Gauntlet: Slayer Edition Review

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“It’s here,” I told the misses as 1.5 gigabytes pushed their way through my network, applying a hefty patch against one of the most accessible titles ever released. Gauntlet has already occupied my time for almost an entire year because of its easy to join couch co-op. The first edition was a fun game that’s enjoyable for both hardcore gamers and more social/casual types. After a month of play however, the original version could become a grinding task, the levels repetitive and requiring a hefty commitment of hours.

All of that is gone. The core gameplay remains, focusing on smashing hordes of foes, taking out summoning stones, grabbing gold and not shooting (or do I?) the food. But everything else has expanded and grown, matured in depth and complexity. Even the opening menu wows with a great image of the dungeon’s entrance and a powerful musical theme reminiscent of both Gauntlet Seven Sorrow and the talents of Basil Poledouris, best remembered for the bombastic, adrenaline-inducing scores of Conan the Barbarian.

As the misses and I descended into the first dungeon, it didn’t take long for us to notice huge differences visually. The camera gently zooms in and out to adjust to the overall size of the room or tunnel. A layer of shade has been dry washed over everything; The stages are considerably more detailed, packed with new background elements like weapon racks and decorations, ruined red carpets and drapes and tons of fresh props. The caverns now sport moss and lichens, adding splashes of color. Each of the three major areas sported unique breakable gold pots and explosives, reducing repetition and making each stage memorable in its own right.

Not all of it is static either. Passing a familiar corner between two trip-spike traps, we came across a large mummy bursting from a coffin. In the second stage, we suddenly noticed a ripple effect as we battled our way across flooded floors. The level designers loved dropping little acts of dramatic tension, such as momentarily trapping us when we encounter the first enemy necromancer until a pair of summoning stones spawn as well. All-too-familiar paths have been changed and altered with better use of traps to test one’s dexterity.

gauntlet2The heroes we know and love now sport new tricks and configurations. Chiefly, weapons are no longer just cosmetic rewards. New special abilities are dependent upon them, and allow for innovative strategies and playstyles. Each character, including the DLC-addition Lilith, gets four options.

For example, the Warrior Thor can swap out his familiar cyclone attack for a thrown slash. It’s not as far reaching as his original move and doesn’t grant invincibility, but the assault is insanely powerful, downing large mummies or cutting the health of summoning stones in twain with a single blow. As if this wasn’t enough, one of his available axes transforms his over-the-head chop into a spammable ranged axe-throw! Thyra can forgo her shield-toss for a stunning-then-slaying spin, and Questor can use abilities to root foes in place or fade into the shadows. Grouchy Merlin now gets three new schools of magic, each can replace one of his existing elemental spell sets while Lilith can summon new varieties of undead such as archers or explosive ghosts.

These changes have steepened the learning curve, which is even more vertical thanks to unique potion abilities, three apiece per character. I laughed aloud when I decided to try one, and Thor lobbed a potion at the enemy like a grenade. His other potion abilities allow him to transform one monster into food, while the last lets him becomes twice his size and invincible for a short while. Merlin can consume a vial to cast Polymorph on a several monsters, transforming them into random items. And one of Questor’s abilities pacifies foes and heals allies, just as the Siren’s Lute used to do.

Just about every enemy has been changed. Skeletal archers have been swapped for Skeleton Commanders, who can make their soldiers invincible and launch freezing arrows. Orc Juggernauts now go berserk after losing half their life, and become charging brawlers with shocking agility. Skeleton Warriors are now Defenders, who can have their shields broken but become faster when it happens. For veterans, almost everything we know is now wrong.

gauntlet3Relics are still present, but their powers are reduced and they now operate on a cool down instead of consuming potions. This also expands possibilities, even during boss fights which wasn’t possible before. Most remain similar to the version past but some have been tweaked for balance, such as the Golden Feather and the Siren’s Lute, preventing abuse.

There have been a few other interesting changes. Skull tokens are now regular items which can be found as well as earned, granting extra lives. And masteries no longer provide the bonuses they used too. This figures, given that the monster slaying masteries once granted 10, 20 and 30% damage increase upon completion, and then were dropped to a meager 1, 2 and 3%. To be fair, Gauntlet never really was an RPG to begin with, so this change puts player success squarely on their skills, with no promises of improvement or “grinding to succeed.”

A few final touches to mention. Players who complained about the slow rate of the Colosseum’s turn over have been heeded; The Colosseum mode now changes daily rather than quarterly. Arrowhead has also cooked up the Endless Mode, where parties can descend deeper and deeper into increasingly challenging situations, such as having Death chase the player through cavern tunnels and even through the fire pits. Will they combine these challenges, adding fireballs, death and darkness? We haven’t made it that far, so who knows?

But one way or the other, PlayStation 4 players are in for a treat, and PC gamers can witness a good game become the Gauntlet we deserve. Check it out today.

Correction: The Wizard’s Polymorph works on more than one foe, not a single one as previously reported. This has been corrected in the body of the text.

Gauntlet

“The game is an intriguing study in the struggle between altruism, selfishness and self-interest.”

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From the get go, Gauntlet spawns nostalgia of my youth. My brother and I played Gauntlet on the NES in the 90s, a game of some mindless fun, in which he and I experimented to see how far we could get in the game with various combinations of characters.

Back in the day, the concept was pretty simple… one or two players pick a class that balances speed, damage and health, and tries to descend into the dungeon. Your health was actually a timer. Take a hit, you lose some time. Eat some easily destructible food and you regain time/health. Monster generators spawn endless foes, which you held back with thrown weapons. On occasion, Death himself showed up, forcing us to race to the exit. Of the four classes available, the Warrior had the most health and damage, the Elf moved the quickest and the Wizard and Valkyrie balanced both.

Since those days, Gauntlet has undergone a few reboots, such as the goofy Gauntlet: Dark Legacy and the grittier Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows. Now, Arrowhead tries its hand at the Gauntlet franchise.

And truth be told, they’ve outdone everyone else.

While the timer has since been removed, the overall appeal of the game remains a hack-and-slash fest for four people, including any combination of couch and internet players. This is awesome as I relish any chance to hang with friends, near and far. However, there have been some significant changes to how each of the four classes works. No longer do they each spam throwing weapons endlessly. Rather, each class fights according to their fantasy archetype. This is what makes the new Gauntlet so much fun.

The Warrior Thor, as you can imagine, is a melee murder machine, capable of going toe-to-toe with hordes of monsters using a wide reaching, area of effect slash that deals impressive damage. He also packs a charge attack that can knock back several monsters, and a leap attack that deals tremendous injury to a single target, great for taking out those enemy generators. His primary weakness is the lack of a ranged weapon. Thus, he can’t pull back and snipe when his health is low. On the plus side, his cyclone attack makes him invulnerable for a moment, a trick I’ve used to cheat death (and Death) more than once.

valkyrie_conceptart_layout_page_01The Valkyrie Thyra is a sword, spear and shield wielding powerhouse, capable of everything. Her spear-dash ability can be executed swiftly and damages several foes. She can take on the hordes with her overwhelming sword strikes. Her shield can deflect projectiles and force foes back, as well as be used as a projectile itself, killing several enemies Captain America style. The Valkyrie strikes me as a great choice for both beginners and advanced players, as her jack-of-all-trades abilities give starting players a sample of the kind of gameplay they like, while skilled adventurers can blend all these skills together into an unstoppable whirlwind of death, flowing from one tactic to the next.

The Wizard Merlin seems to be the game’s most controversial figure. Early in the game’s release, people avoided the Wizard like the plague because of the difficulty in switching between nine different spells, each with their own utilities. As I’ve discovered both personally and in teams however, Merlin may just be the most powerful character of all, if a player takes the time to learn all the spell combinations. His ability to switch from a few potent damaging spells to area of effect, teleportation, and area denial abilities makes him rewarding if one bothers to study him. In a way, I kind of feel like this is how a magic using character should be.

At last, the Elf Questor maintains all the speed and guile of his former incarnations. He can lay powerful bombs which can help clear out the enemy generators, and unleash rapid-fire arrows at the hordes to manage the masses. Interestingly, Questor’s arrow barrage bounces harmless off enemy generators. Thus, he must rely on either his bombs or his charged up, sniping shots to destroy them. His speed is further accented by a roll maneuver, allowing him to escape being cornered and snatch food and gold with haste.

The characters aren’t just flat, silent protagonists either. They compliment each other when they fight well, chide each other when someone destroys a meal, and remind teammates when they’re dying and need to feed. While this is functionally useful, the chemistry between them is light. There’s room for some rib-poking.

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Perhaps the thing that vexes me most about Gauntlet is the competition within the cooperation. Players cannot directly harm one another. But they can really step on each others toes if they so choose. Dying results in a portion of one’s gold being dropped for other players to snatch up. Food and potions can be destroyed, and thoughtless teammates have gobbled up all the turkey when others and myself had only a smidgen of health left. Some puzzles call for explosives (Yay!), which is all fun and games until your colleagues decide to light the powder keg you’re carrying (Boo!).

And all the while, you wonder if this is deliberate and intentional sabotage to get your gold, or if they’re just being ignorant boors. However, higher difficulty settings require communal lives, thus greatly discouraging this jerk behavior. The game is an intriguing study in the struggle between altruism, selfishness and self-interest.

So what good is this gold you race to collect from your teammates? Well, there are two major uses. The first is the purchase and improvement of relics, special ability-granting tools you can use once you obtain potions. Gold can also be used to unlock new outfits for your characters. I suspect that Arrowhead will be racing to come out with new content in the future, as what little they have in the store will soon be purchased. There’s just not a lot of rewards available right now.

Speaking of persistence, Gauntlet tackles a different kind of leveling system. Instead of flat experience, as you might expect from a game of the fantasy genre, character improvements are handled through an achievement-based mastery system. Kill a 1,000 mummies, and you’ll gain 10% additional damage against them permanently. Smash a few hundred props and the gold you gain will slightly increase over time. Even people who aren’t doing well gain bonuses from dying, thus reducing the sting of losing.

Gauntlet isn’t the second coming of Diablo II. But at only $20, Gauntlet is fun for four, a party game needing only beer, three friends and a dog. And I do hope that Arrowhead keeps improving on it.