You've got to feel a little sorry for the people of Ashcroft. In the first Hunter: The Reckoning game, the town is overrun by a supernatural evil. In the PlayStation 2 exclusive Hunter: The Reckoning—Wayward, the town is once again overrun by supernatural evil. In the recently released Xbox title Hunter: The Reckoning—Redeemer, the town is once againyes, you guessed it-overrun by supernatural evil. I'd hate to own property in this townand I have to wonder why anyone actually stays living there.

The third Hunter title (and the second released in 2003) is essentially more of the supernaturally-tinged hack-and-slash action fans have come to expect from the series. Developer High Voltage Studios has apparently taken an "if it ain't tragically broke, don't fix it" approach to this title, and so the final results are at least somewhat mixed.

On the one hand, Redeemer remains a marginally entertaining gothic version of Gauntlet. This title, like the previous installments, drops the role-playing elements of the pen-and-paper inspiration for the series and replaces it with a bevy of slicing, dicing, and blastingwith the occasional magical spell thrown in for diversity. This "play it safe" attitude is ultimately one of the main problems with the game, though, for while Redeemer does everything fans of the series have come to expect, it doesn't even attempt to bring anything innovative to the table. After three games in the span of a year or so, one would at least hope the developers would work on refining the core gameplay, particularly since it's never been flawless to begin with.

Instead, most of the improvements are of the cosmetic variety. Much like that decrepit house on the block that gets a few new windows and a coat of paint before selling for twice what it's worth, the enhancements to Hunter are entirely superficial and fail to address the more serious structural issues of the game.

Graphics are nicer this time out (although the locales are still rather generic, and the game still has an abundance of blocked paths that gamers can never explore) and there's yet another new class of character to play (the Redeemer of the title), but it's hard to shake the feeling of "been there, done that" that colors the majority of the title.

The one new gameplay tweak is the implementation of role-playing game-styled leveling-up for the player's various attacks. By using the melee attacks, ranged weapons, and magic, the ability of the character grows. Each skill has a bar that fills with repeated use, and after the bar has been filled a number of times, the skills level up. In the case of the melee weapon and the default ranged weapon, the items actually morph at certain points, becoming stronger and more useful. As spells level, the player earns stronger varieties of the core spell, and more spells in general. Overall, this isn't anything groundbreaking in terms of game design, but it is the one area where the game actually tries to do something new.

What's disappointing about the game is that some of the main issues from the first Hunter title haven't been addressed at all. Launching a melee attack combo means the player is still committed to the entire combo and can't interrupt it until it's finished. Character classes are still relatively unbalanced compared with one another, and the game's objectives can occasionally be confusing because there's no map showing the player where he needs to go. Because of that, wandering about aimlessly through certain levels while trying to find the next objective point happens all too often.

On the positive side of the ledger, the story is still entertaining. While the game's plot never rises above the level of B horror cinema, I happen to enjoy bad horror movies. The game's cutscenes do an adequate job of drawing players into the Hunter world, but I found myself wishing there were more of them since this is the only time players see anything even remotely resembling character development. Once again, one of the strong points of this series are the characters, which makes it even more tragic that High Voltage hasn't done anything to make them more of a focal point in the game.

Like all of the previous Hunter games, the title really hits its stride in multiplayer mode. Up to four players can explore Ashcroft together a la Gauntlet. Rather than resort to a split-screen interface, all four characters share a single screen. While this leads to a regular amount of "attacked by an offscreen monster syndrome" as players all attempt to move in different directions, it does a nice job of encouraging teamwork. When players work together and use their skills in a complementary fashion, Hunter almost becomes something more than its simple hack-and-slash origins indicate.

At any rate, how much enjoyment one gets out of Hunter: The Reckoning—Redeemer depends primarily upon how much they've enjoyed the previous games in the series. Since innovations in this series seem to come in microscopic increments, it's safe to assume each subsequent game will not only feature the elements that made the main game fun, but also the flaws that marred the experience as well.

Personally, I enjoy these games in spite of the flaws. This doesn't mean High Voltage should maintain the status quo (because already, only three games into the series, the formula is showing signs of age). Each subsequent return to the haunted town of Ashcroft may bring less in the way of innovation to the table, but there's always a good scare or two lurking somewhere. I'm simply glad I don't own land therethe property values must be terrible. Rating: 6 out of 10

Mike Bracken
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