Wot I Think: Gauntlet

Gauntlet has always been a simple pleasure. Run through a dungeon with up to three pals, killing hundreds of monsters as a team, nicking treasure from one another like arch rivals, and shooting the food a split second before your wounded wizard chum manages to grab it. Arrowhead, of Magicka fame, have taken the reigns for this latest installment of the veteran series. Here’s wot I think.

I was tempted to write an entire review in the form of a roundtable discussion between the heroes from the original game but I couldn’t decide if Merlin, the wizard, was going to be a condescending smartarse or a confused old duffer. I should have just settled on ‘confused old duffer’ since an elf called Questor couldn’t be anything other than a condescending smartarse.

Let the record show that the height of my wit would have been to portray Thor the warrior as a monsyllabic slab of muscle. Instead of all that nonsense, you’ll find analysis of the game below, but first, the answers to some questions that you might well have.

1) You can play solo but it’s not a particlarly enjoyable experience. The game’s greatest pleasure is in the odd balance between cooperating and competing – working together to herd and eliminate monsters, while making use of each others’ strengths, but descending into mischief when robbing treasure, health or potions from former allies.

2) There’s around four or five hours of content, but there isn’t even enough variety for that length of playtime. Throughout the dungeons, few gimmicks are introduced and if you’re not having a good time in the first half hour, you probably won’t be in the final half hour. However, if you’re having fun for the first five hours, you might well fancy running through again on a higher difficulty level or as a different class.

3) You can play locally or online. I’ve seen reports of problems with the netcode and have had quite a few dropped connections myself, but I’ve also managed to play for three hours at a time without any problems, lag or otherwise. The netcode ain’t perfect though.

4) The Grim Reaper makes regular appearances and is a dick.

Here are the gritty details.

Before I started playing Arrowhead’s new take on the fast-paced co-op dungeon crawler, Gauntlet, I tensed my brain in an effort to remember elements of the original games. And, yes, I played the first two and they were…fast-paced co-op fantasy dungeon crawlers. A valkyrie, an elf, a warrior and a wizard – generators that pumped out enemies until they were destroyed. Something else…

A weird implementation of melee combat, where enemies lost health when they came into contact with the player, but sapped the player’s health at the same time. That led to agonising situations when a friend was surrounded by skellywobbles, the herd pulsing occasionally as one evaporated during the assault. The two-way draining of health instilled the mass of monsters with a crushing claustrophobic quality, and there were horrid ghosts as well, which vanished on impact, taking a chunk of the player’s life force with them. And how do we restore life force? We eat the food.

And that’s why nobody should shoot the food. Gauntlet’s place in the collective consciousness is about that voice and the ominous and slightly regretful tone in which it informed players that one of their number had indeed shot the food.

I don’t know if Gauntlet has a furious fanbase, ready to defend misuse of its lore and style, but if it weren’t possible to shoot the food, Arrowhead’s game wouldn’t be worthy of the name.
Food is available in the dungeons of the new Gauntlet, in the familiar form of roasted poultry dinners laid out on silver serving trays. While people do shoot it on occasion, they’re just as capable of burning it to a crisp, pulverising it with an axe, or skewering it with a pointy spear. Arrowhead have included lots of callbacks and fine detail from the earlier games, but the biggest change from the original formula is in the various methods of destroying food and other items.

Each of the four heroes now has a unique set of moves, rather than simply a different sprite for their projectiles. There’s also equipment to purchase, most notably in relics which consume a potion on use and have various effects, from summoning a gargoyle companion to dropping a monster-magnet bomb into the dungeon.

As might be expected, the warrior is the least interesting but possibly the most important to have as the foundation of a party. To go along with his basic attack, he has a powerful precise cleave that requires a satisfying precision and a spinning mob-mashing move with a cooldown period. He can also sprint through enemies, ramming them to the ground, a move which is charged by pushing the right stick (I played with a 360 pad and preferred it to the mouse/keyboard controls, although they seem fine).

Even the warrior’s moves allow for crowd control, thanks to the charge and the spin attack, and he’s not entirely dull to play around with. He’s also the best character to use in solo play, simply because he’s comfortable when surrounded by enemies. The Valkyrie works as well, thanks to a shield that is used directionally (right thumbstick again) and can block almost any attack, but she’s better as a second line unit, behind the warrior.

The elf is an archer and the character I’ve got along with the least. Attacks seem underpowered, partly because they require a greater degree of accuracy, which I often lack in the thick of the action. I’ve never found myself alongside a particularly useful elf when playing online, so the problem isn’t limited to my cackhandedness, but I suspect people who master the bow will be vital on higher difficulty levels.

Last up is the wizard, a simplified version of the mages that made Arrowhead’s name. Like the protagonists of the Magicka games, wizards in Gauntlet combine elements to make spells, although there are only a handful to discover and the results are functional rather than farcical. Arrowhead’s humour has filtered through into the game and there’s a likeable Discworldian Cohen the Barbarian vibe to the adventures.

Food is in. Differentiation between classes is in. There are hordes of monsters as well, steaming out of generators that need a good pasting before they explode into bits. The melee system is gone though, which makes sense given that every character has a basic close range attack. Very few attacks kill player characters in one hit but health bars are fragile little things and becoming cornered leads to doom.

In solo, the game has a very simple flow. Stay out of enemy range, dodging projectiles, and pick away at the crowd, concentrating attacks on any generators in the room before tackling the remaining beasties. There’s little variation in the levels, which either have the Grim Reaper chasing the party throughout or don’t. There are boss battles but they’re about destroying monsters and monster generators while another threat is in the room rather than a complete change of pace.

The dungeons are a series of arena-like rooms rather than mazes with puzzling sections, and that’s where the greatest deviation from the source material is apparent. Gauntlet and its first sequel were built around co-op play that relied on level design for much of its tension and amusement. Arrowhead’s Gauntlet leans on the skills and combat styles of its four protagonists rather than on the design of its levels.

Put simply, the original Gauntlet was a game about controlling spaces and the creatures within those spaces – a herding game – while this Gauntlet is a game about cooperative combat. Enemies are still controlled in clusters but the difference between choosing how to kill them rather than where to kill them is a huge change.

That may well be familiar to anyone who has played Seven Sorrows or Dark Legacy, but from its chiptune menu music to its constant visual references, Arrowhead’s intepretation is certainly looking right back to the arcades and the start of the series. With a party of four, it’s an enjoyable diversion and the four classes are well balanced and complementary, but the traps, layouts and enemies aren’t quite disruptive enough, and even on higher difficulties the routine of combat tests endurance rather than creative solutions.

Gauntlet is available now.

36 Comments

  1. trjp says:

    The Elf has unlimited (but cooldown-based) bombs and – once they’ve played for all of about 2 mins they can shoot those bombs at things.

    If that’s not a useful trick – (it kills spawners pretty effectively and monsters even more so) I’m not sure what is!? :)

    I’ve only played the Elf thusfar – I like it quite a bit – I guess I have 3 even better experiences ahead? :)

    • J. Cosmo Cohen says:

      I mainly play Elf too, and I love it. I’ve dabbled in the other characters, but I keep returning to the Elf. The Valkyrie and Warrior require me to play completely differently, and it’s quite fun and challenging, but having a dodge roll and a really powerful sniper shot makes the Elf my personal favorite.

      • trjp says:

        Shooting bombs is one of the best, things, ever.

        The way you can use your bombs to trigger the exploding enemies who trigger more exploding enemies is also much fun (that enemies damage other enemies/their own spawners is a brownie point in itself)

    • Blaaaaaaag says:

      I’ve noticed that the Elf, with his faster-than-everyone-else run and attack speed can pretty easily nab the lions share of the gold and steal all the kills. He’s a pretty survivable, high-damage little bastard. He can also move while attacking, something the warrior can’t do and suffers greatly for.

  2. slerbal says:

    I’m not sensing a lot of love for the game. Sounds functional over inspirational? Certainly the brown-on-brown murky looks of the game seem less than enthusing. How does it compare to other recent Gauntlet-alikes like Hammerwatch?

    I’m currently playing through Hammerwatch with some friends and the Gauntlet-style bonus levels are a riot of bright colours, silly monsters and chip tunes and have the vibrancy about them that this appears to lack?

    • trjp says:

      I really like it, it’s quite challenging, there’s a tonne to unlock, the characters are distinct and did I mention that it gets pretty bloody hard!?

      I’m not sure what people expect – it’s VERY Gauntlet – it’s fun – looks nice, sounds nice?

      Does it lack some hipster-cred story aspect or some revolutionary gameplay schtick which is required for people to give a fuck all-of-a-sudden?

      What did people actually expect?? :)

      • J. Cosmo Cohen says:

        I’ve played for about 6 hours now and I’m still yearning for more. It’s really quite fun and I’m not sure what others expected either as it’s exactly Gauntlet as I remember it.

      • slerbal says:

        Relax dude. It’s not hipster cred, just a simple legit question. I’m not haranguing the game, just looking for opinions. Nothing to get worked up about.

        The original Gauntlet was bright, fast-paced and fun. It was full of bright colours (partly because of the platforms) but that made it fun – this game from everything I’ve seen looks really murky and lots of brown-on-brown and looks like it plays distinctly differently (as the Wot I Think notes above). It might be great fun, but I’ve not got that impression from the videos, but they may not do a good job of showing the good bits, hence the question.

        • trjp says:

          I don’t think a ‘bright coloured’ dungeon crawl would work in 2014 – it is, perhaps, a bit ‘brown’ and there are some issues where by things like ‘death’ or ‘explosions’ will make it hard to see what’s going on/what you’re stuck against/whether that door is open or not etc. etc.

          I think there’s a lot of ‘repeat the level to get good at it’ in there tho – which eliminates a lot of that. I’ve actually once even painted myself into a corner and run out of keys to get out tho, more replay than I was hoping for there!!

          • gunslingerfry says:

            You’d be surprised. I would love a brightly colored dungeon crawler. It can still be dark and gritty and have fun colors. Knytt Underground is very brightly colored in places.

          • AngoraFish says:

            I would totally love a decent brightly coloured dungeon crawler. Many contemporary games become too dim with the grungy look, and a limited colour palette can significantly interfere with comprehension and contrast – particularly for mobs. I love the extended colour palette that only a back lit screen can provide. It’s one of the great strengths of computer monitors, developers shouldn’t be afraid to take full advantage of it. A clean and contemporary look is totally achievable with bright colours.

        • Dominare says:

          I think as with many games like this, the main factor is the group of friends you have. My lot have been having fun insulting each other’s ability, stealing the crown when someone else loses it (and calling the other players dirty peasants when you have it yourself) and generally being dicks to each other while at the same time trying to clear levels. In that context the game is definitely fun, the same way Alien Swarm is.

    • Hypocee says:

      Nerdcubed luuuurves it. I think it’s best thought of as a Gauntlet-themed Diablo/Torchlight/Titan Quest, and maybe even some arena shooter. It’s a game of dodging, crowd control, last-second cooldowns and AoEs.

      • trjp says:

        It is an arena-shooter/twin-stick-shooter if we’re completely honest – and a quite good one.

        Has there been a 4-player co-op arena shooter with distinct classes? I don’t think so but there are a couple of things on Early Access which might count.

        Whatever – I like the idea ;0

    • gi_ty says:

      Is local co-op available?

      • jrodman says:

        Local co-op is available simulataneously with remote co-op.

  3. Ansob says:

    There’s little variation in the levels, which either have the Grim Reaper chasing the party throughout or don’t. There are boss battles but they’re about destroying monsters and monster generators while another threat is in the room rather than a complete change of pace.

    Each chapter has four levels made up of three floors: floor 1 is a straight “follow the linear level to the exit” deal, floor 2 has a different gimmick per chapter, and floor 3 is either a short, single-room wave-based arena (the first three levels of each chapter) or an actual boss fight (the fourth level of each chapter) with a gimmick (you can’t hurt the boss until you find out how to make the vulnerable, though it’s never anything complicated) and spawning enemies.

    The second and third chapters have a different “floor 2” gimmick per level: the Caverns (chapter 2)’s floor 2s are unlit (players have a light source with a rather small range) and tiny spiders spawn from offscreen. The Temple (chapter 3)’s floor 2s have big fireballs being fired from offscreen that hurt you and enemies alike.

    Corrections aside, though, I agree with the WiT: it’s a fun diversion with co-op friends, and I certainly don’t regret buying it. It’s more Dark Legacy than oGauntlet, but it does have a lot of funny throwbacks to oGauntlet.

    • Weed says:

      +1. The other nice thing about it is the simple, full controller support and the option to have co-op players sitting right next to you. With this game on a big TV screen, either directly, or through Steam Stream, it works very nicely. A friend of mine projects the game onto his wall, making it wonderfully HUGE.

      I have not had any issues with net code, so everything has been okay on that end, so far.

      We’ve also had two people playing with controllers on one end while another co-op player has joined in over the interwebs. Just simple arcade-like fun. Nice really.

      • deadly.by.design says:

        Does is support controllers other than 360 pads? As much as I enjoy flawless 360 integration, I can’t have 4 players without supporting the likes of my two Logitech Rumblepads.

        Co-op games are an easy way to get my wife playing games, so I may pick this up on sale. We enjoyed Hammerwatch until the late stages, but its gameplay felt a bit rigid. (and eff those spike/vine creatures) This may be slightly more approachable, visual blandness aside.

        • Weed says:

          I can only speak to the XBOX 360 wireless controllers that we’re using, via MS 360 USB dongle.

          I really hope it works with other controllers. The controller makes it fun and possible for side by side co-op.

          The game really flourishes when you have two or more players.

    • socrate says:

      while i played tons of arcade and console dark legacy this one when i tried it was very dull and forgettable quite frankly for me,the dull colors and monster design is just really bad imo and not to mention the extremely boring level compared to the later dark legacy one who become HUGE and maze like with different puzzle…i though i had lost interest in these type of game but replugged my old xbox and played legacy and its just as fun as before quite frankly…oh well.

  4. welverin says:

    I want that original WIT, and I want it right now!

  5. ran93r says:

    I’m really pleased with it.
    I have only put in a few hours so far but I have tinkered with all four characters. My goto was always Wizard and even though I was a little disturbed by the Magicka combo mechanic they added, it does grow on you pretty quickly: Slow time, fire bomb, chain lightning, swirly fire dash.
    The little nods back to the original are nice, the opening theme brings some of the original with it, although not quite enough for my liking. Overall I’m pleased and look forward to them building on this, not just with a few more bolted on story levels but hopefully something really worth the effort.

    • J. Cosmo Cohen says:

      Have they already announced DLC? There aren’t many games I actually want more of, but Gauntlet is one of them.

      • trjp says:

        The game is dripping with places they can slot-in more content – it’s perhaps a little light on content for it’s pricetag (tho replayability is there in spades).

        That said I paid under £8 for it rather than the £15 “on the box” so I’m not too worried so BRING ON MORE STUFF

        Would extra classes be defiling to the franchise? Would we care?? :)

        • ran93r says:

          I’m not sure extra classes are really required, that might be straying too far for my liking.
          It would be nice to have some modes that hark back to the older games, endless procedural levels, time limited treasure room. I might even entertain the idea of the IT mechanic coming back.

          I found the story to be a little pointless, I think I would have preferred an endless “score attack” style of game but I’m not really complaining, it’s a major step in the right direction as far as a reboot goes.

  6. King_Rocket says:

    I have been really enjoying this, it doesn’t over complicate the ideas it borrows from the original. I find this simplicity and the great gamepad controls makes the game a relaxing experience to play.

  7. derbefrier says:

    sounds like this is worth a buy. Good cause i love me some Gauntlet.

  8. Artiforg says:

    Will RPS be doing a WIT of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter? Apparently it’s being released in 3 hours but I’ve not been able to find a review anywhere. Plus, back in august Alice posted a 13 minute video of it and said that you, Adam, had seen it at Gamescom and were going to do a piece on it.

    I’d like to know whether it’s worth my hard earned cash.

  9. thekelvingreen says:

    Can you toggle the original graphics, like in the Monkey Island remake?

  10. ffordesoon says:

    It’s interesting to ponder Gauntlet in a modern context, if only because the Gauntlet formula is one of the few I can think of in the history of games that has been wholly superseded. Aside from franchise-specific aesthetic curiosities like the “______ is about to die, needs food badly!” bit, what does Gauntlet do that Diablo 3 or Dungeon Defenders or Hammerwatch or Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light or even Gears Of War’s Horde Mode (to name just a few examples) doesn’t already do better? For that matter, what did Legends and Dark Legacy not do better? Where in the illimitable (and ironically Gauntletesque) shambling horde of arcadey real-time dungeon crawlers does a back-to-the-roots Gauntlet reboot fit?

    I confess, I’m less a fan of the franchise than a casual observer of it. Certainly, I’m a fan of dungeon crawlers in all their forms, and I’m an avid player of classic games. The lack of cerebral stimulation proffered by Gauntlet is likewise not an issue for me; I must have beaten Final Fight at least fifteen times, and would gladly do so again at this very moment. Yet when I’ve attempted to come to grips with Gauntlet the elder, it has always struck me as a Beowulf-like relic of a prior age – appreciable for its historical significance, but fairly dull outside of that context. It seems to me that in order to be a true-blue honest-to-Betsy Gauntlet fan, you really did have to be there.

    I understand that this reboot will reap all of the nostalgia-dollars, and I’m not criticizing anyone who wants them warm and fuzzy Gauntlet feels tickling their spine again. I’m glad this game exists just for that, actually. Believe me, if this were a Sinistar remake, money would have already been thrown at the screen (hint, hint). But I’m curious to see if this reboot has legs that stretch further than Retroville.

    • InternetBatman says:

      “Yet when I’ve attempted to come to grips with Gauntlet the elder, it has always struck me as a Beowulf-like relic of a prior age – appreciable for its historical significance, but fairly dull outside of that context. It seems to me that in order to be a true-blue honest-to-Betsy Gauntlet fan, you really did have to be there.”

      The gameplay is repetitive in the old Gauntlets, but that’s not a bad thing for a dungeon crawler. There’s a certain joy to exploring the level, leveling up, and getting all the powerups. It really holds up to this day, I loaded it up on N64 when I was in college a few years back, and the entire apartment ended up playing it for the better part of a month, and two of my roommates had never played it.

      • ffordesoon says:

        Hm, well, I won’t dispute that you had that experience. The thing that puzzles me, though, is that there are so, so many games now that add meat to Gauntlet’s skeleton that the original – and, more importantly, any modern take that attempts to hearken back to the original like this one – seems, well, skeletal.

        Put more succinctly, what does a retro-style Gauntlet reboot give you that any one of the original Gauntlet’s innumerable spiritual successors can’t? Especially when the one major mechanic that still has a faint whiff of uniqueness after all these years (the health drain mechanic) is just about the only thing that Arrowhead removed?

        I mean, I guess you can still shoot the food, and there are grim reaper levels, and “needs food badly” is still in there. Those features are arguably important, and they haven’t been stolen enough to seem stale. But are they really worth twenty dollars/whatever it is in pounds?

        If I want arcadey dungeon crawling with online and local co-op, I have plenty of options that are arguably superior and more interesting. What’s this game doing that differentiates it from those?

    • emperor says:

      “Put more succinctly, what does a retro-style Gauntlet reboot give you that any one of the original Gauntlet’s innumerable spiritual successors can’t?”

      Will you please give me a list of these “innumerable spiritual successors.”

      I’ve been looking for quality games similar to the original 1984 Gauntlet for years and only found a small handful.

      I can’t understand why you think Diablo and games with similar gameplay are in any way like Gauntlet.

    • oblivious doom says:

      I think the simplicity is a big part of it. You mention games like torchlight and diablo, but there’s a significant difference in flow between them and gauntlet. In gauntlet you level up, you become (noticeably) more efficient at killing things and you keep going. The loot you pick up is limited to food, potions, and a set selection of items (at least in legends and dark legacy, haven’t played the earlier ones). In games like diablo and torchlight, you level and you have to stop gameplay to consider your options for leveling. You pick up enough loot, and you have to take a look at its stats to see if it’s better than your current equipment. It’s an entirely different flow, and it drastically changes how the games feel.

      Additionally, gauntlet is far more broken up into discreet chunks. You fight and fight and fight for 20 minutes, 30 maybe, and bam, level done. You’re back in a hub, and you have a bit of respite if you want to save and spend a bit of money. In torchlight and diablo those numbers are a bit more blurry. Dungeons, especially late game, can take quite a while, forcing you to retreat and save in the middle of them if you can’t play anymore. Coming back into a game mid-dungeon can make it feel like a slog, as this one dungeon has now been spread across hours or days. Maybe even weeks if you can’t play terribly often. Gauntlet doesn’t have that problem. Levels are fairly small chunks, and if you have to quit mid-level, you still keep all of your gold and xp and such (at least in this one, don’t remember about older ones), but you start the level over next time. Yes, on one hand that means you’re going through the same stuff again. But really, you were already doing that, so it’s not much of an issue. Instead it feels more like you’re starting a new level, and still feels fairly fresh.

      I can’t speak to some of the other games you mentioned, and I didn’t play the older gauntlets, only legends and dark legacy. While I enjoyed hammerwatch, it suffers from the same “save partway through the dungeon” issue since it entirely lacks distinct areas of respite. And I thoroughly enjoy torchlight, but if I want to play something like gauntlet, I’m more likely to dig out a gamecube and play dark legacy (this has happened before).