Winter Ember is a top-down stealth RPG developed by Skymachine Studios and published by Blowfish Studios. It blends engaging stealth mechanics, RPG character progression, punishing combat, and a sprawling conspiracy plot. However, it ultimately stumbles and cannot bring it all together into one convincing package.
Players control Arthur Artorias, the only surviving member of his murdered aristocratic family. After their death, Arthur trained to become an experienced thief and assassin, capable of getting in and out of the most secure places so that he could seek both the truth and revenge. The story’s setup is far from anything new for video games, and it remains largely familiar throughout its course. Still, it manages not to be a detriment to the experience.
However, elements surrounding the story are where some issues begin to appear. The first is in the game’s cutscenes. They are animated in a cross between old-school anime and a Saturday morning cartoon. The style works quite well on its own, truth be told. Still, it causes whiplash through its contrast with the game’s dark victorian world that often feels generic to the point of banality. The two styles seem so at odds that they feel like different projects, which manages to get in the way of the game’s story, even if slightly. The problem is admittedly a small one, but it is emblematic of the overarching issues of cohesion that plague Winter Ember.
One disparity in the game’s design is its emphasis on exploration and map design. Winter Ember is built to allow players to figure out its large levels by themselves. There are no quest markers, no list of options for approaching your goal, and even the map is so difficult to read that it is generally useless. But, the majority of the levels are designed to feel cluttered and befuddling while also having obtuse and cloudy linear progression through them. This is also not helped by the game’s isometric perspective and repetitive environment design, making it more difficult to navigate the environment. I ran into multiple instances throughout the game where my progression stalled until I happened to do one random little thing to pass through a bottleneck in the level, and each time was as frustrating as the last.
A similar issue is also present in its RPG tree. There are around 70 skills split into trees for Stealth, Combat, and Utility. Introducing a skill tree into an immersive game like Winter Ember can be tricky. It is difficult to have impactful skills while also offering enough options in each level for players who don’t have those skills. Winter Ember struggles on this front, causing even some of the most exciting skills to feel as though they aren’t useful because they come up so infrequently. Other skills, especially combat ones, feel so trivial that they don’t seem worth the skill points.
What Winter Ember does nail, however, is its stealth. Sneaking through its environments and using cover to peek around and take out enemies feels good and filled with choices. For example, sneaking up behind guards gives players the option of taking them out lethally or non-lethally. Choking them unconscious means that they will eventually wake up again, but killing them leaves a pool of blood behind for others to find during their rounds. This adds a great layer of decision-making to the rest of the stealth experience.
As players steal items to sell and gather supplies, they can also pick up resources to craft arrows with. The arrow crafting system also adds a fun layer of depth to the experience. Players piece together an arrowhead, shaft, and end to make numerous combinations to customize their playstyle and figure out the level. The game’s stealth is also helped by its punishing combat system. In melee combat, players can hold their own with an enemy or maybe two, but it takes some getting used to, and having any more than that makes it near impossible. Some players may not like how harshly they are shepherded into being stealthy, but it forces you to use all of the game’s systems and really learn its mechanics, making the experience much more rewarding.
Unfortunately, the aspects of Winter Ember surrounding its core gameplay loop are so lackluster. The game’s stealth mechanics and tight design have the potential to be a solid new entry in the genre, but the game’s less polished parts ultimately hold it back. It would be great to see a sequel that could refine Winter Ember’s weaker parts and iterate on its successful stealth gameplay, but only time will tell if that’s in the cards.
Winter Ember is available on April 19 for PC.
- Rating - 5/105/10
Unfortunately, the aspects of Winter Ember surrounding its core gameplay loop are so lackluster. The game’s stealth mechanics and tight design have the potential to be a solid new entry in the genre, but the game’s less polished parts ultimately hold it back.