual stabbing attack that would work on prone enemies, analogous to the (much too slow) execution moves tied to the ‘B’ button now. The mana consumption issue could also obviously be fixed by requiring the button be held for the full levitation phase to happen, or by just setting a higher minimum on the amount of mana consumed by the ability.
Let’s take a minute to talk about Elara’s AI, now. It is, of course, wildly inconsistent. Sometimes she’s a killing machine, using special abilities left and right. Other times, she seems completely helpless and it felt like I was doing all of the work. A lot of time it felt like she was reluctant to round a corner and move up to where the fighting was. She is, unfortunately, plenty glitchy. She got stuck on a piece of environment and stood there just switching between her weapons, once. She refused to pick up the most powerful bow in the game, and then, after I manually switched to controlling her and made her pick it up, she dropped it again for a worse bow at the first opportunity.
Elara has one more huge problem, and it’s not even really something to do with her AI, since it’s a problem that affects co-op as well, although to a lesser extent. While engaged in combat, the characters have a number of automated, contextual barks, for example calling out that enemy reinforcements are arriving, or that they’re at low health, or that they’re being attacked by ranged enemies. The crucial one that’s missing: Elara doesn’t shout out that she’s being attacked by melee enemies, and thus is being forced into hand-to-hand combat as well. Elara is flimsier than Caddoc, and her damage output diminishes immensely when she’s forced into melee, and the onus is on Caddoc to run back and protect her when the situation arises. As Caddoc, I was rarely looking back at Elara and the character silhouettes aren’t easy to pick out, so it’s hard to spot when she’s in trouble. It’s not unusual for enemies to spawn in from behind, or between Caddoc and Elara, so even when I got good at not letting enemies past Caddoc, it still happened frequently, and it was consistently frustrating not to be informed when Elara needed help. Just simple call-out when Elara is getting hit by melee attacks is all that was needed to fix this. The times Elara wouldn’t disengage from the melee to heal Caddoc when he had gone down where especially infuriating.
The game is just too long, and pretty monotonous. There aren’t a lot of enemies, and not a lot of variety in the tactical situations presented. There are frequently long stretches without a new weapon, or ability, or a novel fight. It tries to do the usual sorts of things with co-op – one player stands on a switch, while the other protects them, for example, but it’s not enough of a change. There are a number of puzzles and side-paths, but they’re not of the sort that requires any thought – just stand on any switches and light any conspicuously dark torches. I got held up on one see-saw puzzle because the solution feels like it defies the laws of physics.
The best fights are arena battles centred around a vat of something called “sleg”, which is an evil liquid that is important to the plot. These are long, grueling battles, with wave after wave of enemies, and hardly a health potion in sight. Typically, when I felt like the battle was ready to be over, there would still be 50% more of it to go. But there’s these vats of sleg in the arenas. And this sleg will give a big, temporary power boost to a character who drinks it. And there’s no negative gameplay effect of drinking it, it only affects the ending that is received (and achievements, of course). So it creates this interesting tension. Drink the sleg and make this really hard encounter much easier, or don’t drink it, and get the good ending (and a feeling of smug superiority). On the other hand, it’s incredibly frustrating to have Caddoc go down towards the end of one of these lengthy sequences, and have Elara fail to revive him because she’s caught up in a melee with enemies who spawned in from behind, and then have to restart the whole fight over again.
Speaking of story, it’s nothing special, but it’s also not awful. It’s an amusing choice to make Caddoc be the cautious one, and Elara the more aggressively homicidal of the mercenaries. Even if they’re not dazzlingly originaly, they’re pleasant enough characters to spend time with, which is incredibly important in this sort of game. I would not have been able to push past the gameplay deficiencies if I was dealing with unlikable characters on top of that.
In terms of presentation, Hunted makes an ugly first impression. Environments are muddy and poorly lit and generally unpleasant. There’s a baffling array of pick-ups, some of which are collected by walking over them, some of which require a button-press to pick up, some of which are contained in chests that need to be smashed, others in chests that need to be opened, with little rhyme or reason to these distinctions. The most confusing aspect is gold. If you have a gold pick-up in a game with RPG trappings it creates the expectation that I will be able to spend it on something useful within the game. Instead, gold is only used in the creation of user-created dungeons outside of the main campaign. Bafflingly, despite having no gameplay implications, this gold all needs to be manually picked up.
The HUD is also confusing. The health and mana bars are doubled – as it’s drawn, there are two thin bars stacked on top of each other [Screenshot]. I had expected that perhaps one bar would represent each character, but instead, they both represented the health of the character I was controlling, and there was no on-screen indicator of the health state of the other character. I didn’t even recall seeing a graphical notice when my AI partner was down and needed to be revived.
Some more quirks: Health potion distribution is wildly inconsistent. I went through multiple rooms and encounters with nary a potion in sight, and then sometimes would get more than two players could possibly carry from two adjacent rooms containing no combat. Also, on occasion, the game disconcertingly requires players to walk off ledges to progress. This is marginally acceptable in something like Halo, but in a game that doesn’t have a jump button and doesn’t allow characters to fall off most ledges, it just feels weird. There’s also an audio-log sort of mechanic, but the recordings are too slow to start up, and are tied to a physical location, so I had to stop whatever I was doing and stand around to hear them, which ignores one of the big perks of conveying back-story via logs – that it only minimally intrudes on the flow of the gameplay.
This is a case where the reviews got it right, in the sense that it’s a deeply flawed game, and as a result shouldn’t score particularly highly. On the other hand, I had more fun playing Hunted than I did playing quite a few more highly rated games. I suppose this just goes to show that scores aren’t everything when it comes to reviews. I’m looking forward to comparing it with Warhammer 40k: Space Marine which seems to have a similar combination of melee and third person shooting gameplay, albeit without a cover system or the emphasis on co-op.