They say that time makes fools of us all, which is especially true in my case, after once finding myself trapped inside a grandfather clock for two days. But time also plays other tricks, such as forcing 30 years of videogame history to seemingly pass in the blink of an eye. In an effort to make me feel like a nostalgic old crackpot, Arrowhead Studios has revitalised the Gauntlet franchise, pumping out a game that feels like it has barely aged since its initial release in 1985.
For the uninitiated, Gauntlet is a co-op, hack and slash dungeon crawler, which feels like a convoluted way of saying that you kill a lot of monsters. If you’re wondering what the difference is between this and the recent 2014 PC release of Gauntlet, both games are basically the same. However, the Slayer Edition released on PS4 (or as a free update on PC) offers a few new features, such as an overhauled hub for the Campaign Mode, and also an Endless Mode. These are both welcome additions, that flesh out what would be an otherwise meagre package, but the meat of the game still lies in its Campaign Mode.
Upon diving into any of these modes, you are first prompted to choose from one of four adventurers; Warrior, Elf, Valkyrie and Wizard (plus a Necromancer through paid DLC), all of which behave as you would expect. The warrior is the easiest to pick up and play because his job is to run up to enemies and simply attack; his wide area-of-effect attacks and strength serve the team very well, but he will often be the first to die, because of his close proximity to the fray. The Elf requires a little more range to be effective with his bow, but is good for luring enemies into traps and dodging around quickly. The Valkyrie can block attacks and lunge in with strong blows, but requires a bit of patience to use effectively, as her shield can only help to defend the team. Meanwhile, the wizard needs to stay as far away from the action as possible, supporting the group with area-of-effect spells and fireballs. If you’re used to these types of games, the archetypes hold together and complement each other well.
The predetermined levels of the campaign hold together nicely, taking place in three separate locations with separate hordes of enemies. From the undead crypts, to underground tunnels, you’ll fight your way through an unrelenting wave of monsters. This type of gameplay can easily become repetitive, but the special abilities of Gauntlet’s characters serve to stave off boredom somewhat. Since these abilities are on a cooldown timer, it can also lead to tense moments, leaving you to hang on just long enough to unleash a devastating attack. As the dungeons often lock you in a room until you’ve dealt with the oncoming swarm, you’ll find most of your time is spent dodging around the crowd, trying to pick off dangerous individuals before delving into fights. This helps to elevate Gauntlet beyond the mindless grind that you may expect from such a game.
Unfortunately, since all of the dungeons follow the same design patterns, it can become very easy to predict where and when enemies will appear. This, coupled with the fact that there are only a handful of different locations, make certain moments of the game seem alike. Compound this with a lack of diversity amongst enemies (usually three types per location), and it is easy to become disengaged. While this is often an endemic complaint of the dungeon crawling genre, it feels especially pronounced here, where virtually no variety is added to these areas.
During the campaign, each of the three main locations are punctuated by a boss fight. These bosses succeed in changing the up gameplay nicely, often providing a suitable challenge with their strong attacks and varied patterns. These serve as palette cleansers before you are forced back into the grind. It’s a shame then that there are only three of these throughout the entire game.
While the campaign is undoubtedly the main draw, Endless Mode serves up more of the same, in a series of randomly ordered dungeons. This mode challenges you and three other party members to slog your way through as many floors as possible, daring you to see how far you can get. Your party has the option to buy additional items on each floor, such as Skull Coins (extra lives), health, and exploding potions. Managing your gold in order to buy resources can make the difference in the long run, and having a generous team member who is willing to buy Skull Coins can prove valuable.
This kind of cooperation underpins the whole Gauntlet experience from start to finish. While you can attempt the game solo, you will undoubtedly have more fun in co-op, and the game is built specifically for that. Four player online co-op is almost assumed, and Gauntlet flaunts seemless drop-in and drop-out matchmaking throughout. Just make sure to set your game to Public in the host options (why this isn’t standard seems to be an odd choice) to make sure you’re getting the full benefit should you decide to host a game. Local co-op is an option here as well however; a feature that many other games tend to forget.
Also included in the Slayer Edition is the Colosseum mode, which offers daily challenges that reward you with extra gold and customisation options for your characters. The Colosseum provides a nice excuse to delve back in on a daily basis, although I doubt that this will hold the same draw for players that similar modes have in the likes of Spelunky. Still, it’s an extra incentive and pads out the bare-bones experience that was delivered in Gauntlet’s previous PC release.
Visually, Gauntlet looks fine, if occasionally bland. The game communicates its visual cues well through thoughtful design, meaning that you’re never stuck for where to go or what to do next. However, since the visuals don’t change too much between levels, some of the environments do appear a tad tasteless at times.
All in all, Gauntlet: Slayer Edition offers more of the tried and tested gameplay that you would expect. The general combat is pretty satisfying, offering a hack-and-slash game that isn’t totally mindless, and rewards you for deploying your special skills correctly, playing your class well, and working as a team. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stave off repetition long enough to truly break out of its own genre constraints.
Despite moments of repetition, Gauntlet still stands up 30 years on.