Hunted: The Demon’s Forge is strongly positioned as a Gears of War/dungeon-crawling hybrid — it’s even explicitly referenced in the token press quote on the back of the box — and while I’d like to debunk it and say, “No, this is what it is,” the inspiration is far too obvious. Upon starting the game, you can almost smell the marker fumes from the first time an inXile Entertainment producer wrote the simple equation on a whiteboard, no doubt to the rapturous applause of his/her counterparts.
It’s a straightforward concept, and the resulting experience actually falls quite heavily on the side of Epic’s behemoth shooter series, with a very similar over-the-shoulder perspective and even some familiar-looking environmental pieces — all courtesy of the same Unreal Engine 3. While the setting, swordplay, and loot suggest a strong fantasy hack-and-slash inspiration, the cherry-picked genre elements are significantly streamlined in service of the action. You’ll find enhanced shields and weapons along the way, but can only carry one of each. Player customization here is similarly limited to the upgrade and selection of a handful of spells, and while the game lacks a leveling system, health and mana capacity upgrades arrive via carnage and hidden collectibles.
Heroes-for-hire Caddoc and E’lara anchor the tale; the former is a brutish and burly swordsman while the latter is a trim, elven, and scantily-clad crossbow specialist. These established roles offer up the opportunity to pick a specialty — though Caddoc has a secondary crossbow and E’lara can swing her feeble blade, if need be — during the co-op (online or splitscreen, or solo with an A.I. partner) adventure, which spans six chapters and lets you swap roles between missions. Aside from that choice and a handful of optional quests, the campaign is very linear and guided, with each chapter offering a different location while cinematics and safe zones splice those settings into smaller, bite-sized missions through jungles, caves, and burning cities alike.
Despite the switch to swords, spells, and crossbows, the campaign still very much maintains a run-and-gun feel across its dozen-or-so hour runtime, especially in the second half. Early on, utilizing smart co-op tactics like casting support powers on your partner or launching enemies in the air for target practice makes for a stronger and more communal play experience. Later, though, the characters ooze so much power from upgrades and an optional liquid enhancement (which ties into the storyline and affects the ending) that it’s hard to resist the urge to play it like Bulletstorm, simply charging into each fracas with the intent of killing foes as quickly and gleefully as possible. It’s not an unwelcome shift in dynamic, but it’s definitely an odd one, considering the more methodical start.
Despite adding a bit more punch later on, though, Hunted’s story and events fail to make much of an impression. Caddoc and E’lara’s self-serving attitudes and grating quips make them unlikeable and unappealing characters, and the spotty storytelling failed to engage me until near the end of the journey. Moreover, missions fall into routine far too quickly and utilize a slim number of enemy types, with few surprises along the way. What caught me off-guard were the recurring visual hitches and occasional bursts of slowdown, which frustratingly complement the moments of inelegant design — notably, having to watch the heroes slowly saunter through every tight gap and crevice via dull cut-scenes.
Hunted adds one little bonus morsel in the form of the Crucible mode, which lets you create and share survival challenges (much like the Trials of St. Lucia downloadable content for Dante’s Inferno). While solidly executed, this idea of slicing through further groups of familiar opponents with even less narrative motivation just didn’t offer much appeal after I’d wrapped up the one-note campaign. Whether you see it as a fantasy-slanted Gears homage or a punched-up and streamlined dungeon-crawler, the end result is roughly the same: Hunted is an adequate diversion for co-op aficionados, but little more.