Hunted: The Demon's Forge review: A streamlined slaughter

Your first hour in the desperately dark world of Hunted: The Demon's Forge is not going to be a pleasant one. The preface-free introduction doesn't exactly instill a sense of literary excellence. The characters presented could generously be described as "grating." Combat is limited to a fairly uninspired mix of plain ol' shooting and plain ol' stabbing. There's a troubling realization that the game contains items, but no inventory, which everyone should be able to agree is absolute madness.

Slowly but surely, however, the game's oddly-shaped puzzle pieces begin to plop into place. See, most of the issues observed above are never really remedied -- instead, developer InXile Entertainment seems to have made an unconventional and fascinating decision to thoroughly nurture a small handful of other genuinely great ideas.
%Gallery-121458% Were it not for these spectacularly executed ideas, it would be easy to write Hunted off as a fantasy-themed Gears of War duplicate. Actually, even with its innovations, the similarities between the two titles are hard to ignore -- you'll be roadie-running between chest-high walls, carrying out gruesome executions of downed foes, racing to revive your incapacitated cohorts, and stopping-and-popping your way through wave after wave of vile Wargar, who -- hey! -- even kind of look like the equally vile Locusts.

Where Hunted stands apart from Epic's chainsaw-shooter is its unique approach to co-op. Rather than relying solely on flanking tactics or concentration of gunfire, success in Hunted demands the clever utilization of the game's two protagonists: Caddoc, a melee fighter who can survive in the thick of a monster swarm, and E'lara, an extremely powerful (and preposterously scantily clad) archer who splits her foes' wigs with Legolasian gusto.

Each wave of foes requires a different application of each adventurer's set of powers. For instance, Caddoc can summon a tornado to lift a group of enemies helplessly into the air, making them easy prey for E'lara. In a tougher solo fight, E'lara can buffet a foe with arcane arrows, dissolving their shield and making them more vulnerable to Caddoc's attacks. Fights are hard to resolve without your partner, whether they be an online friend or a competent AI teammate. (The game's split screen mode is, unfortunately, eye-meltingly difficult to play.)

Though these abilities lend themselves to frequent, satisfying bursts of teamwork, there aren't too many to go around. Caddoc and E'lara each have three weapon-based abilities and three magical abilities, all of which can be upgraded and augmented by crystals which are hidden across each chapter, as well as on the corpses of certain fallen foes. There's not much room for customization, but there's also no room for neglect, as each entry in your limited catalog of spells really counts.

Despite the game's flaws, that handful of brilliantly executed ideas makes Hunted a difficult game to ignore.

A somewhat beefier progression system can be found on each character's Talents menu, which delivers a cornucopia of health, mana, weapon damage and ammo capacity boosts in exchange for meeting certain goals. These include finding a certain number of the game's many, many squirreled-away collectibles, or killing a set number of enemies. You'll inadvertently unlock these Talents with surprising frequency -- but that doesn't make them any less rewarding.

Though a Talent unlocked late in the game affords you an extra inventory slot, you'll spend a majority of your time carrying one ranged weapon, one melee weapon, one piece of armor and one shield at a time. If you come across a new, appealing armament, you have to drop the one you have -- a bitter pill to swallow for the dyed-in-the-wool RPG hoarder. Still, there's no store to sell your stockpiled wares at, and even the game's strongest weapons eventually lose their powerful enchantments, ensuring that you'll never cling to one piece of equipment for too long.

The strange concoction of RPG character advancement blended with an action game's hasty loot management takes some getting used to but, ultimately, it's the best thing Hunted: The Demon's Forge has going for it. Unfortunately, though you'll go through weapons like they're rapidly going out of style, you'll wish you could just as easily swap out the game's two lead characters.

If Caddoc and E'lara have any motivation for their adventure through Hunted's campaign, it's never explained. They're painted as ruthless mercenaries whose relationship is built almost entirely out of competition and childish jeering, and the origins of their union is never truly explained. They're always quick to assert that they're not heroes, but rather, big fans of money -- until, of course, they inexplicably, uncharacteristically answer the call of unrewarded virtue.

Neither character makes a particularly concerted effort to be liked by anyone else in the game -- a goal at which they succeed at so swimmingly, it actually makes them genuinely unlikeable as the game's protagonists.

And, ultimately, one of Hunted: The Demon Forge's biggest strengths is also its biggest weakness -- there's just not much there. Yes, its constituent components are polished and impeccably streamlined, but after a few hours, there aren't any surprises in store. Without a compelling narrative to pull you along, it's really a toss-up as to whether the game's rewarding sense of progression and thoughtful cooperative combat is going to be enough to bring you to the end of its 14-or-so-hour campaign. The odds of you replaying through the game in Adventure+ mode or dabbling in the arena-building Crucible mode are slimmer still.

Despite the game's flaws, that handful of brilliantly executed ideas makes Hunted a difficult game to ignore. Role-playing/shooter hybrids aren't a new invention by any stretch of the imagination, but most of those hybrids simply borrow and juxtapose the best elements of their amalgamated genres. For better and worse, Hunted eschews those benchmark components, creating a unique, exciting and promising genre of its own design.

This review is based on a retail Xbox 360 copy of Hunted: The Demon's Forge provided by Bethesda Softworks.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.