I’ve been intrigued by Winter Ember for a while now. Stealthy, top-down RPGs aren’t typically my thing, but Winter Ember – from indie developer Skymachine Studios – captured my attention almost immediately. Maybe it had to do with the atmospheric environments, or the storyline that reminded me of a dark narrative along the lines of Batman. Perhaps it was the fact that the game was also getting the comic book treatment courtesy of manga publisher eigoMANGA, and the author of the series – Underworld series creator, Kevin Grevioux, who is also known for his work in the Marvel and DC universes. Or, maybe it was just the fact that the game comes from publisher Blowfish Studios – a personal favorite of mine.
Whatever it was, I was excited to get my hands on an early version of the game prior to the demo’s release during the Steam Next Fest. Winter Ember feels like a game I’ve played before, but that’s not a bad thing. From the stealthy strategy to the intrigue of the story, I’m looking forward to experiencing more of Winter Ember with its eventual full release.
If you haven’t already read Winter Ember Issue #0 “The Broken Rises”, you’ll be caught up immediately. The demo’s opening cutscene fills you in on the backstory of the player-controlled protagonist (and definition of “playboy”), Arthur Artorias, as well as the mysterious sins of the father that lead Arthur on his quest for vengeance.
You’re dropped onto a dark and dreary sea-side dock, with the tutorial making up your first moments of gameplay. Top-down movement feels pretty standard, and Arthur is easy to move around the area. Combat, on the other hand, took some getting used to – especially when it came to parrying incoming attacks. Combat doesn’t feel quite as tight as I’d like it – attacks feeling delayed, parrying not feeling consistent in terms of timing – but given that this is very much an early version of the game, I’m not worried that the combat will be finely tuned. The stealth mechanic, on the other hand, feels like it’s pretty much there.
Sneaking around in the shadows and avoiding being seen in the light is a huge component of Winter Ember’s gameplay, as Arthur makes his way around each area steering clear of being seen. It’s almost like an elevated Metal Gear Solid stealth system, where you’re able to extinguish light sources such as lanterns to gain the sneaky upper hand on unsuspecting enemies. Sneak attacks from behind feel as satisfying as they should be in a game like this, with Arthur having the ability to choose whether he knocks out the guard or outright kills them before picking up the body and hiding it in the shadows. Of course, keep in mind that each decision can come with its own benefits and consequences.
If Arthur is wounded during battle, he’ll start to bleed out, leaving a trail of blood behind him until he can find some health. Obviously, this puts the sneaking around strategy on ice, meaning it’s imperative to avoid the walking paths of the guards – or, as a more proactive solution, improve your combat skills. I’m excited by what I’ve already seen in Winter Ember’s stealth mechanic and am looking forward to what Skymachine Studios may have in store for making it even better for the full release.
Winter Ember’s story is what has really drawn me in, though. Even though the early narrative reminds me of something I’ve seen or read before, I can’t help but feel like it’s barely scratching the surface of what’s to come. After all, you don’t commit your game to receiving the graphic novel treatment if it’s just a retread on a story that’s already been done. Beyond the game, I’m excited to read the next releases of the comic series, especially to learn more about the history of the Artorias family, which I suspect goes well beyond just the sins of the father. Maybe I’m wrong, but the intrigue of this particular story has me ready to consume more.
Winter Ember has all the early makings of an entertaining stealth action-adventure game. There is still some work and fine-tuning to do, but what’s there in the demo will probably have fans of the genre excited for more. Be sure to check it out during the Steam Next Fest which takes place February 21-28.