The Huntsman: Winter's Curse Review
There was an age where movie and TV based games were fun. Whatever your preference, I remember my childhood being full of DuckTales, Dick Tracy, Rescue Rangers, and The Rocketeer. While they've been far surpassed by Rocksteady, I did get a kick out of the old NES Batman games. I still pop out the X-Men game for Genesis from time to time.
As time goes on and budgets for movies and TV get bigger and bigger, it seems the movie games based on them get smaller and smaller. When I was little, there was bound to be a NES cartridge with my favorite characters on it. These days, you're lucky to get a 3DS title out of it. There are the occasional gems, but the game is an afterthought, if there is a thought at all. I get frustrated as my youngest loves Paw Patrol, but it doesn't warrant anything more than cheap online flash games to the company. And myself, I can't believe that some of today's hottest movies are whittled down to match-three carbon copies of each other, with just enough content to hopefully loosen your purse strings for that freemium upgrade.
I had never seen any of the Huntsman movies, so I borrowed the first one, and was mildly amused at it's High Fantasy + Lord of the Rings + Twilight goth depression made a decent story. I missed out on the sequel (available digitally and coming to physical media soon), but am interested in at least a rent. When this game came up for review, I was wary. Not only had the quality of movie based games gone downhill, but the movie it was based on wasn't exactly the #1 movie of all time. How much care could a company have put into such a title? But it wasn't a freemium iOS port, so I thought it was worth investigating.
I was pleasantly surprised. As a side story to The Huntsman: Winter's War, the tale is told by an old lady sitting in front of a fire to some young children. The game quickly pulls from a corny still-art style into a world teeming with papercut style life. It's beautifully designed characters and enemies have very little animation, usually consisting of an attack stance and a still stance, with animation coming through hinged joints making them look like paper dolls come to life. Much like the theme of the first film, we find ourselves in the shoes of Elisabeth, a young girl out to find her brothers who have mysteriously vanished. As you battle through the wilderness, our story, of course escalates, and you find yourself taking on the Ultimate Evils of the land, part and parcel for any RPGish game.
Huntsman: Winter's Curse is an RPG lite game, which to be honest, fits perfectly with a busy lifestyle such as mine. Growing up on games like Final Fantasy 7 and seeping 80+ hours of gameplay into it (just my saved hours on my first file, mind you, not counting any lost hours from Game Overs and the like), I find myself yearning for that style of play but end up paying bills, doing chores around the house, putting the kids in bed, and heading to bed to go off to work again. As RPGs get bigger, the daunting task of ever getting through them before I forget how the game started gets harder and harder. This game is broken into bite-sized pieces, obviously a byproduct of it's episodic development.
Within the game, Elisabeth's adventure is controlled via the main map. There's usually only one way to go, though regular side quests show up. Go to a spot, listen to a little story, face an enemy, and level up. Combat is where this game gets interesting. Your equipment and general stats determine the hand you are dealt, literally. Think of your combat abilities as individual cards in a deck, and you draw a hand for battle. Your hand starts out with three, but you can increase your hand size with levels and stat boosters. This allows you to craft your own combat plans, much as if you were playing a physical card game. While you can't see their hands, your enemies have to follow the same rule set: you will find their attacks to adhere to the universe's general rules as well. As you play your hand, there is a timeline across the top of the screen, with each enemy and protagonist on it. Not only will your attacks do specific damage, they may effect the flow of battle. It might be tempting to use the 14HP attack on an enemy with 20 HP, but the 6HP attack will slow it enough to delay it until after your next attack, giving you a chance to finish it off, if done in the right order. These smart decisions are integral in completing the game properly. While I personally love that you can see hit points of everyone on the field and the cards truly do the damage they say, leading to strategic fights, I do not like that the timeline bar is drawn with mystical swirls instead of measured tics. For a game that needs such precision, I was frustrated to use an item that delayed an enemy turn, only to have it land a hair before my next turn, rendering my strategy moot. By and large the attacks are spaced to where you can tell what's going to happen; it's those occasional "just short" moments that prove aggravating.
As I said, the game is RPG lite. You don't have to search all over for things. Anything game specific is handed to you, and anything slightly unnecessary is still labeled in a side quest. This is a double-edged sword. You don't have to worry about leveling up for a tough boss, but also, you CAN'T level up for a tough situation. Given that all battles are scripted and metered, it gives the RPG leveling up system a mild sense of pointlessness, although I do admit you get to craft some of your points to specific traits, allowing you to better customize your character. These points can be moved around as necessary, so if something is giving you a hard time, moving the points or changing equipment (and thereby cards) may be the path to victory.
The cards are a wondrous boon and a detriment at the same time. I like seeing how Elisabeth and her compatriots have a set of moves available, and how I can hold one card back to use on the next turn, but if you get one you don't really see yourself using you are left with a dead slot in your hand. A couple of times I had my magic caster with a hand full of speed spells that weren't fast enough and minor healing spells when an enemy had 1 hit point left and I knew if I didn't kill him he'd just heal and I'd start over again. But, I didn't have an attack card, so no dice, and the battle went longer. The mechanic is very neat, and I love how it's integrated, but at times I just wanted a default *bonk* card that could have made a battle that much simpler.
But in the end, I still was pleasantly surprised with The Huntsman: Winter's Curse. The game is rough around the edges (I had a couple of times where it became unresponsive and required a reset), but the game as a whole provides an exciting, RPG lite romp through a gothic mystical land, and the writing of the storyline text is as grippiing as a novel. The game is more linear than it makes itself out to be, but the amount of customization makes you really feel an ownership of every win and loss. While the card game mechanics do have some limitations, the strategy involved in picking the right offense with the proper modifier to change the battle timeline is wondrously satisfying. You can enjoy The Huntsman: Winter's Curse whether you've seen any of the movies in the series or not. At $14.99, this budget-friendly title is a good purchase for anyone looking to have a good time with an RPG that doesn't require heavy investment.
Thanks to the developers for providing a copy for review.
Final score: 4.25/5