“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.
The 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.
Relics 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.