Review – Winter Ember
The Thief franchise is one that doesn’t get enough credit. It was a pioneer in both the stealth and immersive sim genres, and provided some amazing gameplay experiences that few games can rival even to this day. There was an attempt to bring Thief back with it’s 2014 reboot, but it failed on multiple levels. When I noticed Winter Ember I was excited. A new Thief-like game in an isometric view sounded like a sure win.
Winter Ember starts with the murder of Arthur’s family. After eight years in exile, he arrives back to a city that has changed, a powerful new order rules the city, and Arthur is looking for revenge. Story is not this game’s strong suit. After a nifty animated opening the game kinda just drops you in and not much really happens for a while. There are some interesting story revelations in the later part of the game, but by then I found it hard to care. Characters are just as forgettable as their motives, and you will honestly not remember the name of anyone in the game. It’s a fairly standard revenge plot.
Winter Ember is an isometric stealth game that is heavily inspired by the Thief franchise. The first thing you will notice when you boot up the game is just how zoomed in the camera is. This is supposed to make you play extremely cautiously, checking corners before going around them, but it can also be a hindrance as well. You can look forward a bit by entering cover as well, but the cover system is awkward. Only being able to enter cover from a set distance away is a frustrating issue and it doesn’t always work. Even then the extra visibility is barely even noticeable. Not only this, but Winter Ember also has a field of vision for Arthur, meaning guards approaching from behind can’t be seen. This wouldn’t be a problem normally, and is a neat idea for this type of game, but with the zoomed in camera it just makes it annoying to play.
That said, sneaking around is always very satisfying and Winter Ember does a great job of making you feel like a thief. Moving around in the shadows, blowing out candles, and either sneaking your past guards or taking them out through either lethal or non-lethal means. Enemy AI is pretty standard as far as stealth games go. They follow very strict patterns, have a fairly limited field of vision, and will often forget about you seconds after losing sight. This isn’t too big of a deal however, as the effect is still solid and there’s something great in Winter Ember that is hidden away behind frustrating and undercooked mechanics.
Now there is combat in the game, but I would highly recommend avoiding it whenever possible. Especially with more than one opponent. You can deflect any incoming attacks which will put the enemy in a stunned state, allowing you to counter. It’s as simple as combat can be and it’s rather dull. Adding multiple enemies to the mix just confuses things. Not to mention, if you do get hit this will cause bleeding, which may alert guards and civilians to your presence. Thankfully, you can prevent bleeding with bandages which you will never likely run short of anyway. In one instance I actually died in combat and the autosave function decided to kick in during that sequence, causing a deathloop until I was finally able to break free. Thankfully enemies are really easy to exploit in combat.
Level design is decent enough though, with quite a few paths and options. It doesn’t explicitly tell you where to go, in an attempt to encourage some exploration. Interiors are well designed for the most part. They remove some of those annoyances you will find with the incredibly zoomed in camera, but it’s never perfect. Also, there is very little interactivity with the environment. Climbing is very restrictive, special arrow types can only be used in very specific situations, and that’s about it. Whilst the game encourages you to explore to some extent, it also lacks in interactivity and creativity.
The wintery streets of the city look great and atmospheric, shrouded in a suitable darkness that allows Arthur to wander about largely veiled.. It reminds me heavily of Thief games to great effect. However, it does lack a little bit in detail and visibility is rather weak, with enemies occasionally just blending into the environment. Interiors do provide a nice amount of variety as well, with some suitably lit areas that were a nice change of pace from other areas in the game.
Winter Ember is a game I am heavily conflicted on. On one hand it’s an immersive Thief inspired game with tense stealth aspects. On the other hand it’s frustrating to play, thanks to its zoomed in camera and lack of consistency. There’s a lot of potential that was unfortunately wasted in here. If you really want to satiate your Thief hunger, it pains me to say this isn’t the solution. Just play the original and its sequel for the upteenth time…
Winter Ember‘s cold, dark city aesthetic is pleasing, but lacks in visibility often.
Awkward controls and an incredibly zoomed in camera brings down an otherwise solid stealth experience.
Unimpressive voice acting, especially from NPCs.
Fun Factor: 5.5
Winter Ember is packed with so many annoyances it significantly over shadows its core.
Final Verdict: 6.0
Winter Ember is available now on PC.
Reviewed on PC with an RTX 2060, Ryzen 5 3600X and 16GB RAM. Installed on SSD.
A copy of Winter Ember was provided by the publisher.