Arrowhead hits its mark
Many, many fun hours were spent playing Gauntlet with friends. As one of the most ingenous arcade games of all time, Gauntlet Legends had a really cool mechanic that allowed you to save your progress at the same machine — warranting multiple trips to the same location just to play it. The fun continued on with the console version of the game, and even further into Dark Legacy, my personal favorite.
Once Seven Sorrows hit in 2005 though my interest kind of waned — it simply wasn’t a very good game, and the lack of a distinct art style didn’t help it stand out among the masses of dungeon crawlers that were emerging out of the console market. But in 2014, Arrowhead Studios has done right by the franchise, and is ready to usher in a whole new audience.
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Released: September 23, 2014
What I love about Gauntlet is that it doesn’t mess around, even from the start. The entire menu screen is amazingly simple, and within seconds it’s up and running with the introductory tutorial. For just a few minutes Gauntlet acquaints players with the four hero types available — the Warrior (Thor), the Valkyrie (Thyra), the Elf (Questor), and the Wizard (Merlin). All of them have unique playstyles and fully support both gamepad and keyboard/mouse setups.
Thor is probably the most stalwart of the cast, with light and heavy attacks, as well as a cyclone-spin special move and a bull-rush. He’s the slowest of the bunch, but he obviously isn’t lacking in terms of power. The rush ability is also a really cool way to either dash away defensively, or rush into a group.
Thyra plays similarly, but she’s more focused on speed and defense. In addition to a standard attack she can also throw spear projectiles, as well as toss her shield like Captain America into multiple enemies. Her biggest core ability is her shield block though, which allows her to take the brunt of enemy attacks and essentially focus as a makeshift tank in some instances.
For those who prefer a twin-stick shooting approach, there are Questor and Merlin. Both use the right analog stick (or mouse) to aim projectiles, despite the fact that their weapons of choice differ. Questor also has a variation of a light and heavy attack in a ranged fashion, but he also has the most traditional dodge roll, as well as the power to lay mines on the ground for massive area-of-effect damage — this can later be upgraded to fire arrow bombs.
Those who enjoyed Magicka will want to try Merlin first. Using a small combination of three buttons (ice, fire, and electricity), he can mix and match spells to suit his needs. For instance, two ice presses will fire off a concentrated ice beam — another combination might trigger a fire-based teleport — and another will trigger an icy area-of-effect blast.
All of these characters work well in tandem, and the ideal group composition is made up of all four heroes playing off each other. While I usually tend to just pick one character and stick with it during the duration of any given playthrough in a Gauntlet game, I couldn’t help but play around with each style, liking them all in their own way. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d say Questor’s playstyle resonated with me the most.
I was really surprised at the skill progression system in the game, which is a lot deeper than I expected at first. There are lots of upgrades that can be obtained like the aforementioned arrow bomb, in addition to general stat boosts, more gold find, faster speed, and so on. You can also use gold to buy “Relics,” tokens of power that can be trigger extra abilities during play, as well as a handful of new costumes.
For the most part, this is the Gauntlet we all remember. There are hidden rooms, waves of enemies to defeat, monster portals to stop before the screen becomes overrun, bosses to master and figure out on the fly — and of course, that damn exploding food. There are core spokes of the dungeon wheel that are static and never change, but the majority of the game is procedurally generated to give a different experience every time.
Higher difficulties like Hard and Unfair present greater challenges with not only more difficult monsters, but the mechanic of forcing you to acquire “Skull Coins” with points, which are the only way to revive — if you run out, it’s game over. On the flipside you get a lot more gold for taking on the challenge, which gives you a nice sense of risk/reward.
The only major issue I had with the game was the art style. Rather than draw inspiration from my favorite Gauntlet games like Legends and Dark Legacy, which have bright, exaggerated visuals, 2014’s iteration is more akin to the classic series and the darker Seven Sorrows. A lot of the levels tend to blend together, and despite the fact that each role plays differently, the camera is so zoomed out that it’s tough to really admire their character models. The new announcer also isn’t nearly as iconic as the one in the console era.
On other hand, everything is very clean. From the game’s simplistic user interface to its smooth frame rate, it’s easy to see where everything is without getting lost. Little touches like color sparks emanating from each class go a long way in terms of breaking up the chaos, and even with online play the game ran at a smooth pace. Speaking of online play, the system that’s in place right now is that I’d call the definition of adequate, and lacks any real bells and whistles.
There aren’t elaborate lobby options (or drop-in joining), but it’s easy to either invite or meet up with friends, or open up a game to the general public.I tested out how long it took to fill a sample size of 10 games after starting a new session, and there was an average of 60 seconds that passed before it was full. For reference, everyone has to pick a different character, so it’s beneficial to spread your play between all four since each of them have a different leveling track. Even online, players share the same screen as if they were playing on a console on the TV. You could also spring for local co-op.
Gauntlet is a polished game that does right by its predecessors. It’s a great mix of both old and new school sensibilities, and despite the fact that the art style isn’t as pronounced as it could have been, the actual core of the game is very sound. With the addition of online play to the series, this one will have legs for quite some time and deserves a spot in the Gauntlet pantheon.