Winter Ember is an isometric stealth game developed by Sky Machine Studios and published by Blowfish Studios. It is available on Windows PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and for the purpose of my review I was playing the PlayStation 5 version.
In Winter Ember you take on the role of Arthur Artorias who is the only survivor of a brutal massacre that devastated your whole family's legacy and removed them from the history books. Arthur was thought to have also succumbed to the massacre, however eight years later, Arthur emerges from his exile as a faceless man who seeks to begin his mission of unravelling the dark truth surrounding these incidents.
Winter Ember is very much a stealth focused game, so there’s no surprise that you must spend as much of your time lurking in the shadows and sneaking through the houses and streets undetected. You can choose to be merciful and simply knock your enemies out; but be warned, they’ll wake up again. You can instead simply cut their throats for a more permanent solution, but be warned, the bloodstains you leave behind will be a dead giveaway that something sinister has happened. Before each mission, you must prepare your loadout, in which you’ll be able to choose between 30 different types of arrows. You can choose from things like smoke arrows to blind the enemies, so you can sneak past, or you can add on toxins to create a poisonous gas, so you have the freedom to use them in a defensive way or an offensive way. Featured within Winter Ember there are three different skill trees that you can level up according to your playstyle - stealth, combat and utility, and over the span of these three skill trees there are over 70 skills that you can choose from to exact your vengeance.
Typically, stealth is absolutely not my strongest aspect of gaming, meaning I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of such games. One of the main reasons that I couldn’t get along with the majority of the Assassin's Creed series was because even at the time, I found the controls very clunky, and it made being stealthy such an impossible task for me. However, on the flip side, there have been a few stealth based games that have been very enjoyable for me despite the stealth aspect such as Dishonored and Thief, and it's clear that Winter Ember took inspiration from these titles.
The control scheme is fairly easy on paper, yet somehow I found even pulling off the most basic of tasks to be quite fiddly. This became irritating for me because I wasn’t only trying to remain in the shadows, but I was doing so whilst having to concentrate far more than I felt to be necessary just to function. There were often times when I would be trying to snuff the flame on a lantern, and instead I’d be looting a chest or trying to open a door, which became slightly frustrating to me. Alongside this, the combat was fairly clunky as well. I know that stealth is the main attraction in Winter Ember, however, having a great arsenal of tools available to me filled me full of hope that stealth wasn’t going to be the ONLY way. Unfortunately, using these tools and putting them into action was problematic. Light attacks are fine, yet somehow a heavy attack takes three hits to break down the enemies guard metre, and this metre seems to begin to fill up again before I can break it down. Due to many issues with the combat, I found myself having to reload repeatedly and repeat areas, which just became quite frustrating and boring and progress felt very stunted. With all this said, just avoid combat where possible. I understand that it’s a stealth game, so the combat isn’t important, but I’d have preferred there to be simply no combat rather than poorly functioning combat.
One of my favourite aspects of Winter Ember were the puzzles. They aren’t exactly challenging, mind-boggling puzzles, but I found them to be a welcome refresher from the doom and gloom of sneaking around. Some puzzles require you to find a code for a safe or an alternative way to enter a locked room. They weren’t complicated, but felt refreshing and gave me a more tangible aim and purpose for an area. The puzzles managed to remain unique and didn’t feel repetitive either, which is another big plus for me.
Winter Ember had some interesting ideas and concepts but was let down by some poor execution. For those stealth purists out there, you’ll likely find a lot to like and be able to ignore the clunky combat and appreciate it just for its stealth-focused gameplay. It’s always important to note that an indie budget game isn’t necessarily going to result in a massively polished game with lots of finesse in the control schemes, but that doesn’t make it inexcusable. I personally found that Winter Ember outstayed its welcome for me and became a chore rather than a joy to play, however, that could have been down to my general struggle to enjoy stealth games.
Lj’s Rating: 3 out of 5.
For more information on Winter Ember please use the following links...
Many thanks to Stride PR for supplying the review code.