Review: Gauntlet

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I’ve mentioned in many previous reviews how the arcade game Gauntlet was a part of my formative gaming years. Recent titles like Sacred 3 and Hammerwatch have attempted to capture that same magic with various degrees of success. Now Arrowhead Game Studios, the developer behind the Magicka games, has taken the reigns of Gauntlet and applied modern conventions to the original dungeon crawling classic. Each hero–Warrior, Elf, Wizard, and Valkyrie–has their own unique attacks and special abilities, while things like masteries, relics and loadouts have been added to make the experience feel more current. Each class plays differently, while doing what fans of the series have come to expect: smashing skeletons, demons, mummies and other ghoulish nasties, and collecting keys and treasures.

The Warrior, Thor, plays like a pretty standard button-mashing brawler, with a light and heavy attack, and a special whirlwind attack. The light attack does a pretty decent job of taking most enemies down in one or two hits. The heavy attack is devastating but is very slow to wind up and can be interrupted if not timed perfectly. The whirlwind attack is very effective but the cooldown on it means that it can’t be spammed too often. Pointing the right stick in a particular direction sets up Thor’s charge slam attack, which is fairly powerful but, like the heavy attack, is easily interrupted if not used carefully. Overall, Thor is nice to have for his secondary attacks in a co-op group, but he’s the last class you should choose for solo play.

Questor the Elf, on the other hand, is one of the best classes for playing solo, his rapid fire bow and arrow attacks capable of very quickly dispatching most enemies from a safe distance. The controls are similar to a twin-stick shooter, where arrows are fired off constantly as long as the right stick is held in any direction. Holding down the left trigger drops a short fused bomb, which does a decent amount of damage in a small radius and is great for destroying enemy spawn totems, while hitting the right trigger aims a sniper shot for maximum damage. Questor also has the ability to do a rolling dodge.

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Thyra the Valkyrie is more like Thor in that she is melee based, but she also has a shield throw which ricochets around on enemies, typically killing them in a single blow. She also has a spear thrust that sets her in a line of enemies, piercing them as she charges through. The shield can be used to block projectiles, or to deflect them directly back at the enemy whence they came.

Merlin the Wizard has a collection of spells which can be changed out similiarly to how magic casting works in Arrowhead’s Magicka. Various button presses mix three elements–fire, ice, and lightning–that Merlin casts from. Consolidating the element by double pressing the corresponding button casts a default spell, either a fireball, icebeam, or electric shield. Combining the elements allows for more advanced casting of spells like heavy fire bomb, chain lightning, fire dragons, an ice blast similar to a shotgun, and a large radius of slowing ice. Switching between the different spells takes a bit of getting used to, but Merlin can be pretty devastating once you get the element combinations down.

The game is divided into three distinct areas, which are then broken down into four doors. Each door then consists of three floors that must be completed. An antichamber connects all of the doors and offers a shop to buy relics and loadout gear. As a door is cleared, gold is accumulated and bonuses are added for extra lives that have been earned. Additionally, a bonus is applied to any character that manages to wear a golden crown dropped by a certain enemy in each stage to the end of the floor. Possession of the crown is lost when a player is hit, allowing another player to pick it up, which adds an extra layer of friendly competition between players during co-op.

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Playing through a door generally takes anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes, based on my experience in both solo and online co-op. While that isn’t a bad thing, it can be a challenge to get used to upon realizing that there are three stages to each door that need to be completed in succession, with no saves in between, before the next door is unlocked. The game is also tiered into four levels of difficulty, and once a door is unlocked in a given difficulty it remains unlocked for any of the other classes at that difficulty. This is a nice way to open the game up and then play with each class without worrying about having to unlock each doorway for each class at each difficulty.

Once doors are unlocked, the choicest meat of the game comes into focus, and that is the leveling of Masteries. These range anywhere from being killed by floor spikes, deadly blades or exploding barrels, to killing X number of skeletons, mummies or demons, to destroying X number of props. As a Mastery is completed, bonuses to damage or health or gold find percentage are increased and new ability modifiers can be earned. Of course, like any other hack-and-slash game, leveling up Masteries to the absolute top isn’t a feat done quickly, but rather through grinding. Mastery progression is displayed at the end of each level, and very quickly the game becomes like a crack addiction of wanting to play one more level to reach the next Mastery tier and unlock a new bonus.

Playing online with friends is very easy to do and does a pretty good job of replicating what it’s like in local co-op–no one or two players can stray too far, because the game will teleport any stragglers back to the host player. Still, the game really shines in true local couch co-op. My only misgiving is with Steam more so than with what Arrowhead has done for local play, and that is with the fact that local progression applies only to the active Steam account. There isn’t a way to apply a second or third player to a different Steam account even though both are playing locally on a PC. At least the progress made by the second player remains with whichever class is being played. I’m curious to see how the game will deal with character progression when it eventually (hopefully?) appears on consoles.

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Since launch a couple months ago, Arrowhead has been busy developing new content, including two major additions released within the past week: Lilith the Necromancer, a new player class as paid DLC (whom I haven’t played with yet), and a Colosseum arena mode added as a free update. The Colosseum mode involves surviving a progression of enemy waves in one of three new areas to achieve a high score on seasonal leaderboards. Each area increases in difficulty from Normal, Hard, and Unfair. Each area also has an extended mode, which adds two more waves of enemies to the original battle, with various capes available to unlock as cosmetic rewards for each class. The new mode is fun and adds some additional value since it is free, but similar to the final bosses of each section in the main game, no blue potions are available and thus none of the adventurers’ special relic abilities can be used to aid in combat.

Gauntlet is definitely a solid reboot of an old classic. The varied attack styles that each class is equipped with took getting used to, but once I figured out the pacing of the game and the fact that there is very little downtime when enemies are on screen, I quickly became enamored and reminded of old times crawling dungeons in the arcade. Even with all of the other titles I have in my queue, I often find myself wanting to fire up Gauntlet just to play another quick level or two. This is a wonderful version for fans of the series and it provides a ton of fun gameplay and replay for fans of arcade hack-and-slash.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Mastery progression is like crack
+ Class variety offers distinct gameplay styles
+ Fun online and local co-op play

Cons:
– Solo play can be frustrating until Mastery progression is increased

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: WB Games
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Release Date: 9/23/2014
Genre: Dungeon Crawler
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4 (local and online co-op)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.