Winter Ember is an isometric stealth game. In it you’ll find yourself skulking around in the shadows, sneaking up on and cuttings guards’ throats, and shooting rope arrows at convenient wooden beams to climb things. It’s like Thief changed its camera angle, complete with you just idly hoovering up miscellaneous loot as you pass through rooms.
The game begins with a cartoon cutscene that loosely sets up the plot: Arthur is attacked in his family mansion, scarring him, and then he returns eight years later to seek revenge. The plot is okay, but the early game suffers because there are so few details about the characters or the attackers that there isn’t really much to go on. Once I was given control of Arthur the actual plot quickly became secondary to simple thievery, as you wander around to steal things and only really head towards the objective to find more places to burgle. I wasn’t convinced to change this mindset when I finally reached what felt like a distant objective only to find the person I was there for was, in fact, in another castle, when I just wanted to finally get some details.
I wasn’t too interested in the story, but I was still interested in stealing from nameless NPCs, so the actual sneaking part of the game is pretty good initially. It’s what you expect, you’ll sneak around in shadows, putting out lanterns and candles along the way, creeping up behind guards to take them out, that kind of thing. There are a few unique considerations, though, such as killing a guard not only means hiding the body, it also means there’ll be a blood trail that a passing guard will notice and follow, putting them on alert. You can knock them out instead so there’s no trail, but they’ll wake up later. You’ll also find the increasingly popular tall grass hiding spots dotted around, or convenient trunks you can jump into to hide.
The problem is that for everything Winter Ember does right, it does two things wrong. Putting out candles as you sneak around is a typical, but good stealth mechanic, but when you’re in the dark the entire screen dulls. This basically made me feel like I was squinting to see, I kept walking directly into guards that I just couldn’t see on the screen, I had to get up and close the curtains. The isometric viewpoint isn’t great either. You can rotate the camera but you can’t zoom in or out, and the side of the screen happens to extend to about a corridor’s worth of space in-game, so you regularly find yourself slowly edging up a corridor and then having to immediately turn around in a very immersion breaking display of panic as two guards come onto the screen as you approach, fully lit. You have to craft arrows, which can be done quickly from a radial menu, but once you’ve used all of an arrow it’s no longer on the radial menu for you to craft, making you go into the awkward menus. There are lots of poorly considered things like this throughout the game that just constantly pull you out of it, or frustrate you, and eventually they combine to take the sheen off the serviceable stealth.
Then there’s the completely unserviceable combat, which I can only imagine is so bad to discourage combat in a stealth game. It’s the only explanation for the wonky parry timing, parry ripostes being about eight attacks with your sword instead of a satisfying finisher, enemy blocks taking three charged hits to take down, but them only blocking long enough to charge one hit and it regenerating in between blocks. It’s just awful and I found myself actually swearing aloud every time I got into a fight. Admittedly, this was often because of the game itself behaving oddly, such as multiple times when I snuck up behind a guard, pressed the assassinate button, my character approached and then suddenly the guard was alerted and turned around to fight. I understand the compulsion to have tough or rough combat to discourage it, but it really just causes frustration when you can’t really escape. This is compounded by the fact that it’s pretty easy, so it’s just an annoying and inconsistent inconvenience most of the time.
Controls in general tend to feel a bit off, particularly when trying to aim your bow or walk along tight platforms where I found myself regularly falling off. Climbing onto boxes is always a unique challenge, as sometimes it just won’t show the prompt, so you can’t do it, other times it does it but you get stuck in a tiny gap between two of the boxes, and occasionally it works without incident but you did it to see if it’d help you get up somewhere that looked like it should be climbable from there, but isn’t. You’re expected to double tap circle to use the roll dodge to jump across gaps and it’s so unreliable and inaccurate that it’s almost laughable, especially when some of these gaps are three storeys up and take 75% of your health.
At least the game looks good and the levels are pretty well designed, even if the map could be a bit more helpful with helping you find your way through it. It really does look nice when you’re stood in light so the colours aren’t muted, it’s almost a shame that its gameplay is entirely predicated upon not standing in said lights.