When remaking a classic game, the memory of which is held dearly by dedicated fans, consumers always ask the same question — what kind of reboot will this be? Is it purely fan-service, only convincing those already convinced? Is it watered-down garbage that slaps the face of the cult following to reach a wider audience? Usually a reboot fits squarely in one of those categories, but the 2014 Gauntlet might just be something else entirely.
I’m happy to report that the endearing arcade hack-and-slasher is back, and it manages much more than just being unoffensive to Gauntlet fans. Considering that there hasn’t been a Gauntlet game in nine years, and there hasn’t been a good Gauntlet game in twelve years (Gauntlet: Dark Legacy), it’s about time. Having played these games before and enjoying a challenge, I booted up the game and started the first level on hard difficulty. What’s the worst that could happen, besides dying all the time and barely progressing throughout the first floor of the first stage out of twelve stages? Well …I guess that is pretty bad.
Maybe it’s because the last hack-and-slash I played was Sacred 3, or because the mechanic has generally gone downhill, but I was thrown off by the idea that hack-and-slash gameplay can actually be difficult. Developer Arrowhead Game Studios clearly knows this, and they decided to punish any mindless brute looking to take on whole hordes without any tactics. This game takes the Dark Souls approach to getting hit by an enemy, in that it’s a big deal. Not insignificant chunks of health are lost from the swipe of even the smallest enemy, forcing players to combine their flinching light attacks with various escape mechanics and special moves to play as safe as possible.
Why does getting hit matter if you can just heal? There are no health potions, with healing instead coming from food scattered scarcely throughout the environment; food that teammates may also need, and food that can be destroyed with an errant swipe of an axe or a stray arrow. Now that’s Gauntlet. If you die, you can revive … so long as you have a Skull Token, which you obtain by killing enemies. But you burn through those a lot faster than you can collect them. Die without any tokens, and it’s back to the beginning of the chapter, regardless of how many floors you cleared in the mean time. Tip: Don’t die.
After I figured all this out, I decided maybe normal difficulty was my best bet, only to find out that the lower difficulty decreased the number of enemies, but not how much damage they do. Easy is probably the only difficulty setting where playing tactically really doesn’t matter, but who in the hell plays on easy? A good formula for difficulty is 1-2 players for normal, 2-4 players for hard and 5-10 players for unfair (yes, the game has a maximum four players) and complete wet blanket for easy.
The four classic characters, Warrior, Valkyrie, Elf and Wizard, all return in unique forms, and the game does not allow doubling up on classes in multiplayer. This forces players to be more cooperative and use the skills of each class strategically. Discovering all the strategies with each class makes the game last a lot longer. A few of them could use some balance tweaks, but none of the characters are gamebreaking enough by themselves to constitute a major overhaul.
The developers basically touted this as Gauntlet with a new paint job, and that’s true for the most part, for more reasons than being able to destroy food. The level design is still intricate, at times offering several different paths worth exploring, with light puzzle elements. It’s nice to see developers resist the temptation to do anything procedurally generated. Although procedural generation has the industry by the balls, Gauntlet is proof that you can’t beat what a good ol’ fashioned human can create, in terms of level design. Arrowhead lets the challenge and character design be the reason to replay Gauntlet, not randomness.
Each chapter does have a formula: a standard level, a change-of-pace level, and an arena battle. However, what Gauntlet does with this formula is wonderful. After the first set of levels, I was getting tired of running away from death (literally, in case you were wondering), but luckily after the boss fight in the first section, death was nowhere to be found in the second section. Gauntlet seems to know when its tricks have run dry and pulls out a new one just before you can call it quits.
Gauntlet delivers a fun and challenging dungeon crawling experience that manages to avoid repetitiveness. Although it has some minor launch bugs to work through, they are easily overlooked. The best way to think of the Gauntlet series before this reboot was as an old muscle car. It provided great years with its powerful, uncomplicated nature, but it was little more than a rusty clunker. Much like a jalopy can become a classic, Arrrowhead has beautifully restored Gauntlet to its former glory and made it something you’ll be proud to take a spin in. Ride on, Gauntlet fans.