Review: Gauntlet

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The original Gauntlet hailed from that era of gaming where games could kill the shit out of you and you really couldn’t do anything about it. That was a big part of the whole “Nintendo hard” thing, the combination of the market being tiny and games not exactly being tuned for humans that stuck so many kids with games they had to learn to love. Gauntlet was infamous for fake exits, fragile food, indestructible specters of death, and other methods of ruining players. This new Gauntlet has… some of that, but is much more a product of the modern era than the ball-buster of yore. That probably makes it a better game overall, though it still finds ways to snatch your victories away.

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You’re a mighty hero, there’s a dungeon full of loot, you know the drill. There’s a bit more to the story than that but surely you’re not here for narrative, you’re here to crush skellymans and take their stuff. And you will do just that, across dozens of levels laid out in an ever-deepening labyrinth of doom. There are two ways to play now, the campaign that sends you into discrete levels and provides side paths with additional arenas and challenges to best, and an endless mode that generates level after random level to raid. Either way your goal is to survive the level and snatch up as much gold as possible along the way, and it never gets more complicated than that.

The foes in your way are the usual suspects of skeletons and trolls and demons, and in classic Gauntlet fashion they spring endlessly from monster shrines until you reduce them to rubble. It’s not quite the same as old Gauntlet though, where all the shrines on the level would just churn out monsters right from the start. Here you’ll enter an otherwise empty room and be treated to the gates slamming shut and both monsters and shrines rising from the floor. Battles can be two or three waves of such chaos, and arenas even more than that, so be prepared for these impromptu scuffles. In between fights you’ll scour the halls for gold, healing foodstuffs, magic potions, and secrets containing more of all three.

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It certainly seems like Gauntlet when enemies are swarming around you and you’re struggling to fend them off without being whittled away or wasting your potions or shooting the food. But the most notable parts of the design, the ones that you can point to as the true Gauntlet experience, have been modernized almost beyond recognition. I’ve already touched on how the levels are entirely linear and break down into gated arenas. The key economy that was so important originally is just here to make you pick things up before proceeding or save a key for a side room full of gold. And there are levels where Death will chase you with his instantly-annihilating touch, but he’s hilariously easy to kite around rooms and disappears after only a few seconds of chasing, so it’s more of an inconvenience than something you fear.

None of this will matter for newcomers to the series, and for them this title should fit the bill for some mindless hacking and slashing. And some of the improvements are welcome, like the customization. All that gold you earn from collecting treasure and completing achievement-like masteries for each class is spent on buying and upgrading new gear for your characters. Aside from your regular attack and special skill you can unlock new special attacks, new potion attacks, a usable gear item, and cosmetics to help differentiate your adventurer. Gold and upgrades are specific to each of the five classes as well, so you have reasons to diversify your playstyles.

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I can’t really knock Gauntlet for being too different from OG Gauntlet, because it’s debatable how well those classics would go over now. The changes made here, along with the lush graphics and sound design, help establish this one as a more inviting game overall. You’re still going to get ganged up on and fume at some rooms for burning all your lives, of course. But maybe that’s the connective tissue that keeps this one in line with the old games, that desire to press on and keep looting in the face of uncertain death.

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