Winter Ember Review

Winter Ember
by developer Blowfish Studios and publisher Sky Machine StudiosMicrosoft Series X|S review written by David with a copy provided by the publisher.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. 

Winter Ember is an isometric stealth-action set in a Victorian-esque setting in which you seek out vengeance as Arthur Artorias for the slaughter of his family. Between the setting and the amount of loot in a violent revenge-plot game, the inspiration behind Winter Ember shows clearly in those classic Thief: The Dark Project roots, despite the perspective differences. I’m not sure of the actual resources involved, but I’ve always found graphic novel tie-ins ambitious, and this title’s got one. Ambition and roots don’t always get us where we’re going though, so let’s see where Blowfish Studios takes us.

Arthur’s a bit of a party boy, and we open on a carriage arriving at an urban victorian manor, out of which steps a confident, attractive, rich young man and his feminine accompaniment for the night. Arthur is greeted by the butler, berated by his father, and retires to his room as planned. Flash forward, and we witness the family murdered one-by-one by a group of hooded intruders, Arthur is knocked unconscious but is rescued by one of the women he’d brought home. All of this is shown in an anime-style cinematic and is pretty engaging; I’d watch a full production of what I saw there without hesitation.

The game shifts from here though, and we skip forward eight years, shift to an isometric viewpoint with a realistic art style as Arthur steps out and we take control, given no further information on who we’re about to encounter. The tutorial is a pretty solid level itself, though it’d be better if the game allowed you to use certain abilities before it tells you about them. Stealth knockouts mostly, as the combat is both punishing and boring. It doesn’t really get better either. More varied, kinda, but most enemies still boil down to “Parry, slice” or “guard break, slice” without any real thought beyond watching the animation.

This felt so familiar and fluid to just dive right into. Hold 'til it shakes, release it in time or break the pick

There is a lot of loot throughout this beginning zone. By the time I could sell my inventory, I’d made over 15k to start off with health potions and bandages, which was useful while I got the hang of parrying everything, and lockpicks because those tumblers get finicky. That’s a specific strength this game plays to. The lockpicking feels nice, and works well even while in a hurry trying to avoid being spotted.

After the tutorial, you’re in the first open zone. South Anargal, complete with side quests, a shop (after you open it fairly quickly), and a couple avenues of diegetic fast travel options to help you avoid running or sneaking across the whole city just to unload your loot or top up those supplies before a job. I love the design of this place, even with the tight camera and inexplicably-hostile guys that look like guards.

There’s another faction here established as extortionate thugs upon your first meeting with them, but they’re different. These cop-looking guys just start swinging in the tutorial and you’re enemies for life despite having taken a train across the country and not having rapid-communication technology. The design though is fantastic, simultaneously elaborate, broken, filthy, and ornate. The city is a snow-covered maze of alleyways and looping streets. It’s the first night of Winter, and the townsfolk are well-wishing and sharing good tidings.

Save often, these shrines aren't always obvious before you activate them

You get Skill Tokens as a reward for various tasks and at various intervals, and use these at hard-save points to put points across three trees: Combat, Stealth, and Utility. Inventory management is a thing, using a grid-system you’ll see everywhere from Deus Ex to Path of Exile, every item being worth a number of slots in one of a handful of rectangular patterns, making its management (and expansion through the skill tree) familiar and easy to manage. Your loot stacks, thankfully, meaning you only need space for unique items and overflow. Your weapon doesn’t count, though your arrows do, but things you drop in the world persist for you to find where you left it, should you need the extra room.

Arrows are another spot I see a massive nod to Garrett from the Thief franchise. The bow, and the breadth of use that it has is where I think I had the most fun. From blasting water arrows into street lamps to darken an intersection before popping off a smoke arrow to get the drop on a trio of baddies. It’s nice, and works well once you get used to it. The crafting system for them is great too, with each arrow being split in its construction between “Head,” “Shaft,” and “Misc.”. You attach things like Rope to your Claw headed arrows to make climbable Rope Arrows that help you reach new areas and entries, and the official page for the game boasts 30 varieties.

Quest variety is another strength that the game makes up for its lack of narrative pacing with, and you’ve often got a couple ways to handle things. Too often conflicts require lethal options though, but that seems pretty standard, regardless of how disappointing it always is. A trio of thugs mugging a couple in need, helping a man into his building, fetching a woman’s lost necklace, and swiping an alchemist’s stash of seeds are among the first things you can do when you get to Anargal.

Getting stuck on furniture was a consistent issue, usually due to a cover or climb prompt from the game

When I say lack of narrative pacing, I know there’s a level of that to be expected with sandboxes, but it really feels like they left the whole of the storytelling out. With a work up to their handful of cinematics and the graphic novel, dropping even the voice acting effort for anyone but Arthur, the story aspect was missing. Characters pass by, quests are assigned, and without that side media, I don’t know that I’d have found a reason to care. I mean, at this point, the game hasn’t even shown you itself in what way Arthur is disfigured. You have to sit idle at the title screen, have caught the announcement trailer, or sought it out. Or purchased the graphic novel, of course.

I like the gameplay. I love the setting, but I can’t help feeling like the title lets itself down, that it wasn’t the more that it could have been had a bit more care gone into it. Between the lackluster combat, getting stuck on objects, prompt-required actions, and the lack of engagement the game itself has with the story, it quickly became just Something To Do. It’s gonna keep being Something To Do though, because while sword fighting is boring, nothing else about the experience playing the game is, and Faceless Man mode is a challenge I haven’t conquered yet. It’s a short game, and I’ve not spent grand hours with it yet. I doubt I’ve seen all there is to see with how this game plays. After all, I’ve got three skill trees and 30 arrows.


Winter Ember is an ambitious isometric stealth-action that pays strong homage to its genre roots while holding its own entertaining identity, but fails to stick the landing on telling their story.

Score: 7.5 / 10




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