It’s been nearly ten years since anybody’s wanted to make a Gauntlet game, and rightfully so. Fans of the series (and realists in general) would probably be safe in assuming that the pre-Dark Legacy appeal is never going to resurface but from indies. Any new, name-brand Gauntlet would come with so many modern trappings baked-in that much of the point of playing a Gauntlet game would simply be eliminated. Because of this stigma, Arrowhead Studios, the creators of Magicka and Helldivers, were probably the best developers for a new, modern Gauntlet game.
The basics of Gauntlet are largely preserved in this latest addition (disappointingly titled “Gauntlet”): the Warrior, the Valkyrie, the Elf, and the Wizard make up a four-man dungeon running team, and generators summon swarms of enemies until they are destroyed. The combat is great fun, it’s weighty, and it has a seriously danceable rhythm. Gone are the days of the Warrior being a slower Elf that throws axes instead of firing arrows. Each class has a handful of useful, effective, and above all, cool abilities at its disposal, such as the Valkyrie’s Captain America shield and the Warrior’s devastating, if uninspired, spin ability. The Wizard in particular has received a major update, replacing the idea of a full moveset with an element-combining free-form system not unlike Magicka or Legend of Grimrock. This goes a long way toward making the Wizard the most challenging, and powerful, class to play.
Gauntlet also retains the series’ staple balance between cooperation and competition, and as always, this is the best way to experience the game. Food lying on the ground is still your only source of health regeneration outside of death, and of course still disappears as soon as someone eats it, leading to white-knuckled bum-rushes into the next stockpile room. Certain enemies drop crowns when they die, which grant a gold bonus to the player who carries it to the end of the level, but is dropped on the ground and up for grabs if the player takes damage.
The game is very challenging even on the Normal difficulty, especially in single player, and has a tendency to punish you severely for sloppy play with near-instantaneous death. “Skull Coins” can be used to revive yourself, and are accrued by killing enemies, so rare is the time when a level must be fully restarted. Harder difficulty levels place strict limits on your Skull Coins and are probably going to kick your ass if you don’t have a strong Wizard. The right person playing the right class is most times the key to success, and actual class roles are a really interesting concept for Gauntlet.
Presentation-wise, Gauntlet succeeds with flying colors. The game is very pretty, and camera angles are often set up to emphasize its 3D engine. The cave areas in particular tend to have the more attention-grabbing backdrops of the tunnels below, and it’s somehow really impressive the first time you watch the Elf’s arrow fly down into their depths. Attacks are flashy and explosive with sounds to match, and the music is uninvasive at best. The game has a sense of humor of the self-referential variety, though it isn’t nearly as obnoxious as it could have been and is mostly limited to infrequent cutscenes and character banter. Somehow, though, Gauntlet’s excellent, instantly recognizable theme song slipped through the cracks, and was replaced with a menu song I can’t even recall.
For the first two hours of Gauntlet, everything seems just dandy. The levels are more linear than what would be ideal, but hey, it’s just the first couple of levels, maybe they open up later. The main hub is only showing me three areas comprised of four levels each, but hey, maybe there’ll be other hubs.
However, once you finish the last level of that third area, you’re met with a credits screen. The game’s three areas (crypts, caves, and volcano) are made up of four levels of three floors. The first floor is always a standard dungeon run, the second is some area-specific gimmick (fireballs shooting out of the lava, for example) that enforces speedy play, and the third is some kind of arena. It turns out that this game is extremely content-sparse, containing about six hours of content (but still putting Destiny to shame). The levels are generally non-descript enough to play at random and have it still seem like new, but entering the replaying phase two days after buying a game is an undeniable disappointment.
Any hopes you have of the game’s paths branching off and becoming the labyrinth you remember are quickly dashed away, once you realize half-way through the second world that there simply isn’t time left in the game for this to meaningfully happen. Gauntlet’s levels remain a hallway connecting small arenas throughout the entire game, and the repetitive nature of the encounters can make even the dullest of brains weary. Later levels, especially in the volcano area, tend to significantly overstay their welcome, leading to me once falling asleep walking down one monsterless hallway in a co-op game.
The lack of content also harms the shop, which can be accessed at the game’s hub, allowing you to buy gear for your character along with equippable and upgradeable abilities called “relics”. This system has drawn great disdain from Gauntlet “purists”, but it has two powerful forces working against it that keep it from being significant whatsoever. The first force is that gold is character-specific, so those of us who like to play all of the characters will find themselves quite poor. Second, the game is far too short to acquire a nice set of items anyway, making buying from the shop a sort of “endgame” feature for those moving up the difficulty levels and needing those stat boosts.
Really though, this game isn’t bad. It’s not $20 worth of good, and it’s the best Gauntlet game since 2000’s Dark Legacy. It’s a lot of fun while it lasts, and I expect to get quite a few more hours out of playing its endgame, and hopefully its expansions, with my friends. It may feel like a standard hack-and-slash that replaced some of its systems with Gauntlet stuff, but it was obviously created by people with great talent, and it’s the first fun game of its kind in a while.
Gauntlet can be purchased from Steam.
Ethics disclosure: This game was purchased by the reviewer.