Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, from developer InXile Entertainment, is an interesting mix of genres with a heavy emphasis on co-operative play. A blurb on the back of the box claims that it’s a ‘dungeon crawler for the Gears generation’, an interesting idea no doubt, but a claim that’s only partially true. The game leans more towards the ‘Gears’ side than the dungeon crawler side, resulting in an action heavy game with very little actual dungeon crawling. Part hack-n-slash, part cover shooter, and sprinkled with light RPG mechanics, Hunted is a solid game for what it does, but certain design issues, dated visuals and an overall lack of polish hold it back from rising above mediocrity.
Set in a dark fantasy world, Hunted tells the story of two mercenaries – the human warrior Caddoc and an elven archer named E’lara. Caddoc is the more serious of the two and prefers using a sword and a shield, while E’lara is a feisty elven chick who wears a predictably implausible costume and uses a bow and arrow in combat. The story appears to be a generic fantasy romp at first (and in many ways it is), but the dialog is surprisingly well written. The chemistry between the two characters is handled rather well without venturing into the romance territory as the relationship between Caddoc and E’lara is strictly professional. You’ll often hear them competing for kills Legolas and Gimli-style, calling each other names or even taking potshots at the various game design clichés found throughout the game. It gets a bit tiresome towards the end, but for the most part, the friendly banter between the two remains entertaining and carries a certain light-hearted appeal, something I didn’t expect from the game.
In co-op mode, the game allows two players to control either Caddoc or E’lara while single player lets you switch between the two at specific points in the levels. Hunted goes a long way in making it a rather different affair depending on which character the player is controlling. While playing as Caddoc, the game plays like any hack-n-slash game involving melee weapons and shields. You have the usual light/heavy attacks, blocking and rolling around. It’s all pretty standard stuff and works well enough, although it offers nothing you haven’t seen before.
Playing as E’lara, however, is a considerably different experience as it effectively turns the game into a third-person cover shooter, not unlike Gears of War. You take cover behind conveniently placed chest-high objects and walls, pop out to line a shot, and fire. It may seem like something that’s already been done to death, but replacing automatic firearms with a bow and arrow actually makes it a rather refreshing experience. The controls feel crisp and responsive and very soon you’ll be pulling off bloody headshots with ease. Bows also come in different flavors ranging from low-damage rapid firing ones to slow-firing high damage ‘sniper’ bows. Hunted’s ranged combat is definitely more enjoyable than the somewhat generic melee counterpart because of which most players would definitely find themselves wanting to play as E’lara.
In addition to their standard melee and ranged attacks, Caddoc and E’lara also have access to a handful of magical spells which can be unlocked by earning experience crystals gathered from fallen enemies or through exploration. These magical abilities are designed with co-op in mind and thus usually complement one another. For example, E’lara can freeze enemies with her arrows, which Caddoc can shatter with his melee weapons, while Caddoc can temporarily lift enemies around him making them easy targets for E’lara. There are also secondary elemental spells (fire balls, lightning, etc) which can be purchased from a secondary tree, but none of these feel quite as satisfying as the core combat.
Hunted’s levels are designed to emulate old-school dungeon crawlers, with multiple pathways, hidden areas and loads of baddies to slay. However this is where the game falters. The absence of an in-game map or even a compass makes the similar looking dungeons a pain to navigate, especially if you choose to explore beyond the obvious paths. Some levels have optional puzzles which can be solved to reach hidden areas housing special weapons and equipment, but the lack of an inventory system means you can only carry one weapon of each type. This makes exploration feel rather unrewarding as you’ll most likely find a better weapon just around the corner, forcing you to ditch the previous one. A proper inventory and loot system could have gone a long way in making Hunted a deeper experience. Instead, the game keeps the emphasis on action and constantly pushes you forward to the next big enemy encounter.
Speaking of enemies, you’ll run into hundreds of them throughout the adventure, with LOTR-like orcs (called Wargar here), skeletons and minotaurs making up the bulk of the rather limited bestiary. There are huge end-of-level boss fights, some of which could have been better designed. For example, an early boss fight had a great build up, but once you face the massive creature, you don’t actually get to fight it but kill it in a rather anticlimactic way. Thankfully, the combat always remains exciting if only a bit on the easier side. You’ll always find enough health and mana potions and it’s possible to revive your partner even from a distance should they go down during combat. In single player mode, your AI partner is more than capable of holding his/her own and is always quick at reviving you when you go down.
Hunted runs on Unreal Engine 3, and while it doesn’t look bad, it isn’t much of a looker either. There’s a lot of brown and gray in the environments and for the majority of the game you’ll be stuck in dark hallways and underground passages with only a few environments offering brighter settings. Pop-in is fairly common and it’s best if you don’t inspect textures closely. On the flipside, the game runs flawlessly and the consistent frame rate complements the fast paced action perfectly. The soundtrack is generic fantasy material and never elevates beyond that, whereas the voice acting is decent enough and matches the characters’ personalities perfectly.
The campaign should take you around 10 to 12 hours to finish on the normal difficulty setting. You could also spend some time hunting for collectibles and completing the long list of mini-challenges, which unlock permanent boosts for the characters. There’s also a bundled level editor called The Crucible, which lets you design your own ‘horde mode’ style missions if you’re so inclined. However, co-op remains the biggest draw of the game. Everything else is designed around that. Unfortunately, that itself has some issues on the PC version. The lack of in-game voice and text chat means you’ll have to resort to third-party communication software and finding other players is a rather painful process.
Hunted borrows a lot of ideas from a lot of other better games and manages to offer a surprisingly enjoyable co-operative experience. Unfortunately, some questionable design choices and bland visuals prevent it from being a whole-hearted recommendation.