I’m something of a stealth game aficionado. After spending my youth convinced that I didn’t like stealth games thanks to forced stealth segments in every PS2 action title, I found my love for the genre thanks to titles like Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid 2. Since then, I like to think that I’ve tried the vast majority of stealth games out, so when I was given the chance to take a look at a demo for the upcoming isometric stealth title Winter Ember I was excited. Of course, it wasn’t too long before that excitement led to frustration.
There is some parallel between the Metal Gear Solid titles and Winter Ember beyond the fact that they’re both stealth titles. MGS games have a tendency to start out with overly long opening cutscenes that speak a lot without saying anything relevant to the player, especially the most recent games in the series. Winter Ember does the same thing but without the benefit of familiar characters or an established franchise to make sitting through the opening worth it. It’s not that the cutscene is bad, far from it. It’s hand-drawn animation that looks pretty solid, it’s just that it doesn’t make much sense or explain anything and keeps us from getting into the game.
Of course, it’s all entirely possible that this opening is thanks to this being a short demo, and in the end, the cutscene might be preceded by some gameplay or it might start to make more sense. There’s definitely an unfinished vibe to it, the way it suddenly cuts to a black screen with white text that explains what else has happened rather jarringly. Be that as it may, the cutscene should probably have been left out, because it talked a lot about stuff that I didn’t know or care about, without explaining why everyone I come across immediately tries to kill me.
After the game does startup, you’re greeted with some simple fundamentals of the gameplay. The first thing you do is learn some combat, and it’s here that the clunky nature of the gameplay becomes apparent. Combat follows a similar model to other stealth-action titles like Assassin’s Creed. You can randomly slash at your enemy, but the best method is to either break through their guard or parry their strike and counter. So combat becomes a very dull game of waiting for the strike you know is coming, followed by tapping block during the very tight window to get a counter in.
The big problem here is that your attack range is abysmal. Even parrying or blocking your enemy can send them just out of your attack range, meaning you’ve got to keep moving towards the enemy. Your enemies aren’t much better mind. They all repeat the exact same sequence of actions over and over again, making them predictable. They slash, then jab, then slash, then jab, then spend ages blocking nothing even while you stand there. Throw in a few random dodges backward and forward for no reason and that’s every fight you get into. These guards you’re fighting just don’t feel reactive at all, simply enacting a pre-programmed routine.
It’s possible that Winter Ember purposefully has tedious and annoying combat though. After all, the point of the game is stealth. Even the loading screen tips remind you that you should be aiming for a stealthy approach as much as possible. The problem with that is that the stealth isn’t exactly top-notch. It’s not terrible either mind, it just feels very loose. You have a visibility and noise indicator so you can make sure that you’re as hard to find as possible, but beyond that, most of the other mechanics need a lot of tweaking before they’re ready for prime time.
You can cuddle up to a wall to get into cover, however, this isn’t something you can do to every wall. You can only get into cover if the game flashes up the prompt, and even then, it’ll only do it if you’re away from the wall a bit. Numerous times I ended up being seen because I had to move away from the wall to get into cover, and some guard I couldn’t see yet spotted me while I was doing it. There’s also an issue with the stealth kills in that you’re supposed to be able to stealth kill directly from cover, but sometimes the prompt fails to show up.
On the plus side, the guards you’re faced with are hilariously easy to sneak up on. You don’t even have to crouch. You can walk up to guards at full speed and as long as you press the button quickly enough, they’ll go down before they spot you. That ends up being a god-send most of the time, as your crouched walking speed is annoying slow. However, none of this saves the stealth from the two biggest problems it has: upgrades and visibility.
Winter Ember has a visibility mechanic. You can’t see around corners unless your character is actively looking around them. While that works fine when you’re peaking around corners in cover, when you’re just moving around the map, your visibility is pitifully short. It’s far too easy to be sneaking along and blunder butthole first into a guard that you couldn’t see because he was 3 feet in front of you. There’s a similar issue when looking through windows or keyholes that your visibility cone is too small, and often you won’t see traps or guards even if you’re looking for them.
That last part is where the upgrades problem comes in. In many ways, the upgrades feel pointless. In a game like this, it probably would have been better if we had our full suite of stealth mechanics available from the get-go. The reason your visibility cone through doors and windows is so small is that you can upgrade it a few times to improve it. The problem is that this particular upgrade feels like something you should have from the get-go. It also doesn't really make much sense in-universe. What is happening when you get this upgrade? Are you taking ecstasy to dilate your pupils or something?
In the end, my time with Winter Ember had to be cut short. I had just reached the open-world section of the game, which incidentally makes the fact that guards attack you on site even worse with your limited visibility. At this point, my character got stuck for the second time, and nothing I could do would get them out. I gave up trying to dodge roll my way back into reality after about 15 minutes.
So, as weird as it sounds to say, there is a good stealth game hiding here somewhere inside Winter Ember. The world looks pretty good, with a solid graphical style that is consistent without looking overly generic. The basics of stealth and combat are also relatively solid, it just feels like the game is missing a few key tweaks that could make it a much more playable experience. Increased visibility of your enemies from the start would be a good step, as would making your attack slightly more usable for that matter. Of course, whether or not any of that happens is something only our enlightened future selves will be able to tell.
TechRaptor covered Winter Ember on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.