Winter Ember is an isometric stealth-driven adventure game developed by Sky Machine Games and published by Blowfish Games. Our story begins when the family mansion of our protagonist, Arthur Artorias, is infiltrated by a group of mysterious cloaked men. Arthur is beaten to the brink of death as his family is massacred, and his house is engulfed in flames. Miraculously, Arthur is saved by an enigmatic woman known only as Vesta, who nurses him back to health. Several years pass by as Arthur hones his craft to finally enact vengeance on the men that ruined his life on that fateful evening.
Upon loading into the game, it becomes quite clear that our adventure takes notes from other pieces of entertainment. Arthur seems to be a Victorian homage to Batman, being a wealthy playboy with an undying urge to avenge his family. At the same time, his adventure draws inspirations from games like Dishonored and Thief. His main objective may be to solve the mystery of why his family was targeted, but he doesn’t miss the opportunity to line his pockets with whatever valuables he can find.
At first, the main gameplay seems to be a reimagining of the titles I mentioned earlier albeit from a different perspective. However, it was evident early on that I may have been a bit overzealous on my initial expectations. Not wanting to sugar-coat it, the tutorial area of this game is rough. It does a good enough job of showing the basic mechanics of the game but presents more downs than ups and gave me terrible first impressions. Literally the first thing I noticed during the tutorial was how basic and rudimentary the combat was. Arthur is equipped with a fair number of weapons that he can utilize, but it all just ends up feeling lackluster. I know that stealth should be the main priority, but I think it could have been made a bit more enjoyable if you’re spotted. Throughout my entire playthrough, every encounter in which someone spotted me turned into a mindless game of waiting to parry and then spamming the attack button until they were dead. Even if I got surrounded, it was only slightly harder, and I never found myself having trouble disposing of the few enemies that were alerted. Besides his trusty sword, Arthur has a bow and dagger to complete his quest. Trust me when I say that you will not being using these for combat either. The bow does such low damage and arrows are few and far in between at the beginning that it becomes more of a hassle to use it then not. The dagger doesn’t do much for you either. Once you find it, you can throw it at enemies, doing slight damage and staggering them momentarily. It does provide a different feel, but once it is embedded in your adversary, you will find yourself going back to parrying with old reliable.
We have covered the combat, but you are probably asking ‘What about the stealth? It is a stealth game after all’. Well, it is decent to say the least. Arthur can either knockout or stealth kill his opposition. It is instant, quiet, and you have various areas to hide the bodies to keep your crimes a secret. However, I never found it necessary with the state of the combat earlier. I tried to go through the game silently as possible, but when I got caught, it wasn’t like it mattered. You dispose of them and then move on to the next section full of a bunch of guys that are none the wiser. It just all felt that the enemy placements rarely made any difference to the outcome of your travels. To be fair, I was playing on the medium difficulty and Winter Ember includes four different levels, going from Easy to Faceless Man, increasingly raising the amount of damage Arthur took and the enemy’s perception, how quickly they noticed Arthur if he left the shadows. So, I could have made it harder on myself, but I feel like that would be missing the point as I am playing on the difficulty in was intended for the masses.
As for the world around Arthur and his story, the visuals and sounds of Winter Ember are a mixed bag. The environment is put together very well. The city of Anargal has an amazing layout filled with beautiful Victorian architecture. The interior and exterior of each building looked exquisite and I felt that I was exploring late 19th-century London. The perpetual dusk added to the cold, wintery vibe they were going after. The cutscenes mimicked this feeling with their lovely animated style that looked plucked right out of 80s cartoon. It seems like they took great pride in making sure Arthur’s story was portrayed in an appealing format and for the most part they succeeded. Unfortunately, like most of my experience with this game, the moment I started liking something, a problem would rear its ugly head. Moments in these animated cutscene would get very crude out of nowhere. One second, we have this cool animation, the next we have a scene that looks like it was made in MS Paint. It was quite jarring the first time I saw it and even went back to confirm I actually saw this. It gets even worse when it comes to the voice acting. The voices are just so bland and unenthusiastic when talking about anything. The writing isn’t that bad, the story is enjoyable from time to time, but the delivery is such a turn off. In my opinion, it was a waste of time that could have been used for something else. It would have been better to just have text bubble, instead wasting their time doing full voice acting.
Making it this far, it is no surprise this game has a lot of bad; however, it isn’t all negatives. There are two saving graces that helped bring some enjoyment to my playthrough, the exploration and the side quests. Exploration is key in Winter Ember and opens up a lot of the mechanics that shine. While you are given your main objective, there are tons of secrets you can find by going out of you way or doing some puzzle-solving. Remember the bow I mentioned earlier for being useless in combat? Well, Winter Ember provides a crafting menu to make a myriad of different arrows that can do anything that isn’t killing. From making grappling hooks to breaking down walls to activating electrical pylons, there is an arrow combination out there for you. Solving these little puzzles will reward you with valuables that can be exchanged at the black market in Anargal to purchase more arrow components, health pots, or various quest items needed. You can locate these consumables around the world, but they are very well-hidden making finding these valuables even more important to continue the cycle of exploration.
The introduction of side quests was the point that made me continue playing. All of the bad was piling up and I was at a point where I was just playing it to finish it. These side activities made me interested in these minor characters stories and I wanted to see what would happen. Anything from beating up a bunch of thugs to solving a puzzle to catch a thief, there was something different for me to do instead of just creating a path of destruction looking for Arthur’s assaulters. These quests really opened the game up by providing different puzzles to solve and stories to learn. These bite-size adventures were more interesting to me that the overarching story and I couldn’t get enough of them. My favorite quest was rescuing a prisoner by finding the components to his cage. One component was locked in a safe in a compound and the combination was written on a chalkboard in a completely different location. This level of tiered puzzle-solving was so enjoyable and I wish it would have presented itself more than the few instances it did. Even better, upon completion you would either receive a ton of money or a skill point. Winter Ember had a decent skill tree broken into the following three sections: combat, stealth, and utility. Combat and stealth are self-explanatory by upgrading Arthur’s health, damage, enemy perception along with some cool ones like giving Arthur’s sword poison or reducing the sound of his footsteps. However, utility was the best segment for me, giving me more inventory space, better prices on the black market, and easier lockpicking. All of which emphasized the exploration and looting I did throughout my playthrough.
Going into Winter Ember, I was looking forward to diving into the world I saw in the promotional material. I expected an interesting stealth game with a dark, cold atmosphere and while I did get some of that, it was left disappointed and wanting more. The game starts out so slow and feels likes you need to slog through to get to something more than it is. While I did start enjoying some aspects, I noticed that my initial issues didn’t seem to go away either. I think this game had potential and was a great idea, but the execution just wasn’t entirely complete.
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 4.5 /10
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