‘Gauntlet’ Early Access Impressions

Rebooting a franchise that’s been around for roughly 30 years is no easy task, but that’s exactly what Arrowhead Game Studios has set out to do with their upcoming PC release of Gauntlet. Fans of the later titles in the series such as Gauntlet Legends and Gauntlet Dark Legacy will remember all of the secret characters, the ability to kill Death with a potion, countless power-ups you could purchase for next to nothing, and the hours of fun you could have with your friends hacking and slashing through hordes of enemies. All of the aforementioned features save the last one are gone. Gauntlet truly is a nod to the original titles, giving players the choice of a mere four characters, each with their own individual strengths, and forcing them to run away from Death when he appears.

While there are some drastic changes from the most recent titles, key components of the series have remained fully intact. The levels are fairly linear but offer secret chambers to those with a keen eye, sense of exploration, and foresight. There were multiple occasions while playing when I found it advantageous to stop just short of a locked gate to receive a preview of what awaited me on the far side before unlocking. One of these instances even occurs in the first level of the game, setting the tone for the rest of your playthrough. There are standalone enemies quite frequently but there are also plenty of generators which will rise out of the ground to supply an endless horde of opponents until you destroy the structure.

Each level is actually comprised of three floors, divided by walking through the glowing mouth of a large skull at the end of each floor. Due to this, each level is significantly longer than it feels (it took me on average 20 minutes to finish a single level) and it presents a slight challenge to players as you can only choose levels from the main hub, not floors within the level. If you die on the third floor of a level and do not have any remaining skull tokens (the method of revival), you are returned to the main hub and you must fight your way back to where your were.

Each character has their own “masteries” which are various bonuses you acquire while playing and performing certain actions. As you smash more boxes and pots throughout the levels, you will increase your chance of finding gold in smashed objects. After dying a certain number of times, you are granted a brief period of immunity after you revive, allowing you to slaughter enemies in the name of retribution. There are level-specific, general, and character-specific masteries. The progress of the masteries does not carry over between characters, but they stat bonuses are permanent so once you have earned something with your valkyrie, it is there to stay.

Most players will find one or two characters they excel with, depending on play style. The warrior and valkyrie engage in melee combat while the wizard and elf launch ranged attacks. From my experience, I would strongly recommend only playing the wizard if you are a more experienced Gauntlet player as his attacks are strong but slow and require mastering his variety of spells in frantic scenarios. The elf was certainly the easiest character to utilize because he is the fastest and his special move drops a bomb, killing everything within a fairly hearty radius. If you have one friend who seems to enjoy the “hit and run” approach to combat, the elf should be their go-to character.

Gauntlet has always been a more enjoyable franchise with friends, but it has never felt as apparent as it did while playing this early access title. My experience with past titles in the series has been a hybrid of single player and co-op, with both being equally enjoyable experiences. This time around, playing the title solo felt intimidating and was not nearly as enjoyable as it had been in the past (although it did make escaping from Death significantly easier). In order to truly enjoy Gauntlet, it seems you will need to get a group of friends together to tackle the dungeons.

As this was simply an early access version, I cannot say with any certainty what the final pros and cons will be, but it is looking as if it will be a fairly faithful reboot of the franchise, foregoing bells and whistles in favour of truly showcasing the various strengths of the characters. Just be sure to have some friends ready to join you in the dungeons to get the most out of the title.

Gauntlet is scheduled for a September 23, 2014 release on the PC.