When I think of a good old fashion stealth game, I think of a hooded figure with a blade as sharp as his skill set. Throw them into a Victorian-esque world with a classic revenge tale with nothing left to lose and you will have painted the picture for Sky Machine Studios’ latest accomplishment. ‘Winter Ember’, an isometric stealth action title with a flair for vengeance, is a carefully crafted modern take on an age-old game style. Thanks to Blowfish Studios, we got to check out the Xbox series X version of Winter Ember, and for a bit of added lore, I would recommend looking into the Graphic Novel of the same name.
I am a big fan of artistically unique cutscenes compared to the gameplay graphics. Whether used for a bit of impact or to help set the tone for the story, the graphic novel style opening was able to grip me from the get-go. Arthur Atorias, a would-be playboy that lives carefree under the roof of his father’s wealth, is dealt the worst hand possible in the dead of the night, leaving his life hanging in the balance of a woman he hardly knew. Transitioning from the top of the food chain to years of toiling in the dark, it has finally come time to seek his vengeance and return to an unrecognizable city of Anargal.
Moving into the actual game presentation itself, the world and players are full 3D models, unlike the 2D Graphic novel introduction. As any Isometric game goes, Winter Ember has a drawn-out camera view to allow the player to see the world as one big puzzle to solve. The cold and dreary atmosphere is the perfect backdrop for the nighttime-inspired environments. Deep shadows from Grim lighting can dramatically change as you strategically dampen a flame to allow for extra paths to be taken without being seen. The ominous looping music did add a layer of gloom to the experience, but it won’t steal the show. It served its purpose; however, it was not nearly as dynamic as it could have been.
The environments themselves were a factor in how you would progress through the game and tied in with the gameplay. Even though you could see the whole arena, unless you had a direct line of sight, a guard may not be visible to you, offering a surprise if you attempt to cross a room without looking both ways.
There were subtle hints on the HUD when you were exposed with too much light or a ripple of sound waves on the mini-map to say you were making too much noise. Each area offered its own map and there were save stations to be found, but they could be far and few between which resulted in some frustrating resets if you are not careful.
A level of verticality could give you an advantage if you used an arrow with a rope attachment which means you could enter the building with much less resistance. A blunt attachment could smash a brittle blockage, a fire-tipped arrow could melt a frozen opening or the standard arrow could break a lantern or set off a horse to cause a distraction.
The level of customization with the arrows once you found the recipe made the game a living puzzle on when and where to use the right item. It made me double-take and thoroughly search an area for more items to steal for cash or materials to craft more arrows. Add on the skill tree to make pickpocketing faster, stealth kills being able to have devastating follow-up moves, or simply improve your elusiveness.
A particularly interesting feature was blood trails either by yourself or your victim. It added an extra layer of strategy to your choices. Even if you gut the hapless guard and hide the body, a blood trail can lead the next guard right to the crime. In saying that, you could also use that to lure the next guard away and slip by without a second confrontation. If your attempted stealth kill was foiled as he caught you lurking, you can engage in melee combat with blocking, parry, charged attacks, and dodges all at your fingertips. The combat can be a little clunky and much less satisfying than pulling off a clean execution. Be wary though as one too many stabs taken will cause you to leave a blood trail, other guards can follow the trail until you use a bandage to stop the bleeding.
With the tone firmly set in place, we turn the focus to the protagonist himself to see how he fits into the mix. There is an interesting plot to unravel about what happened the night that Arthur lost everything, but there are the inevitable generic troupes of revenge that rear their ugly head. I found it hard to connect with him and his monotone delivery no matter the context of the conversation. Not to say it was a deal-breaker, I felt the same way about most characters. I found that investing in the additional side quests, exploring the maps for new and hidden paths, and honing my skills gave its own satisfaction and was used as additional world-building.
Stealth and finesse are key to Winter Ember’s success, play it safe and play it smart, and you will be rewarded with an enriching journey. Be too hasty or burn through your materials and you will cause the game’s experience to be a much harder adventure than any of the three difficulties could offer.
- Stealth elements are rewarding when mastered
- Field of vision added to the puzzle element to navigating the world
- Deep customization on the arrow system made resource gathering worth while
- Lighting was a key element to the mood and in game stealth mechanics
- Clever blood system made decisions carry more weight
- Delivery on dialogue was hit and miss
- Save stations could be far and few between
- Combat outside of stealth was much less satisfying