Review: Gauntlet for Steam
One Gauntlet you won’t want to throw down.
It’s not really a very well kept secret of mine that I really love the old Midway library. I’ve got all three Midway Arcade Treasures collections for GameCube, Midway Arcade has a permanent place of honor on my iPhone, and I’m thrilled to see Mortal Kombat has been on the comeback trail as of late.
So naturally, when Warner Bros. Interactive (who purchased most of Midway’s assets several years ago) announced that they were bringing back Gauntlet, possibly one of the marquee names in the Midway library, I was positively ecstatic.
The original 1985 arcade version of Gauntlet was pretty simple and straightforward in most respects. Your goal was to take up arms as one of four different characters (Warrior, Valkyrie, Elf (archer), or Wizard, each with their own statistical strengths and weaknesses, but who more or less all played the same otherwise. You would venture through one dungeon after the next with a top-down perspective, attempting to gather as much treasure as you could while fending off enemies and the spawn points which generated them, all before seeking out the exit to go to the next level and do it again.
Sequels were made across varying platforms, but in 1998, Midway took the game in a new direction as it stepped into the third dimension with Gauntlet: Legends. While the dungeons of the original all pretty much looked the same, Legends featured a hub world with more varied environments, the ability to level up your characters, and other more modern flourishes and features to give it a considerable degree of depth versus its predecessor.
Gauntlet for Steam effectively manages to take the best of both worlds and combine the two into what may be the most ideal Gauntlet experience to date. Returning to a top-down perspective, you now have numerous achievements to gain and levels to unlock as you progress through a series of stock and procedurally-generated levels. As always, your goal is to destroy all the enemies you can and score as much treasure as possible by the time you reach the end.
Certain aspects of the original game have become memes over time, and the developers at Arrowhead Game Studios weren’t afraid to plant their tongue firmly in cheek with this revival, as you can see in the screenshot above. Other fun bits come among the tips afforded to you on the loading screen, such as “Don’t drink and drive,” which is probably as good a tip in life as “Don’t shoot the food” is in the game.
Once more, you have four warriors of different types to choose from. However, unlike the original arcade game, each plays quite differently from one-another this time, and they definitely aren’t “one size fits all” in terms of playability:
Thor the Warrior: In the arcade original, the Warrior was able to throw his axes as well as dispense of foes at closer ranger. This time, however, he’s purely a melee fighter, using his strength to tear through anything that gets close to him. His attack forms are the most basic, as he can swing his axe, leap into the air for a lunging smash, or perform a Link-like spinning attack.
Thyra the Valkyrie: Thyra is something of a fan-favorite. For starters, she’s a fighting female character with armor that actually manages to cover her body, which behooves the original’s higher defense. In addition to a formidable lance she can use to pierce enemies’ defenses and a thrusting dash attack, she can also throw her shield Captain America-style to do some nice rebound damage to hordes of foes from a distance. When she keeps it in hand, it’s capable of deflecting assaults and shoving enemies away.
Questor the Elf: If speed is what you need, then Questor is your man– er, Elf. His unlimited supply of arrows and swiftness on his feet make him perfect for some top-down run ‘n gun action. When using a controller, the left analog stick moves Questor around the screen, while the right one fires arrows in the direction it’s pressed– quite reminiscent of other Midway classics such as Smash TV. His arrows don’t do much damage on their own without being charged, but are great for picking off smaller foes one by one. When you need something more, however, dropping a few of his bombs usually does the trick.
Merlin the Wizard: The magic-wielding Merlin is perhaps the most fascinating and arguably the most intimidating of the four heroes to use. This wizard has numerous spells he can cast, each with different effects. To select one requires pushing two different face buttons in sequence and using the right analog stick to direct the attack. Fireballs are his default attack, but he can also summon back holes or lighting, or even combine two of them for other different effects.
Lilith the Necromancer: Lilith is the reason it’s taken me so long to get this review out, as she’s available only as a $4.99 downloadable add-on character, but it took a while before I could spare the funds (the economy isn’t great, what can I tell you?). That said, I was worried she’d feel superfluous, but this newcomer to the ranks manages to fit right in just the same. Character-wise, she carries an air of being above this whole quest, and she might be right. Something of a mid-ranged combatant, the fighters she raises from the dead pack a greater punch than Questor’s arrows, but without the range, and she can summon more powerful skeletons for a Thor-like smash attack.
She is also a bit more vulnerable up-close, should enemies get past her minions, but is able to siphon energy off of them to launch a potent counterattack of several undead minions who actually stick around for a short time. Lilith takes some getting used to– I was afraid she’d be closer to using Merlin, though that isn’t the case at all– but I’ve seen her used to great effect as well.
Lilith aside, beginning the game gives you the opportunity to try out each character in sequence to see which one feels right for you from the start. That said, you can switch at most any time by backing out to the menu and selecting a different character, allowing you to level up each character independently. It’s a good thing, too.
While it’s possible to play Gauntlet alone, one truth has remained with the series from the original game to today: It’s better to go in as a group. You can play multiplayer locally or join up with a whole crew online, whether they’re friends of yours or you just want to do a “Quickjoin” with some strangers.
The only problem, however, is that only one of each character class is allowed. As a result, if you’re spent all your time working with Questor (as I had), for example, and someone else has already chosen him? You’re just out of luck and have to deal with a different class that you’re less proficient in, or just outright don’t care as much to use. At the very least, it would be nice to be able to do a search for open games which have need of a given character class.
Even so, multiplayer is still preferable to single-player, and the characters even feel like they’re designed to work together in unison, with each able to deal with the shortcomings of the others. Character choice aside, my online experience ran pretty smoothly, though there were some odd physics glitches with some blocks featured in some block-moving puzzles– one of which even killed one of the players. Not sure if that was a fluke, or even related strictly to multiplayer, but I haven’t seen it since.
Whether you’re playing alone or as part of a group, there is also a new “Gauntlet Colosseum” mode which faces the players against wave after wave of enemies, each increasing in strength. Those who survive are rewarded capes, and the arenas and rewards are swapped out with each new season.
As a longtime fan of Gauntlet, I feel like Arrowhead’s contribution to the legacy is a worthy addition. It stands stronger as multiplayer experience, but still stands as a fun time for someone who is going it alone as well.
Gauntlet is the first, and so far only, entry in the “WB Games Vault” program, “a direct-to-digital portfolio that will deliver paid games based on popular Warner Bros. and Midway brands, plus original IP, across multiple digital networks.” After playing this, I’m hopeful for more WB Games Vault titles to come, though nothing more has been announced yet. Hopefully at the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo?
A review code was provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.