A dungeon-crawling action game that lets you control the different members of an adventuring party sounds like a great idea. A current generation update of Gauntlet, that would have been awesome. Hey, I could even get behind focusing on the fighter and archer and making it a buddy game, with a leveling up mechanic and exciting loots. Unfortunately, the game that inXile meant to deliver never arrives, and Hunted doesn’t grasp the core gameplay it seems to be reaching for.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to pincushion Wargar with arrows as the comely E’Lara, or to smash them with the might of Caddoc. The pair of mercenaries are just out for a buck, until a dream puts Caddoc off his night’s sleep. A seemingly chance encounter with a creepy spirit-woman with “pale skin and a slutty outfit” (in the words of E’Lara) named Seraphine sends them into the town of Dyfed looking for the spirit’s body. But there’s a bigger plot afoot, as the town is overrun with a race of mutated humanoids called Wargar. E’Lara and Caddoc dutifully play their reluctant heroes parts well, but they can’t avoid getting swept up into a complex world history that’s parceled out in satisfyingly simple chunks.

Seraphine, played by Lucy Lawless, gives the pair a powerful artifact called the Deathstone, which allows them to hear the thoughts of deceased creatures. She also empowers both E’Lara and her burly companion with powerful magics that pair up well when used together. E’Lara can swing a sword, but she’s best with her elven longbow, and she can shoot fire arrows that explode, ice arrows that freeze enemies in place, and arcane arrows to break their shields. Caddoc has a crossbow, but he’s better making nifty charge attacks, lifting guys in the air for his partner to shoot, and going into a fearsome rage. For the most part, these abilities encourage you to play well with others and are designed for maximum carnage.

The third “tree” of abilities includes your standard fireball, lightning, and sigil trap spells and is shared by both characters. The cool part about these is that you quickly unlock the ability to “battle charge” your friend with, say, fire or lighting to buff their attacks for a short period. In practice this is rarely necessary unless you are playing on the higher difficulties or during the few massive fights, but it’s still fun to get the boost of power to watch the Wargar go boom. The enemies are varied enough to keep fights interesting, with minotaurs, demons and dragons all having a go at you in addition to the ubiquitous Wargar.

Hunted rewards exploring the gorgeously rendered levels in several ways, not the least of which is listening to Deathstone monologues give hints on enemy weaknesses and treasure locations. Hidden areas abound, and I found myself running around after each fight to collect mana and health potions, and the crystals needed to upgrade spells. The system is a little sparse, as there are 6 skills to improve but you can only map 4 of them to use at a time. The smart player will realize that spending crystals is only useful up to a point, as the best powers require a huge number of crystals to unlock. You’re encouraged to save crystals for use when the more devastating spells “unlock in Chapter Five.” I can see piling up shards being useful if you’re hopping in and out coop matches, but the single-player progression doesn’t provide any meaningful choice. In a game like Hunted, I’d love to see a more robust leveling system that would allow you to specialize your skills to your play style.

There’s a weird alternate leveling system that unlocks abilities through just playing the game. Revive your comrade enough times, and you gain more slots for resurrection potions. Find enough gold, and you unlock … something, I was never really clear on what. All this does is provide the illusion of a dungeon crawl without any substance. Why collect gold if there is nothing to spend it on? I don’t think a Diablo-style inventory system would work, but only carrying one weapon at a time was annoying until I arbitrarily unlocked a second slot at some point.

Then there are the puzzles, which are never an easy thing to design in an action game like Hunted without aping Zelda. Make them too hard and gamers bitch. Make them too easy and people scoff at the game being “dumbed down.” I think Hunted errs too far towards the moron scale with the puzzles I found, but I always had the sense that I was missing puzzles or skipping over them without meaning to. The real challenge shouldn’t be finding the puzzles, guys.

On the tech side, I encountered a few bugs and glitches but nothing to seriously dock off points. Executions were a needless addition though, the animations of slow motion massacre do not match up with the real time combat and only take the player out of the action. The co-op over Xbox Live is pretty much non-functional. I kept trying to join a game but was rebuffed at every attempt. Unless inXile works hard with Microsoft to clean up the code, don’t expect to find a new buddy online to play through even one chapter. Perhaps the problem is that not enough people have bought Hunted for there to be enough of a critical mass, which is even more damning.

The split screen local co-op could have saved the game from failing completely at its stated goals, but it doesn’t. Splitting the screen horizontally while cutting the viewable area to 4×3 resolution is a terrible mistake, especially when most people playing the game will have an HD TV. Combine that with the (albeit pretty) character models taking up a lot of the screen real estate, and combat that should be elegantly balanced feels cluttered and annoying.

Hunted gets excellent marks for superior writing with non-cliched characters threading through the well-paced action. I enjoyed the single-player combat, but I wished that the game delivered on its premise of a truly cooperative action dungeon-crawl. Oh Gauntlet, how I miss dropping endless quarters into thee.

Bottom Line: Good for a quick and fun diversion, Hunted is far from the perfect coop game or fantasy dungeon crawl, but the storytelling almost makes up for it. Almost.

Recommendation: Pick this one up for some laughs and cheap thrills if you’re bored with standard fare.

[rating=3.5]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version.

What our review scores mean.

Game: Hunted: The Demon’s Forge
Genre: Action
Developer: inXile Games
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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