Gauntlet represents a lot of “firsts” for me in gaming. It was my first dungeon crawler, the first game that taught me the joys of stealing health and power-ups from my friends, the first game to lead me down a dark verbal path from which there is no return. When I heard that a new version was being released that looked to put the “dungeon” back in “dungeon-crawler,” I was keen. When Warner Bros. reached out to us with a preview of the game, I just about wet myself. Soon after, I pulled myself away from Destiny long enough to play it through a few times, and it was definitely time well spent… Even if it was spent away from Destiny.
The preview I’ve been playing is on a build intended only for the preview and not the full release, so anything mentioned in this article is subject to change prior to release. It’s also only an approximation of the first act, set in the Crypts, so everything I’ve seen is early game stuff. That being said, let’s just say that when I’m done being made Bungie’s bitch later this month, I’m looking forward to being ensorceled by Gauntlet for awhile.
Assuming, you know, there’s anyone free to play with.
I was surprised when the game didn’t start out with Garm or Skorne, given the popularity of “Legends” and “Dark Legacy” compared to the rest of the series. Instead, Arrowhead have opted for the characters and villains from the original Gauntlet in their new addition to the series. The preview allowed me to choose from Questor the Elf, Merlin the Wizard, Thya the Valkyrie, or Thor the Warrior. Your group has been tasked by Morak to retrieve the three “somethings” that have been scattered across the dungeon. Noted, I say “somethings” because I didn’t quite catch what they were the first time around and, for the life of me, I couldn’t get him to give his opening monologue again. While the preview only allowed me access to the first act of the game, three levels and a boss fight, I get the feeling that story isn’t going to be the biggest focus of the game.
What small story there is in the game is delivered to you by Morak, the disembodied voice that provides you with your quest and aaaallll the sass that you can handle. That wasn’t just a throw-away line about Morak’s sass, either, that guy takes any and every opportunity to give you hell for whatever it is that you’ve done wrong. When I reached the boss level and was walking up the hallway to meet my foe, Morak was remarking about how impressed he was that I had made it as far as I had and that perhaps he was wrong in his original estimations of my character. I then walked across the threshold of the Sun King’s throne room, the barriers flew up trapping me inside, and Morak’s cheerful voice cried out “YOU WALKED RIGHT INTO THAT ONE!”
Rationally, I know that this was likely a bug, which just happened to trigger Morak’s taunts at a coincidental moment. Rationally. In reality, I’m now actually somewhat frightened that Morak has gained sentience and is judging me always in everything I do. In a game like this one, which have vast expanses of story-less gameplay between fleeting moments of half-story, characters like Morak thrive and are often the most memorable parts of those games. He certainly fulfills that role, but god damn I hope you get to kill him in the end. I can’t prove anything, but when he sends you on this quest and then giggles and jokes whenever shit goes wrong, there’s absolutely no way the guy isn’t evil. I might just get my wish.
You’re the worst Morak. Or the best… What is this feeling?
I played through the entirety of the preview as Questor the Elf only, so most of what I write about here will relate only to him. Thankfully, like most games being released on Steam and true to Gauntlet’s history, gamepad support was present; I personally feel like using a gamepad of some kind is the best way to play the game, however, a KBM combo still works well with the games mechanics. The idea of playing Gauntlet without a gamepad just seemed wrong to me, so most of what I have to say regarding controls will be about using a gamepad as well. I have a couple of complaints about the controls for Gauntlet, though they’re minor at best; over-all, the game controlled fantastically.
In particular, I liked the “twin-stick” style auto-fire bound to the gamepad’s right analogue stick and found it to be quite responsive and accurate. Conversely, aiming the power shot was an absolute pain; unlike Elf’s rapid shot fire, the power shot had to be steered by moving the control stick left or right as opposed to just pointing in the direction you wanted to aim. There’s been a bit more thought given to how combat is approached as well, requiring more from players than to simply hold down the attack button. When fighting the Skeleton Warrior as the Elf, for instance, all normal attacks were blocked by his shield unless I could stun him with a charged shot first.
Gauntlet also carries on the series tradition of providing players ample opportunities to do something to screw over themselves and/or the rest of the party. I’m talking about destroying food in various ways (directly shooting/smashing it will tell everyone playing who did it, which, just… that’s harsh, Gauntlet). Inadvertently training swarms of enemies directly into your team mates. Triggering monsters’ AoE attacks while said team mates are trapped amid aforementioned swarm. Your experience with mechanics like this depends entirely on who you’re playing with. On one hand, these things might represent another layer of challenge for you and your friends to work together in order to succeed; on the other, these might be things which aid you in stealing and holding onto the crown.
Did I not mention the crown? It’s found in every level and, when carried into the end-portal of each level, it grants bonus gold to the wearer. Retaining the crown is easier said than done, however, as even a single hit will cause you to drop it, at which point it can be picked up by anyone. The bonus it confers didn’t even seem to be that significant, though it’s shining splendor atop my name will be all the reward I require when I play with other people.
Proof that, at one time, I was #1 in the world at something!
… sort of..
Gauntlet sticks close to its roots as a classic top-down dungeon-crawler, though things have been changed up a little; the set maps, for example, have been done away with in favor of procedurally generated dungeons. Monster spawners are now “Summoning Crystals” and are so much more than the spam-attack fodder they once were. I required power shots or my special ability just to damage them, upping the challenge and forcing me to try and take pot-shots during battle. You still smash everything in sight to find gold and then spend said gold between matches, though it isn’t to pig out on health pots and stock-up on bizarre special items.
You can now equip up to two relics to your character, each with their own unique abilities that can be upgraded further for increased power. There are also armor items that you can purchase for your character though, at this point, they appear to be purely cosmetic since I couldn’t find any kind of stat info at all. Not just for these items, but for anything in the game; the classic leveling system has been dropped in favor of achievement based “masteries.” In-game achievements have levels which require the player to perform heroic feats in order to accomplish them, with each level conferring a bonus to character performance.
The changes are gradually noticeable over time, but I’m ambivalent as to whether or not this is actually a good thing within the context of the game. On one hand, it means that the focus is entirely on fightin’ and lootin’ and dungeoneerin’ and makes for a very action oriented game. On the other, not having the leveling system means you have no perspective on what your character is actually doing. Without the stats and leveling side of a dungeon-crawler, the non-stop action can start to feel like a bit of a grind. Variation in enemies wasn’t very abundant in the preview, either; I’ve no doubt that enemies will change as the acts progress, but I hope that the range and variety increases to keep the action fresh.
God dammit Morak, I hate you so much… Kiss me.
The music was very atmospheric, nothing particularly attention-grabbing, however, it certainly added to the fantasy feeling that the game is attempting to create. Graphically, character models were simple though easy to identify amidst the action while the environments were beautifully designed and detailed. Despite the winning combination of these two factors, however, I don’t think immersion in the world is really what the developers had in mind. Poking the fourth wall is where the jokes begin, progressing through self-referential humor and then finally arriving at out-right silliness.
For the most part, the voice acting is pretty good, if maybe a little disjointed. The dialogue didn’t always sound very enthusiastic, or sometimes as though the voice actor was unsure of what they were saying. It was almost as though they’d accidentally used some of the recordings from the first script rehearsal. Also, as previously mentioned, phrases would be auto-triggered at unusual moments, though I assume this will be cleaned up by the final release. The archer in particular is pretty funny, which I’m glad for given that he’s my favorite character – hours and hours of cringeworthy one-liners would drive me insane. The Warrior was the only other character I spent any real time with and his voice makes him sound like the love child of Arnold Schwarzenegger and William Shatner.
I’ll have the prettiest Elf in all the dungeon.
In comparison to other Gauntlet games, this one will be quite short. The first act makes up one-third of the entire game, which only took me two hours to complete on the normal difficulty. Having said that, if the preview is anything to go by then it’ll be a solid contribution to the series. Its few foibles can be easily forgiven, since they’re not exactly game-breaking and seem almost insignificant compared to how much the game got right. The focus on gameplay over character management should make for some great multiplayer experiences; with the addition of online play, as well, it will make organising 4-player Gauntlet games much easier. It’ll be better too, because I love Gauntlet (this version included) and I love playing it with friends, but Gauntlet should be played for hours on end and people start to smell by that point.
Gauntlet is available through Steam, releasing on September 24th.