It was acceptable in the ‘80s.
Before Diablo, Dungeon Siege, and Drakensang, there was Gauntlet. First making its way to smoky arcades back in 1985, Gauntlet paved the way for many more hack-'n'-slash games over the years, one of which its 2014 remake now finds itself rather regretfully pitted against. Yes, this Gauntlet 2014 remake is more or less a “budget Diablo III,” and despite offering the frenetic fun as is to be expected from a game residing in a typically madcap genre, it feels derivative of a game that its eighties predecessor inspired.
Gauntlet offers the player four classes to choose from: the burly Warrior, the bow-wielding Elf, the spellcasting Wizard, and the nimble Valkyrie. Developer Arrowhead has done a great job of making each class feel distinct from each other, with them all offering notable advantages and disadvantages that leads to encounters with enemies having a different feel for every player on the field. The Wizard in particular feels worlds apart from his comrades, as he’s armed with nine spells that each require a two-button input before they can be cast.
This mechanic is liberally borrowed from Arrowhead’s own Magicka, though placing that same system within the confines of a relatively generic hack-'n'-slash game makes him play oddly. Needless to say, when grouping up with strangers in matchmaking it is rare to see anyone actively choosing the Wizard, which often leads to parties of no more than three players, as that elusive fourth player realizes that he or she will be forcefully lumped into Merlin’s withered old shoes and immediately drops out.
Aside from this, Gauntlet’s combat is consistently rewarding, boasting the kind of instant gratification from clearing out rooms full of enemies that fans of the genre expect. However, while playing with a team of friends can be a great deal of fun, there’s very little here to entice the solo player. Playing in co-op is essential to glean enjoyment out of Gauntlet, since each classes’ abilities are intended to be used as part of a team. Roaming around the outskirts of the environment firing arrows wildly as the Elf is no fun, and forcing yourself into the center of a brawl as the Warrior is ill-advised. Teamwork is the focal point of Gauntlet, and playing it in any other way is really quite pointless.
While the combat is solid, the repetitive and bland nature of the environments you’ll pass through really harm the game’s lasting appeal. Each one is indistinguishable from the last, with only the odd mundane puzzle thrown into the recipe to spice it up a little. If this wasn’t enough to put you off venturing back into the game, then the little incentive offered to those who appreciate a spot of grinding is also a misstep.
Leveling up in Gauntlet can be achieved either by purchasing new gear from the shopkeeper in the main hub or by pursuing mastery achievements that can be unlocked by completing certain challenges, such as killing a select number of enemies, using certain abilities, and so on. Unfortunately, it’s a rather slow grind to get to the good achievements, which betrays the poor replayability the core game actually offers. It seems that Arrowhead was hoping that by bumping up the level of time required to unlock better equipment and abilities, players would want to play the game longer, but it actually has the opposite effect. Grinding through a game that offers little in the way of tangible rewards is something that I couldn’t bring myself to do, especially in the wake of Destiny’s famed loot cave.
Gauntlet is not a roaring return for the arcade classic, nor is it a critical failure. Considering it came from the minds behind Magicka, a much more inventive take on the genre, it’s still more than a little surprising, though, that this is what we’ve ended up with. From an outsider’s perspective it seems as though Arrowhead’s vision for Gauntlet has been stifled by them sticking within its eighties framework too much. There are some neat little deviations from the formula here, but it's far too safe to linger in your memory once you’ve had your fill of slaying monsters.