May 20, 2024
A top-down stealth adventure, Winter Ember evokes that old school sensibility of "sneak or die". But is it fun? The Finger Guns review:

I think I’ve said it before, but I do love me a stealth game. Be it big budget affairs like Hitman and Dishonoured, or even indie offerings such as Mark of the Ninja, Desperados and El Hijo, that’s my jam. It can be first person, 2D, or even that isometric/top-down style, I love lurking about and not being spotted. So when Winter Ember landed at FGHQ, the interest was piqued.

A dark tale, akin to the backdrop that the Thief series established, Winter Embers is grim and serious. Well, that’s par for the season: winter is naturally bleak and dour. So, rather fittingly, is the story. A tale of revenge, players take up the cape of a young heir as he uncovers why his family was brutally murdered.

An isometric-ish adventure, focusing on the sneaky side of things, Winter Ember evokes the old school mentality of stealth. It is the focus, adding challenge rather than hand-holding players through checkpoints. But is it worth adding to the stealthy library? Let’s find out.

The Dark Night

Our story begins with a rather well animated scene of the protagonist, Arthur Artorias, escorting some ladies back to his mansion. Looking like George Stobbart of Broken Sword and living the bachelor sensibilities of Bruce Wayne, Arthur’s evening is somewhat jinxed by a cryptic conversation with his father. Thinking it odd, he goes off to get off.

That evening, however, things go awry when a group of men in Freemason-like hoods turn up. Seemingly murdering everyone, Arthur is saved by Vesna, one of his companions that managed to hide from the onslaught.

Some eight years later, and after much training and such, Arthur sets his sights on finding out what happened that fateful night. What were his father’s last words to him about? Who were the hooded men with extremely good facial hair and murderous intentions? Was it coincidence or part of a bigger plan that Vesna was there that night…?

What We Do In The Shadows

Obviously I’m not going to give the plot away, so we’ll look at the gameplay instead. Winter Ember plays similar in looks to the aforementioned Desperados, or Shadow Tactics, or even Commandos. But whilst it looks like those, it’s actually all in real time. Move Arthur with the left stick, camera with the right. The camera can only be moved horizontally, mind, not vertically. So you’re always stuck in this pseudo-isometric view, but at least you can see where you’re going.

Armed with cloak and dagger, Arthur’s movement are all… well, cloak and dagger. The primary emphasis is on sneaking about, and much like Garrett from Thief, stealing things along the way. Arthur can pickpocket guards, pick locks and climb to some degree. As events progress, new tools can be crafted to help traversal.

Whilst the ideal way to play is to sneak up to unsuspecting guards and either knock them out or murder them, there is swordplay if things go wrong. But it is sticky and awkward, and Arthur is not Zorro. I’ll touch on it more later, but preferably, stick to the shadows. They are your friend.

Everything The Light Touches Is Bad For Us

Thankfully, a lot of the locales that Arthur skulks about in are naturally dark, thanks to the titular season it’s set in. There is some usage of electricity, but light sources are primarily lamps, candles and other old-timey devices. Fortunately, this works in Arthur’s favour as it’s much easier to snuff a candle out than it is to disable the local power grid.

That comparison to Thief made at the beginning was no coincidence either, as Winter Ember seems to take a lot of inspiration from it. Not that that’s a bad thing, as sneaking about and leaving a trail of darkness in your wake is always a joy. But water-based arrows for that long distance light’s out? I mean, if you’re gonna tribute then go the whole hog, I suppose.

Guards don’t tend to investigate dark areas, so there is some strategic element involved. Make some egress into a room, eliminate the candles and sneak up onto a guard, job’s normally a good’un. Hide those bodies and it’ll be like Arthur was never there.

But it’s not just a strong set of lungs for blowing out lights that Arthur’s equipped with. He does have some nifty tools, too.

Assassin’s Greed

Winter Ember may seem like it’s cribbing a lot already from other games, so it may not surprise you to learn that it has a crafting and loot element too. Arrows are Arthur’s primarily crafted item here, but not for what you might think. Aside from the aforementioned water arrow, there are fire and smoke that can be crafted. But before you think, “Oh cool, setting people alight with fire arrows”, they’re actually more for traversal.

As are claw-tipped arrows with rope attached for climbing certain ledges, or blunt-tipped for destroying barricades. To be expected, not all of these types are available straight away. Schematics will need to be found, whilst some can purchased from the black market shops dotted around. Which is where the looting comes in.

Arthur can and will steal things, either right in front of him or through contextual lockpicking of various chests. Trinkets and whatnot can be sold, fueling Arthur’s criminal activities. As I say, it’s all pretty standard and not out of place in a game similar to Dishonoured, Thief and other dark adventures. What about the scope of the game, the payoff?

A Long Winter

Depending on how you view game length, Winter Ember is either going to be value for money or will drag on for longer than necessary. At the moment, I’m on the fence, as I’m normally one for level/mission structure to help with the pacing in this kind of game. When it comes to Dishonoured, for example, I like an end level summary to tell me how I’m doing (no kills, not spotted, etc).

In terms of level structure with Winter Ember, I could tell you where I am, but I can’t tell you what level or mission it is. Or how much of the story is progressing, to be honest. On one hand, it means the game flows well, seamlessly loading (on PS5) from one area to the next.

On the other, it means the above: I have no scale of how well I’m doing. Not that games have to be rushed, mind, it would just be nice to know how well I’m doing in Arthur’s revenge quest. That in itself isn’t a major gripe, but I do have a couple of smaller ones.

The Night Comes For Us

What I’ve described of the game so far is positive, and I have really enjoyed my time with Winter Ember. There are some technical and performance issues that both highlight it’s indie game nature, and unfortunately niggle like a loose tooth.

My biggest issue is the combat, which doesn’t feel very fluid when you’re rumbled and have to sword fight. Put more than one bandit/guard in the melee, and you may as well reload your last save. With taking damage comes bleeding, which can only be stemmed with bandages. Which, annoyingly, are few and far between until shops become available.

This is an issue, as enemies follow blood. It’s hard to be stealthy when you’re constantly leaking. The other combat-based gripe is that knocking an enemy out doesn’t sleep them for long. So, if you’re backtracking, you’ll potentially be spotted by a once-knocked out guard, now more vigilant. It seems easier just to kill them outright, which whilst there doesn’t seem to be any pros/cons to it, it muddles the stealth sensibility somewhat.

Other than that, there are some audio issues that bothered me. Against the ambient, Amon Tobin-like score, voices sound recorded at different levels. Even two characters conversing sound like one shouting and the other calming them down. Even Arthur himself sounds like the voice actor got a little too close to the mic at times.

Bringing Light To The Darkness

Minor issues aside, the presentation of Winter Ember is actually very well done. It may not have big budget, but on the PlayStation 5 the world of Anargal looks well thought out. Sporting late 19th century architecture, sneaking about taverns, manor houses and whatnot is extremely enjoyable.

As I say, I like stealth games, and when this works, it works well. Lurking about, hiding in chests as guards pass, hopping out and knocking them out is the name of the game here. On those occasions of linearity, Arthur moves like a ghost through the shadows. Crafting tools for climbing, robbing someone’s pantry for silverware and generally being a silent thief, that’s what makes a game like Winter Ember great.

Finding Skill Tokens and turning Arthur into a better spook is worth investing in, spurring the need to go off the beaten track and find more of them. Silencing your footsteps, making picking pockets and locks quicker, these are all par for the course in stealth games. And ultimately, that’s what you’d want if you’re a fan of the genre.

The aforementioned technical issues don’t put me off of playing completely, only at times when it’s late and I really can’t be bothered to take out the same guards that killed me before again.

Go Dark, Man

So, as you may have gathered, Winter Ember is going to get a positive recommendation from me. I haven’t finished the game yet, as it does look to be a bit of a mission to do so. But I have played enough to be invested in carrying on. I want to see Arthur carry out his mission of revenge after being left for dead and set on fire. I would like to know who the religious/cultist types (usually synonymous to each other) are and why the Artorias’ were selected. Also, see what Vesna’s part in all this is.

It may not come as a surprise to say that stealth games can’t be rushed. So if you’re expecting a five hour indie game, you’re going to be disappointed. Conversely, if you do like stealth, I can guarantee the fun in exploring, taking objectives in different order and using inquisitive thoughts to go off exploring.

Heed my warning about combat and try to avoid getting into it in the first place, and you’ll be golden. I mean, you may pick up combat better than I and Errol Flynn your way through it all. There’s different levels of difficulty in Winter Ember, trophy-dependent too, so perhaps you’ll want to do it on the Faceless Man setting. It’s the hardest for a reason; I gave it a spin, died insanely quickly.

“Pure” stealth games did decline for a while, but thanks to the likes of Hitman’s 2016 revival, there is clearly a market for them. For players like me, for example, who cut his teeth on the likes of Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid and the like. If this applies to you, and you like the style of top-down/isometric games, then this is a winning combination.

It may have some technical issues that highlight the indie budget, but the good in Winter Ember outweighs the bad. It has all the stealth trappings; the frustration, the patience, as well as the stickiness of the combat, to harken back to the olden days. It may not be original, yet it doesn’t matter when it looks this nice and plays like the classics.

Winter Ember is available now on PlayStation 4 & 5 (reviewed on latter), Xbox One and Series S|X, Nintendo Switch and PC.

Developer: Sky Machine Studios
Publisher: Blowfish Studios

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

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