Review: Gauntlet is Diablo-Lite
Older gamers will remember Gauntlet as one of the more threatening games in the arcade, with its hordes of monsters, intimidating levels, and a health system that had players slowly dying as soon as they entered the game. Not-as-old gamers will probably know Gauntlet from its more recent incarnations Gauntlet Legends or Gauntlet Dark Legacy, which offered a three-dimensional perspective and some light RPG elements, like leveling and core attributes. Despite the new direction, the traditional Gauntlet gameplay of heroes throwing weapons at monsters remained intact. Now, Gauntlet returns in 2014 with a hybrid of nostalgia and new features. Regrettably, while the nods to the previous games will titillate gamers with good memories, too many changes to the core gameplay make Gauntlet feel more like a clone of Diablo than a true evolution of the series.
The story is threadbare and is only included for perfunctory reasons. The original four heroes of Gauntlet (Thor the warrior, Thyra the Valkyrie, Questor the elf, and Merlin the wizard) meet to explore some ruins that might hold some powerful artifacts. Once inside, they meet a mysterious character named Morak, who gives a brief history of the ruins and explains that he needs the party to brave the Gauntlet and retrieve the items of power lost within.
At its core, 2014's Gauntlet is a top-down 3-D hack and slash/shooter, depending on the character the player chooses to play. The player will explore various locales, including crypts, bone-filled caves and chambers overflowing with lava. Enemies spawn from monster generators that rise from the ground and take a challenging amount of hits before falling. There are three worlds to explore, and at the end of each world is a boss fight. A single play-through from beginning to end will typically last roughly four hours.
Fans of the series will most likely be disappointed by the change in the core gameplay from previous Gauntlet games. In previous games, all of the characters had a ranged primary attack. Now, only the elf and wizard are purely ranged. The Valkyrie has a cool-down special attack that is ranged, and the warrior has no ranged attack at all. Additionally, previous Gauntlet games featured a brawling mechanic that would have characters switching to melee attacks if enemies touched the character without the character shooting back. Now, characters just take damage.
The maps are also a bit of a departure from previous games in the series, attempting to strike a balance between the original arcade games and the later 3-D versions. Unfortunately, the maps feel small and are often completed very quickly (especially on repeated runs). There are new floor hazards, like spikes and blades, and there are platforms that allow players to leap across gaps for strategic attacks or simply progress in the game. Keys still exist, but only for opening doors, since chests come pre-opened. And because the maps feel small – or at least the amount of map that fits in the field of view feels small – there aren’t many options for “key choice” in the game. Players are rarely faced with having to decide what doors to open.
Death no longer pops out of chests to harass players, since none of the chests are locked, and instead has its own special maps that are randomly generated. Death appears out of the ground to chase players across the map and, since Death can’t be attacked or banished by potions now, players must continually run away until they get to the end of the level. These levels are usually completed in just a few minutes.
Potions also do not have the same functions as in previous Gauntlet’s. They now act as charges for individual relics that players can purchase from the shop at the hub of the Gauntlet. Relics have various powers, like imbuing the player with extra speed or creating a bait totem that will then explode. Only two relics can be equipped at a time and each one can be upgraded with subsequent purchases.
These game design choices are not necessarily bad; they just don’t make this game feel like classic Gauntlet. Instead, the experience feels more like Diablo, with players continually running the same areas over and over again, killing the same bosses. Unfortunately, Gauntlet can’t hope to offer the same robust leveling and loot system. In fact, half of the items that can be earned/purchased are purely cosmetic.
In previous installments, players could pick any of the characters and still receive a similar experience as the player next to them. That can’t be said here. For instance, the elf is the only character that can move and attack at the same time in any direction. The wizard comes close to the same mobility, but even he has to stop to attack. This makes the elf a tremendous treasure hunter, because he doesn’t have to choose between helping the team and helping himself.
Nabbing treasure in general is also imbalanced across the characters due to other mobility disparities. For instance, the elf and Valkyrie both have instant dash moves that have no cool-down. So whenever the party runs down a hallway together and spots a treasure chest, the warrior can never keep up with them. And the wizard can only do so if he has a particular spell ready and his cool-down isn't blown.
There are also a few problems with multiplayer. First, it takes uncomfortably long to find an adequate game. There is no game lobby from which to choose a game. Players simply choose a difficulty level and the game will search for an open session. But players don’t know at what difficulty level the majority of other players are playing at. Once players are in a session, the fact that there can only be one type of each character in a party can cause more issues when players don’t get to play their favored character. This usually results in incomplete parties who rush into the game simply because they’re tired of waiting.
Currently, there is also no way to rebind keys, which is a major oversight for the PC community. This is especially problematic when playing the wizard, who requires a combination of inputs to switch spells.
Finally, the perk system is poorly designed. While many of the perks are normal, offering bonuses for positive achievements, there are several rewards for bad play. For instance, dying so many times in a level will actually give players a permanent penalty reduction for future deaths. It’s already irritating when playing with people who are achievement hunting. Now, imagine playing with someone who is purposefully playing poorly for a reward.
Here are the criteria I consider most important for judging Gauntlet:
As a game unto itself, Gauntlet can be a blast the first time through. With the right group and difficulty level, the game offers an excellent controlled chaos experience. As the latest incarnation in the Gauntlet series, however, this offering falls well short of what fans will expect. Balancing issues also degrade the satisfaction.
Most people playing this game will do so out of brand recognition. Gauntlet satisfies in this regard, but mostly cosmetically. The game nods at previous installments with familiar sound effects, enemies and the disembodied voice that describes the action on-screen. Regrettably, the game is also too much of a departure to really rekindle the simple joy fans will remember having from playing the previous games.
Replay Value: 6/10
Unlike Diablo most of the maps in Gauntlet never change, and there is no epic loot that players will hope will drop. Once the short list of relics are all upgraded, there’s very little to work for beyond placing high on the leaderboard, but even that is limited. On day one, someone had already maxed out the score on one of the maps. After the game is beaten and all the worlds seen, what else is there?
Gauntlet looks and sounds great in most parts. The character models move smoothly and the Gauntlet textures are all detailed nicely. The various lines the characters spout at or about each other are cute and make the game feel more alive and dynamic. In other areas, the game feels rushed, like with the overuse of the “Death Runs” and simple artwork stills to convey story elements. It’s these blemishes that make Gauntlet feel like a cheap downloadable console network game.
Even with all these shortcomings, Gauntlet can be fun to play -- especially at higher difficulty levels. The monsters become formidable and managing cool-downs and spatial awareness becomes paramount as players frantically navigate the tight arenas. In those moments, shooting food can be absolutely heartbreaking. Additionally, given that communication can only be done via a handful of emotes, the rare joy of joining a coordinated group is indescribable.
The fun just doesn’t last long enough.
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