The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse definitely has one thing going for it. Set within the Disney Universe, and following Winter’s War, the hype could not be any lower.
Developed by Desert Owl Games, The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse is an episodic RPG that has taken the Netflix route on PlayStation 4. All five episodes are available immediately, delivering a structured but easily consumable product perfect for a binge. The joy one gets out of the time they spend with The Huntsman will genuinely depend on what they consider to be the crucial elements of a successful RPG.
Honestly, I cannot fault Desert Owl Games at all for the way they have sold their newest game. Described as “a narrative-driven, interactive fantasy fiction game with a card based combat system” the emphasis is definitely not placed on the combat. Actually, Winter’s Curse barely offers much of an upgrade system and the turn-based combat is just about serviceable.
But, unlike the previous entry into the Huntsman Universe, Winter’s Curse knows that a likeable character or two is kind of important. Elisabeth, the protagonist, is strong-willed and charismatic (and thankfully with no dreadful Scottish voice over). Her mission? Just to reunite with her four brothers; her family. Sure, it’s nothing huge or original, but, as a member of the audience, I cared about where this was heading.
As Queen Freya’s army marches relentlessly on the White Lands, we journey away from the huge brutal war to a small town called Vardhelm. Here, we meet our protagonist and her personal goal is quickly presented to us. Along the way, she is joined by fellow travellers (up to three) and a few twists and turns are thrown her (and our) way.
Admittedly, the story does struggle to unchain its fantasy cuffs. Most of the reveals are rather predictable, especially for those who occasionally bath in the realms of dragons, orcs, and evil Queens. Still, it had me engaged enough throughout it’s entire play time.
Graphically, Winter’s Curse presents itself as a story-book. Each episode begins with an Old Lady reading a fairy tale to some young children. With the exception of these small introductions, the game is generally presented in 2D static screens. If you’ve ever played a JRPG, then you know exactly what I am talking about.
So much time is spent staring at two characters, as they gently bob up and down, while a dialogue box goes on and on beneath them. The environments are attractive, as are the character designs, but the lack of motion can be quite grating at times. Thankfully, a surprisingly robust soundtrack helps instill a degree of atmosphere into the settings.
As the opening four paragraphs indicate, gameplay-wise there is not that much to say about The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse. The player’s time will be spent reading walls of dialogue and taking part in turn-based combat. There is no open world and you can only control the characters themselves while in a fight (although some dialogue choices are presented).
What we do get is a map with checkpoints on it. From here, players can select which mission they want to do. Besides the story quests, there are also a handful of side quests which focus on character development or adding a bit of combat padding. That’s not to suggest that the combat system is flawed or broken, by any means. Actually, it works relatively well. Each character gains experience after a fight and eventually goes up a level. That results in a skill point, which can be placed in one of three categories (speed, strength, and magic skill).
Each character carries four set of cards that influence what attacks/spells/benefits they can perform while in a fight. During your turn in a battle, you pick one of these cards and perform the attached move.
There is also a loot system in play. After most quests, new cards drop which can be equipped to certain characters. Unless one were to completely skip over the handful of side-quests available, these items are practically impossible to miss. Despite being a rather interesting idea, there just is not enough variety to be found within the available cards. Actually, often my characters were equipped with two or three duplicates of the same basic sword or healing move.
And that actually brings me to the biggest flaw found within The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse. For an RPG, everything is just far too calculated: there is an exact amount of battles you can take part in; villages can only be visited when the story allows; you will be this level when you fight this boss. There is simply no real control over much of anything. Even the dialogue options barely have any impact on the story.
Technically, The Huntsman could run better as well. Although I cannot speak for the Steam version, the PS4 release has a noticeable input lag that gets grating after awhile. More importantly, half way through chapter 2, I was hit by a game-breaking bug. One of Elisabeth’s companions, who was clearly meant to be an active character at that point, failed to make an appearance in battle. He would appear in the scenes before but then disappear once inside the battle. All on her lonesome, Elisabeth stood absolutely no chance. I was forced to start from the beginning and replay the previous two hours.
The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse works as a fun side trip into the Disney Universe of the same name; a little detour headed by a worthy cast. As an RPG? It unfortunately struggles to hit its mark way too often.