HIGH Taking out unsuspecting enemies is as satisfying as ever.
LOW Camera and lighting issues can be deadly.
WTF Unsynchronized voice acting?
From Winter Ember’s opening cutscene, the passion and vision for the game are readily apparent. The expressive anime-style cutscene showcasing a darkly gothic and murderous sequence has wonderful cinematography and style… but something is slightly off. The voice acting. The subtitles and moving mouths are close to a second behind the voices, ruining the drama and making it difficult to decipher which characters are speaking.
This opening fumble unfortunately foreshadows Winter Ember’s experience as a whole. Though it has clear inspiration and certain mechanics and presentation elements are solid, its underbaked ideas and gameplay issues prevent the game from being a standout stealth title.
The story follows Arthur, whose family was murdered by a group of assassins at his family estate. Years later, he assumes the methods of his family’s killers and exacts revenge on them by striking from the shadows. From a top-down 2.5-D perspective, Arthur will sneak, steal, and assassinate to avenge his family’s legacy.
Winter Ember is oozing with charm and personality, drawing strong inspiration from the victorian era, and sinister auras reminiscent of an Edgar Alan Poe novel. For the most part it looks solid, with strong environments — especially in outside locales. Winter Ember’s best moments come when Arthur slowly creeps up behind an unsuspecting enemy while snow gently falls, and quickly and quietly ushers them into the next life as their blood splashes upon the white ground.
Making these stealth kills is heartily satisfying, and traversing the multi-leveled areas provide many opportunities for sleuthing while unseen by enemies. Each level’s objective is linear, usually going from point A to point B, but players will have multiple options on how to get there. From stealing keys from guards to open doors, to taking a longer but more heavily guarded route, or even the ill-advised option of charging headfirst into combat, there is a sense of freedom in how to attack obstacles.
Speaking of charging headfirst into combat, taking part in melee is ill-advised, both strategically and mechanically. Equipped with a sword and bow, Arthur can block, dodge or parry, but with little enemy variety, combat quickly grows stale. Worse, while single enemies are easily dealt with, Arthur doesn’t stand much of a chance against groups of two or three.
When skulking around, Arthur can strike enemies from the shadows with a bow, which is fulfilling on the rare occasion of a one-shot kill. However, it they’re left standing, foes will quickly begin pursuit, leading Arthur into an underwhelming multi-enemy combat encounter.
Another concern when killing enemies is that it’s a gamble due to the trail of blood fallen foes leave, which leads other baddies to pursue. On the other hand, players also have the option of knocking enemies out and hiding their bodies from view. This adds great variety and freedom in tackling almost every area in Winter Ember, and there’s rarely an incorrect way of doing things — Arthur just has to adapt to the situation accordingly.
Since Winter Ember is based around stealth, it’s understandable that encounters against enemies are discouraged, but I still feel as though there could have been more done to make combat feel less stale and to make Arthur just a bit more of a badass.
Sadly, on top of combat that already fails to excite, entering new areas is an extra challenge due to occasionally-questionable lighting and camera work. Environments have a difficult time transitioning from indoors to outdoors, and there will be a few seconds upon opening doors when it’s difficult to see what new place Arthur is entering into, and this delay in orientation can be fatal.
When not in combat, Winter Ember players can engage with a skill tree which can be activated at shrines where players also save the game. I’m usually a fan of skill trees and gradually upgrading characters, but I found the majority of skills here, aside from basic ones such as increased inventory or quieter footsteps, to either be unnoticeable or so situationally-specific that they were rarely useful. Coupled with a clunky arrow crafting menu, the game overcomplicates what should be more satisfying systems.
There are a lot of good things going on in Winter Ember. Its ambiance is strong, the freedom to move through levels in multiple ways keeps progression interesting, and the stealth mechanics are solid. However, these positives are consistently overshadowed by performance issues, clarity issues, or weak combat. I enjoyed sneaking around with Arthur, but unfortunately, Winter Ember still has a way to go before it can be considered an easy recommendation to stealth fans.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Sky Machine Studios and published by Blowfish Studios and Camera Games. It is currently available on PC, PS, XB and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS5. Approximately 7 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Blood and Gore, Language, Suggestive Themes, and Violence. From the ESRB: “This is a stealth-action game in which players assume the role of a noble on a quest for revenge. From a 3/4-overhead perspective, players infiltrate enemy strongholds/bases, complete mission objectives, and kill enemy targets. Players use knives, swords, and cross bows to kill enemies discreetly or in open combat. Small blood-splatter effects sometimes occur during combat; blood stains can also appear on the ground. Cutscenes depict additional instances of violence and/or blood: a man lying in a pool of blood; a man impaled in his forehead; a woman hanging from a tree; prisoners killed by an executioner. One sequence, viewed from a distant perspective, depicts human limbs inside a cart. The game contains some suggestive material: players infiltrating a brothel and a gentleman’s club, with women dancing for customers; dialogue such as “You looking for a private dance or something more” and “If you’re lookin’ for a good time, it’ll cost ya.” The word “sh*t” appears in the game.”
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Dialogue is subtitled, but text cannot be resized or altered, and the default size is rather small. Sound cues are not required for progression, making the game fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game’s controls are fully remappable.