On the surface, The Huntsman looks like a shameless advertising scheme for the release of the film ‘The Huntsman: Winter’s War’ a sequel to ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ and a dark take on the popular fairy tale. We’ve seen companies such as BioWare turn these advertising stunts into legitimately entertaining slices of RPG goodness in the past however, can Desert Owl Games manage the same?
Winter’s Curse is something of a companion piece to Snow White and the Huntsman, making a prior knowledge of the movie and its sequel non-essential; however NPCs based on characters seen in both films make cameos which are better received if you have at least a passing acquaintance with the subject matter. All you really need to know is that this game takes in a dark, fantasy environment. The initial install is free, with the title available on PSN and Steam and a lengthy first chapter is included, but access to the later instalments requires dropping £10 on a season pass.
Graphically the game makes use of hand-drawn lineart that has been coloured using a variety of textures on a computer. This makes the visuals look distinct, evoking some thought of the beautiful ‘Child of Light’ but never animates or shows a level of detail to that degree. Instead we are treated to semi-animated characters on static 2D backgrounds with each location characterised by a single image. The art style is reminiscent of western comic book art, whilst interface elements have a chunky over-large appearance, especially on the world map, which feels like it was at one time developed for touch-screen devices before settling onto computers and the PlayStation 4. Dialogue is clean and easy to read, and the whole interface is largely uncluttered. Pop-up tutorial boxes are a different matter however, layering one atop another and requiring closing individually, turning some screens into a mess of vision-obscuring labels.
Music in the game is moody and atmospheric, relying heavily on synth and aurally uninspired. It does well to set the depressive tone of the games setting but shows little progression and loops at a steady pace. Sound effects are usually reserved for combat, though the map screen makes good use of swishes and reveals to draw player attention, with many different attacks from a large list of cards featuring the same basic damage noise and enemies sharing voice samples. Dialogue at the game’s opening is clearly recorded though unpractised in delivery, with the engine stuttering spoken words whilst the background music continues to play unabated, leading to broken record-like repetition of some key lines before the game fully loads and moves on. This problem was encountered on a fairly powerful laptop when Norton began scanning in the background while the game was running.
The story focuses on the adventure of Elizabeth, the youngest of her line with four brothers ahead of her who have all disappeared one after another. A tomboy at heart, she chose to learn combat skills over sewing and ventures out into the world to locate her siblings and bring them home. Outside her lodging she enters a world where the evil queen of the Snow White legend has recently been destroyed, with the land beginning to heal from the horrors and spells she wrought upon it, but the Snow Queen’s armies are spreading out and invasion seems all too likely. It’s solid fairytale/fantasy stuff and well devised to fit the setting of the two movies, though perhaps more railed than many players will be expecting, with the game shunting you from location to location in its early stages and no opportunity to backtrack. Some interesting dialogue choices, intended as old-English but missing their mark and tumbling into ‘badly spoken’ can lead to a disconnect from the story at times, but for the most part the writing is solid.
Gameplay sees you (in the shoes of Elizabeth) moving to locations that slowly unlock on the map screen and upon entering them engaging in conversations, which usually have choices to be made, though these vary in impact on events, as well as engaging in one or more brawls. Combat takes a leaf out of the ‘Card Hunters’ playbook with each character drawing three cards and playing one to attack, heal or buff according to their class. The small hand will then draw back up to its maximum number (decided by a base stat) at the start of the next turn. Up to three enemies and allies can be involved in a battle at any time, and all participants make use of a timer that decides turn order, with some attacks having speed up and down bonuses. It’s marginally reminiscent of ‘Grandia’ in this regard but less polished as a whole. Items won in battles can be equipped and each adds a specific set of three cards to that character’s deck, making deck building in the menu a case of swapping in and out equipment in weapon, clothing and accessory slots. Experience is also gained after battles and this slowly levels up characters, allowing them to boost base stats to increase a selection of abilities such as maximum health, speed and hand size. After completion of a quest there is usually a short conversation between party members and a new location becomes unlocked, on occasion alongside a sub-quest that appears on a previously completed area. These serve to break up the linear fashion of the title somewhat.
Overall, Huntsman is a fun game to download and play for free but your enjoyment of the game as a full product comes down to if you’re willing to shell out the cash necessary for the full edition. With regular updates and expansion of locations as more stories are added this could be an extremely fun title, but there’s little on display to suggest that this game couldn’t have been run through a browser window or found a home on mobile devices instead of on Steam and through the powerful PlayStation 4 console.