There are plenty of stealth escapades available on consoles these days, so each new release has to do something a little bit special to keep my attention for long. With Winter Ember, it was the interesting isometric viewpoint that lulled me in, whilst the dark setting reminded me of the Thief series – it was already ticking a lot of the right boxes for me before I started playing, so expectations were high.
Unfortunately, the game itself is a bit of a mixed bag. Whilst I wouldn’t say I had a bad time playing Winter Ember, it had a few too many missteps and poor design choices to make it an easy stealth-adventure to recommend.
Check out some screenshots down below:
Winter Ember puts players in the role of Arthur Artorias, a once wealthy young man from a well-respected family who found his life torn apart when a group of mysterious men attack his home and murder his loved ones. He manages to escape and live a life of desolate obscurity but still seeks vengeance, so trains to work in the shadows in order to kill his enemies. Thus, eight years on from the life-shattering events, he returns to find out who the men that attacked his home were, what they wanted with his family, and, of course, get revenge.
This means traversing across a semi-open world, sneaking through the shadows, and taking out enemies without being noticed, with stealth very much at the forefront of Winter Ember. There are plenty of different places to take cover within levels and you’ll spend most of your time monitoring the positions of enemies whilst carefully sulking around and hiding out of sight. When the time comes and they can’t see you? You can strike them down with ease, loot their bodies, and move on through the level.
One interesting feature tied to this is the line of vision. Whilst you can see the environment ahead of you, you’ll only actually see enemies if they’re in your physical line of sight. This means you’ve got to be extra careful when sneaking around because you just don’t know who might be waiting around the corner. Fortunately, the same applies to Arthur, with enemies unaware of his presence unless they’re looking directly at him. It allows him to get the upper hand over foes, especially when he’s peering at them through windows or even key holes in doors.
“For every good thing Winter Ember did, it followed it up with something that’d annoy me. It wasn’t bad enough for me to stop playing the game (and stealth purists will probably appreciate some aspects of it more than others), but there were times where I did find myself thinking ‘I could be playing something better than this’.”
It’s something I both liked and disliked. Not knowing who might be walking nearby because they’re out of your line of sight added a lot of tension to the experience, whilst it also demanded that I paid careful attention to my surroundings and plotted out my movements. On the flipside, it completely slowed the pace of the game down, whilst there were also occasions where my line of sight felt less forgiving than it should be. I wouldn’t struggle to notice an enemy’s presence behind some crates or a table in real life, so Arthur shouldn’t either.
Of course, whilst it’s best to play it sneaky in Winter Ember, there will be occasions where you’ll end up caught and have to fight your way through some enemies. Luckily, Arthur is a dab-hand at combat and can unleash light attacks, heavy guard-breaking attacks, a nimble dodge, as well as parry incoming attacks. The combat feels a little clunky and attacks don’t always flow together nicely, but it’s adequate enough to get used to if you do find yourself in battle.
If you’re in a one-on-one fight, chances are you’ll be able to beat an enemy with ease – so much so that it got to a point where I found it easier to take out certain enemies in combat as opposed to worrying about sneaking past them. If there is more than one enemy, though? That can be trouble, especially with a lack of healing items found in the game. It’s easy for Arthur to be overwhelmed by foes and there were a few occasions where I had to frustratingly survive through some lengthy sections with barely any health because of them (and enemies will follow your blood trail which is also hindersome), so be warned: if you can’t isolate enemies, try to stick to the shadows.
Check out some screenshots down below:
It’s not only in the combat where Winter Ember can feel clunky. For example, Arthur is able to jump, but he can only do so in specific places – some of which are obvious, and some of which are less so. There’ll even be time when you can’t jump over something that you SHOULD be able to, which broke the immersion a little. The controls could also feel unnecessarily finicky at times which could make sneaking and taking cover feel awkward, whilst there were a few technical glitches that regularly occurred such as getting stuck in the environment or having enemies lock into a specific position and not move.
At the same time, it has its moments where everything works and it can feel great to play. Finding the perfect route to sneak through a locked building, taking out a group of stalking enemies without getting caught, looting your surroundings and using your resources with the intricate crafting system, unlocking new skills to improve your abilities, using your bow to launch an assortment of arrows to distract foes or traverse the environment… there were plenty of occasions when playing where I was completely enthralled by the action, with the game living up to the stealth greats that inspired it. I was a big fan of the visuals too, and whilst the dark and dingy Victorian-inspired setting might not have too many sights of beauty, it certainly makes for a well-designed and attractive setting for this dark adventure to take place in.
It’s just a shame that there wasn’t consistency with it all. For every good thing Winter Ember did, it followed it up with something that’d annoy me. It wasn’t bad enough for me to stop playing the game (and stealth purists will probably appreciate some aspects of it more than others), but there were times where I did find myself thinking ‘I could be playing something better than this’.
Winter Ember Review
Winter Ember has some REALLY cool moments, but some iffy design choices, technical issues, and clunky mechanics let the overall experience down. It’s not an awful game by any means and there are plenty of times when the game can really shine, but they’re outweighed by the more frustrating (and typically more common) problems that the game has.
I’m sure stealth fans will get plenty of joy out of its slower and more methodical pace, but Winter Ember had a few too many issues to make it an easy title to recommend to the average gamer.
Developer: Sky Machine Studios
Publisher: Blowfish Studios
Platform(s): PlayStation 5 (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC