Almost 30 years ago, Gauntlet invaded videogame arcades and established itself as one of the earliest and most important examples of the cooperative hack 'n' slash genre.
Soon, Arrowhead will release its modernised take on the classic, and look at capture a new generation of gamers playing in a very different landscape.
Just as with the original players are able to select one of four classes. There's the powerful tank Warrior, the fast, close combat-focussed Valkyrie, the rapid-fire ranged Elf, and the powerful but fragile Wizard.
Much of what made the original is still here, but the game play has more Action-RPG leanings rather than the outright arcade free-for-all that was the original. There is far more variety in how each class plays, and with upgradeable relics that add another layer of either offensive or defensive combat options, the game walks a delicate line of being respectful of its heritage while eschewing some of its more archaic mechanics.
Each class has a few skills, but unlike the arcade classic these have been tweaked. The primary attack can still be spammed, but more powerful secondary or tertiary skills have cooldowns, requiring more considered planning as to how to approach each encounter or mob. Combat is still just as hectic as in its predecessor, but it feels more tactical here, and benefits greatly as a result.
As with the original, this new take sees our trusty heroes entering the dungeon in the hopes of riches and monster slaying. Gone are the random levels. Instead they've been replaced with hand built zones, each with sections increasing in difficulty and finally culminating in a frantic boss fight. Each section in the zone is accessed by one of four doors, and each door provides levels of increasing difficulty. Also making a return in the immortal Death who occupies one level in each section that will kill any hero too slow (or too greedy) to evade his icy clutches.
Death levels offer a slightly different experience to the free-for-all slaughter of the others. Here the team must pay careful attention to their surroundings as the tighter hallways, nooks, crannies, and treasure dumps are designed to trap an unwary adventurer and allow the Grim Reaper to carry out his macabre work.
While the game can be played solo, it really shines in four-player co-op. The Death levels become far more frantic, accidentally destroying health restoring food has more dire consequences. So does “accidentally” eating said meal when a team mate is near death, which allows unscrupulous adventurers to steal much of their allies' collected loot from their corpse before they respawn.
This help or hinder dynamic is pure magic. Each level ends with a comparative ranking, tallying monsters killed, loot gathered, and special treasure kept. The tit for tat party play, combined with the shared goal of clearing the levels adds something very special to the game, and in many ways it drives the experience.
There were a few niggles with the preview build we played. Swapping spells is awkward, it’s very easy to lose your character if you lose focus for a second or two. The lack of mapable keys is also frustrating. However, these could be easily fixed in the finished version, and certainly didn’t stop our quartet from have a monster-slaying orgy.
Gauntlet scratches an itch I didn’t realise I had. Its action focus and immediacy make for a romp that succeeds due to its keen focus on just killing creeps, collecting loot and helping mates and then screwing them over. It’s simple, but not brainless. Most importantly it’s fun as hell. Roll on release.