Not to do a complete about face, but rather than being indifferent towards the progression systems in the game, I have actually become engrossed in the core gameplay loop. Every object in the game world has a purpose, whether it be big or small. Cleverly, the resource drops are tied directly towards the area; yellow plants and rock deposits in the north will yield different drops than what is to be found in the south. This only encourages exploration, which again is the game’s greatest strength. It is very exciting to go harvesting and eventually obtain some highly sought-after ingredient which will allow you to better your own personal arsenal or improve your village in some way. It never feels tedious because of how dynamic the game world is; there are always on the prowl cave lions, badgers, sabretooth-tigers, or primal savages; nothing is static, and conversely nothing is totally boring. Even as you wander around the map, doing nothing in particular, there is always fun to be had. Rather than, say, a Grand Theft Auto game, where the fun to be had in raising chaos and mowing down police officers and civilians offers nothing beneficial to the character, existing as fun for fun’s sake, here the opposite it is true; the enjoyment factor is still there, but hunting expeditions and flower picking offer tangible benefits to the player character.
Of course, beyond the crafting and village improval, there is the standard experience system, which I am at times hesitant to use; certain skills are requisite, like infinite sprint or varied takedown maneuvers. There are also crafting short cuts which multiply the products of crafting without increasing the resource cost. Eight arrows can eventually be crafted for the amount of wood it originally took to craft one arrow. I don’t like this. It minimalizes to an extent the importance of the crafting, which in the beginning was even more vital; you were tied directly to the land, and these perks simplified – maybe streamlined – the crafting process. Beyond that, there are things like additional damage to animals or other such perks which I think could break the game. It’s an odd complaint to bemoan becoming overly powerful, I know, but that is my stance. Even with that skill taken, and mastery over animals achieved, the challenge level will be maintained somewhat by the human enemies in the game, who inhabited bonfires and outposts, locations which offer the greatest difficulty throughout the game.
Unfortunately, the difficulty is only heightened by the cheapness of the affair. Even with new takedown moves and a long-range bow, the stealth system is broken, and consequently very frustrating. I could be dozens of meters away from and above the targets, with a good overall vantage point and a large stockpile of arrows, but it means nothing. When detected, no matter the distance between Takkar and his foes, his position is inevitably compromised. Enemies swarm from the stronghold, and once reinforcements are called in, the swarm only thickens. I just wish they were a bit more forgiving with the stealth. As it stands, there is a constant grappling with the mechanics; it can be rewarding to ghost through an outpost, and the game acknowledges the grandeur of that achievement by nearly tripling the amount of earned experience. But it is rewarding solely because it is a triumph over flawed mechanics.
Combat outside of stealth is more enjoyable. The feedback from a long-range headshot delivered from a bow is satisfying, especially the animation as the enemy drops limply to the ground below. The impact of a powerfully-thrown spear also shows a certain visceral component, as does the crushing impact of a club. There is less diversity in terms of options in comparison to an earlier game in the series, but what is there is effective and satisfying. While I had initially avoided the beast taming, after a bit of experimentation, the usefulness of the animal companions is pretty apparent. I’ve come to rely most strongly on the tall, lumbering brown bear, as he seems to have the greatest health and strength – despite a slow speed – though the felines are also well adapted for stealth. Mounting the bear serves as a vehicle, while the sabretooth-tiger offers swifter speeds than does the mounted bear. The controls for the animals are solid – riding or no – and it almost hurts to see an injured animal destroyed in a combat you explicitly directed him towards. Still, it is easy enough to heal them, and reviving is similarly straightforward, dispensing with a fairly common crafting ingredient.
Again reflecting on the world, the game’s greatest asset. I like very much how organically the map is revealed. Rather than scaling some cathedral or even a simpler radio tower, the map is revealed in accordance with travel. There are a few skills which increase the rate of revelation, skills which aren’t immediately satisfying or game changing, but skills which are quite necessary. Disabling the mini-map heightens the sense of wonder, and the world is wonderful. Seemingly never ending, the map expands continually, and there is great diversity in the landscapes – from the snowy north to swampy, river filled south, the presentation is stunning. The north, with its towering mountains and gusty winds captures perfectly the feeling of what such a place might be like, the cold and the chill almost inhospitable, slowly whittling away a cold meter. While there are craftables which decrease or even eliminate the importance of these gusts, sadly, the threat is more intriguing than immediately dangerous. Still, my highlights for these past few sessions was the time I spent in the north. While my meter never dropped to dangerously low levels, there were a few times I was forced to light a blaze around myself, burning whatever foliage still thrived in that landscape. It’s a clever trick, quite logical, and again reflects the attention to detail of the developers.
Beyond combat and exploration, there are the primary missions and the characters who prompt them. None of the missions are too memorable. There is another foray into the Shaman’s dreamland; armed with an infinite number of ice clubs, it is fun to simply go to down on the enemies rushing in at a constant, rapid rate. There are a few missions which rely on the grappling hook, which, with its introduction, completely changes the gameplay and exploration – for the better. There are a few hunting missions, and also many investigative missions, following blood trails or hoof prints of some animal. These are interesting but are rather half-baked. Still, the key characters who eventually populate the village are all distinct from one another, with interesting designs and motivations. They did force in a version of Hurk (for whatever reason) and he is quite obnoxious and out of place. Besides his forced humor, the tone is consistent and rather dark, and the violence can be similarly intense. I like this more somber tone, and Takkar’s motivations for the saving and spreading of the Wenja population are compelling, even if the primary antagonist is, at least at this point, not well developed. As for highlights, there are some cave missions. Self-contained, they reminded me of some the challenge rooms in the Assassin’s Creed games. There is usually a mixture of exploration, platforming, and combat between both animals and humans. The attention to detail here falls in line with that of the larger open world, though it seems somehow heightened. They are very fun to play through, and the environments are very impressive. My impressions on the game have shifted greatly with the more time I invest in it and its world. I’ve gotten sucked into the progression loop of constantly gathering, improving, and then promptly using those improvements to gather more and better things. A new bow, stronger clubs, stronger spears, a rapidly expanding village with a dense population of occasionally interesting NPC’s. These things are great, and there is that constant desire of self-betterment. It is distinguished from a traditional role-playing game precisely by this emphasis on crafting. In a weird way, it can become like a time waster; relaxing at times, though tension can arise at any moment; a bear could spawn and engage in relentless pursuit, or an alligator could rise to the surface and destroy the player character. This balance of leisure and intensity is managed perfectly, and leads to an overall pleasant experience.