GDC 14: Gauntlet Shows Potential, But Has Long Journey Ahead

It was Tuesday and I was packing up after my Batman: Arkham Knight appointment at GDC. “Surely nothing could top that,” I thought to myself, but before I could even process how excited I was about causing millions of dollars of damage in the new batmobile, an e-mail popped up in my inbox that nearly washed away what I just saw. Waiting until the last minute, WB Games had just unveiled a Gauntlet reboot and invited us to come check it out. You see, Gauntlet is a game that’s near and dear to my heart. Not only do I have fond memories playing the original games over twenty years ago, but the first reboot Gauntlet Legends pretty much dominated my time in 1998/1999. It was a common occurrence for me to hit up the arcade after school with friends and easily drop an hour into it. Thanks to the password system, which was unique for its time, we felt like we were truly building up characters — even though we were playing the same levels over and over. It’s one of my fondest gaming memories and until last week, seemed destined for nostalgia. Upon actually getting my hands on the reboot, however, a unnerving question popped into my mind: is this the way to go about it?

WB rolled out the red carpet for the game at GDC, which is surprising given that it’s a Steam game. Of course, it could end up being a $60 Steam game, but if that’s the case then a whole other set of concerns creep in, so let’s assume it’s budget priced for the sake of this article. This wasn’t at a mere booth, but at an upscale San Francisco bar. There was Gauntlet decorations lining the establishment and all-you-can-eat turkey legs. I bring this up not to brag about the nine turkey legs I consumed and also stuffed in my bag, but to prove how serious WB is taking the game.

While it’s an entirely new game, it’s not all that different from its predecessors. Players select from one of the four classic characters — Warrior, Wizard, Valkyrie or Elf — and band together to fight through procedural dungeons and complete challenges. The controls are very simple; you move with the stick, use the right stick for a secondary ability like shooting or guarding with a shield, one face button does a major attack and one does a standard attack. While there are 3-4 abilities to manage at all times, the learning curve is short and soon you’ll be easily able to select the best move for any situation. It’s a lot of fun and recalls classic Gauntlet gameplay, but that’s also its biggest weakness: it’s too simple.

The demo lasted about ten minutes and after just the second or third room, it felt like we were going through the motions. Walk into a room, take down the spawn points, take down the enemies, collect the gold, move into the next room. While every Gauntlet has featured this basic gameplay, it’s rudimentary in 2014. We’ve played much more robust hack n’ slashes since Gauntlet reigned supreme and instead of building upon the classic experience, it seems like the original games with a fresh coat of rather drab paint. The visuals are boring, with a top-down viewpoint that makes it challenging to get involved in the action. I would have liked to have seen the visuals build upon Gauntlet Legends which did a great job in making you feel like you were descending or ascending into an area.

If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that developers Arrowhead Game are creating an experience faithful to the series. Unfortunately, that seems to be a bit of a blessing and a curse at this stage of the game. If the release is a $15~ online experience, it’ll be easy to forgive, but anything more than that could render this project a disappointment. It’s hard to judge a game like this based on just over ten minutes of play, but if the variety doesn’t increase from what we saw, it could end up being a slog through a graphically updated ’80s game. That being said, the basic gameplay is solid and the mechanics to make an entertaining game are there, so hopefully we see a robust experience at launch that features subtle nuances to make these dungeons again worth venturing into.