Winter Ember is a strange game.
For a start, you might be put off its protagonist, Arthur Artorias, simply from its animated intro, which finds him arriving late at his family mansion with two ladies in tow, presumably for some naughtiness in the bedroom. But before that, his father summons him for a “conversation”, where he’s actually met by riddles during the rather frosty exchange.
Ultimately though, it’s because of his female companions that he’s still alive. Or at least one of them. When a group of hooded assailants enter the mansion, set it on fire and leave him for dead, it’s the quick actions of one of his new friends that means he’s still breathing.
The gameplay of Winter Ember picks up years later, with Arthur determined to return home after years of readying himself. He must find out why his home was attacked all those years ago to put his mind at rest. But he’s not the type to go in all-guns-blazing. Instead, he sticks to the shadows, and operates via stealth. Once you got past the clash between the animated opener and the dark, moody visuals of the actual game, you’ll begin to take your first steps. Though it doesn’t take long for you to realise that Winter Ember just isn’t fun to play.
With the action viewed from an isometric viewpoint, the first issue you might pick up on is that you can’t zoom the camera out, limiting your view of what’s in front of you. That means it’s fairly easy to walk into range of those who would put a stop to your endeavours without even realising. The camera hides certain things that Arthur wouldn’t be able to see at ground level, too, further compounding the issue. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Related: The Best Stealth Games on PS4
The truth is, Winter Ember gets very little right. Movement is clunky, firing arrows is fiddly, and if you do get seen, close combat is truly dire. Add in other issues – like components for simple consumables such as bandages being scarce, often leaving you bleeding everywhere you go – and you have a game that’s hard to get any enjoyment out of.
Perhaps what’s most unforgiveable about Winter Ember, however, is its cover system. It’s a pain, basically. It’s hit and miss whether an item will let you use it for cover – it could possibly be a glitch – but without being able to use cover, your stealth options are limited. If you’re able to get in cover behind a crate, for example, you can stealth-kill or knock out an enemy as they approach. But often you can’t, leaving you simply crouched behind it like a sitting duck.
If you have the patience of a saint and persist with Winter Ember, you might get some enjoyment out of it. Its levels are quite open, giving you a fair amount of freedom to go off and do your own thing. And with numerous skill trees, you’re free to develop Arthur as you see fit. But it feels like its needs a lot more polish, and some tweaks to its mechanics to really capitalise on its potential. And so for now at least it’s probably better to give it a wide berth. There are simply better stealth games available.
Winter Ember is available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC