Behold the Quillshot - a living manifestation of ether, the mystical substance that keeps the flying archipelago of promising Monster Hunter tribute Dauntless [official site] aloft. It's a majestic hybrid of stegosaurus and porcupine, the Quillshot, made up of wayward primal energies that must be freed lest the island beneath us crumble away. It's also a bit of a dick. With Phoenix Lab's Nick Clifford and Ian Tornay distracting the monster from the front, I try to land a few hammer strikes on its sweeping, icicle-covered tail. The Quillshot flops on its side, like a dog asking for a belly rub, and treats me to a fusillade of enormous spines from its rump.
As I limp away, frantically glugging a healing potion, it continues to spew spines in an arc, puncturing the earth all around me. If we're going to fell this beast - or behemoth, to use the game's parlance - we're going to have to read its behaviour a little better, and work as a team.
Fortunately, that's exactly what we do. One of my allies manages to shear away the quills protecting the behemoth's right foreleg, staggering it (and earning himself a tasty additional crafting reward). I seize the opportunity to wade back in, doling out a four-hit combo plus a withering blast from my hammer's unlikely but irresistible shotgun haft. The Quillshot shudders and roars, turning traffic-light red. Oh dear, we've enraged it. The next few moments consist largely of running and rolling – behemoths attack more often and at greater length when berserk – but at some point, somebody gets close enough to administer the deathblow.
As we stand over the immense, spiky corpse, I'm left with a feeling of - well, not quite profound kinship with imperious Mother Nature, but certainly the satisfaction of a bloody good fight. Out in closed beta this August, Dauntless doesn't (yet) offer the same breadth and depth of options as Capcom's series, but it does credibly approximate the scale, exhilaration and tactical chemistry of an old-fashioned Monster Hunt - pitting up to four outlandishly armed players against a parade of charismatic, hyperactive bosses whose behaviours buckle and evolve in the course of each battle.
It's a game about speed-reading body language – the baleful glow of a Shrike's enormous owl eyes as it spins to face you, or the way it sags on landing when it's beginning to tire – and readying a riposte well in advance, with characters who are far too heavy-footed to live by their reflexes. Light and strong attacks aside, its weapon classes are distinguished by pleasantly silly, tricky-to-master secondary abilities. You can use the hammer's shotgun attachment to boost-jump into a ground-pound, which is handy indeed given the weapon's short reach, and there's a set of magical, God of War-style chain blades that allow the wielder to grapple evasive targets and teleport-dash.
If a Monster Hunter fan might miss certain intricacies – traps, blade oils, exotic ammunition types, whatever those cat things are supposed to be – the pay-off is of course a more accessible game. Phoenix Labs' 39 employees have amassed around 6000 hours of Monster Hunting time between them, and with that comes an appreciation for just what a byzantine pain in the arse Capcom's creation can be. Dauntless is easier to solo, for starters, though the developer is still working out its approach to single player, following an unpopular experiment with bots in closed alpha. Behemoth difficulty scales with party size, and while certain weapons are better against certain beasties, there are no pure support weapons or quests that are exclusively designed for groups. The game's approach to consumables seems more forgiving, based around cooldowns and AOE heals, buffs and debuffs rather than manually aimed throwables or special ammunition, and there's no friendly fire.
Perhaps above all else, Dauntless feels a lot less grindy than Monster Hunter, though hooked up to the same compulsion loop of sallying boldly forth, killing outsized critters, harvesting their organs and transforming them into gear. The inventory is a lot gentler on the forebrain and you'll spend less time managing it, with simple category slots and no apparent carry limit. You'll want to farm maps and lesser mobs for crafting materials, but Phoenix Labs is keen that players spend more time tussling with the behemoths than picking off goats and wolves. Rather than an exhausting sprawl of tiny variables, the armour crafting seems to boil down to a few binary choices – raise the overall armour value, pick the opposing element to that of the behemoth you're after, and try to achieve a complete armour set for passive bonuses.
My main worry on firing up Dauntless was its free-to-play monetisation - the combination of Monster Hunter's crafting riches and a microtransaction system sounds very piranha-in-a-goldfish-tank - but the developer's approach seems inoffensive. You can't purchase weapons or armour, just cosmetic flourishes such as personal VFX, emotes and profile bling. Phoenix Labs is keen that veterans look the part, so there are a few ornamental bits and pieces that must be earned, not bought - including a banner that is slowly adorned with sigils representing your hunting trophies, to be slammed down for the appreciation and envy of greener adventurers.
If the game's behemoths are its poster children, particularly the Shrike, which conjures up the memory of Ori and the Blind Forest's avian nemesis, its landscapes are also engrossing - procedurally generated to create an underlying organic texture, then worked up into proper playspaces by the designers. The colour palette is quite austere for a fantasy game, touched by the sombre hues of the developer's native Canadian woodlands whether you're fighting in a desert, a snowstorm or a jungle, but its lighting systems are very striking, with shadows gouging dramatic furrows into valleys.
However piecemeal the world structure, there's a powerful unity to its fiction. You can't travel between islands in real-time, but you can see them orbiting around each other, drifting flurries of rock and mist. If there's one thing I'd like to see in the beta, it's quests that create more incentive to roam and excavate these spaces, and Phoenix Labs is, indeed, tinkering with more studied, Evolve-style mechanisms in which players track shy behemoths via birdsign or clawmarks on trees, rather than just fanning out across the map.
Dauntless risks being a watery reflection of a very well-known formula, but while I doubt the game will replace Monster Hunter, it already has a character all of its own. If the foundations are second-hand, the game's vivid, prancing creature designs and small but telling iterations reveal a studio that is foraging ahead. I'm looking forward to trying my gunhammer on the rest of the menagerie.
The Behemoth Founder's Alpha launches August 18th and you can read more about the Founder's program here.