Hunted: The Demon's Forge has a rather cookie-cutter plot, to the point where it almost feels like a paint-by-numbers hack-and-slash. You are Caddoc and/or E'lara, greatest warrior of an unspecified kingdom within an unspecified empire. You fight hordes of orcs, undead and demons in the name of profit (mostly). You've got your sword, your bow, and 20+ hours of fighting to do. You've got a partner, the pithy Elven archer E'lara (and/or the human male Caddoc), and you both share a "Deathstone" that lets you get magic when you power it with crystals lying around the world. The crystals have mostly been forgotten — except by a major enemy. Hunted: The Demon's Forge has a couple of wrinkles and enough heart to make it relatively easy to look past its many flaws. It's sure to be fondly remembered by many players, not because it was great, but because it was just plain fun. (Unsurprisingly, InXile also developed the similar The Bard's Tale from 2004.)
Sadly, Hunted's problems jump out almost immediately. The models for E'lara and Caddoc are decent, but every other model in the game looks jaggie-tastic and lacks detail. Weren't we supposed to stop seeing blatant polygons in curves five years ago, with the launch of the Nintendo Wii? (Yes, I said and meant the Wii, not the 360 or PS3; some of these are seriously that bad.) The game relies entirely on reasonable but simple effects to get graphical meaning across, with blood spatters on clothing and the ground in a simple, repetitive effect, and fire is only passable. (Any time a character is hot, he or she is significantly more detailed, so this could be chalked up to conservation of development budget.)
The sound effects and music are generic and more than a little repetitive, but sufficient. Voice acting is at worst phoned-in and at best passable, with the main characters tending to be the best across the board, particularly when trading their witty — if increasingly mutually sexist — barbs with one another. This game's presentation is devoid of detail and lacking in graphical style to make up the difference. You would be forgiven for thinking of it as a generic God of War clone, except it has little of the over-the-top mayhem that made that classic series.
The gameplay is not exceptional, either, consisting of fairly typical hack-and-slash, with controls just a hint on the wrong side of intuitive in spite of using the traditional two-button fighting controls, with shoulder buttons serving various special purposes — falling into the classic trap of one button doing different things in different contexts. It doesn't help that the two characters, in spite of theoretically being very different, use the exact same controls, with Caddoc getting the only unique options outside of puzzles. Only he gets a typical "rage gauge" that lets him use superpowered attacks; E'lara has a larger arrow count compared to Caddoc's sufficient supply of crossbow bolts, but that is hardly considered a superpower.
When playing solo, the controls for guiding your partner are virtually useless; you only get some control when in the middle of a puzzle, and even then, it's restricted to a single contextual button, thereby significantly limiting the complexity of puzzles. To try and put emphasis on teamwork even in single-player, the game occasionally uses "spirit stones" to force you to switch from one character to another. It's annoying if you have a preference for playing as one of the characters. This is on top of the fact that the primary source of upgrades is a series of increasingly arbitrary fetch quests. Whether it's finding more deathstones or simple gold, you're not presented with a lot of choice, and most of the choices you do have are almost entirely obvious.
All of this, however, is matched against one well-developed central feature and a couple of well-handled ideas: the co-op. Two people on one screen is simply the way this game was meant to be played. Online co-op is theoretically available for the less social, but it was spotty, if smooth, when it worked. The co-op is beautifully smooth and works, in spite of splitting the screen horizontally and significantly constraining your view. Players can actively work together, including healing options, which will feel very familiar to Resident Evil 5 players. The combination is fun and makes the game's voice work and writing, even at its weakest, significantly more fun in a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" sort of way. In short, play this game with a buddy.
Hunted features third-person-shooter cover mechanics in a hack-and-slash game, and they're surprisingly effective and define E'lara's value as an ally. Enemies occasionally use it themselves, making her play style more like a shooting gallery in many cases — particularly when a co-op Caddoc is doing his job and keeping things away from her so she doesn't have to draw her sword. Somehow, this feels right, even when the controls are frustrating and the other gameplay mechanics get in the way. Unfortunately, this makes the single-player portion, which forces you to use Caddoc much of the time and often has E'lara ignoring cover entirely, that much less tolerable.
Finally, the game's got some amount of writing heart. Sure it's pretty much a tropefest, but if one resource in the game doesn't let down, it's the writing, which sells the voice actors' wit and is surprisingly practical. Good, well-thought-out writing and characterization can excuse unoriginality to some extent, and it's here in spades, even if the acting doesn't always reinforce that too well. Even at its worst, the writing is reasonably enjoyable.
Paint-by-numbers adventures show up every so often and tend to be fondly remembered even if they aren't very good by most standards. This works out in favor of Hunted: The Demon's Forge. To maximize good memories of this game, play with a friend in the same room, decide if you want to deal with the passable voice acting tonight, and don't think too hard about the characters looking like upscaled PS2 models. If you're not sure on the game, wait for a price drop or two, and a weekend where you and a buddy don't have much to do.
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