There are few video games from my childhood that I look back on with as much fondness as Gauntlet. With plenty of money pumped into the local arcade machine and hours upon hours of game time spent on my friends’ copy of the NES port (I had to choose between Gauntlet and Punch-Out!! – I regret nothing), Gauntlet stands as one of the greatest co-op games of a generation and one of my favourite games of the 8-bit era. It certainly speaks volumes for the quality of Gauntlet and Gauntlet 2 that, so may years after their original release, nobody has managed to recapture the magic that made them quite so special back in the late 80s.
While Arrowhead Game Studios’ gave the Gauntlet revival a good ol’ go via last year’s PC exclusive reboot, it is actually their second shot at glory that might well have cracked the code. It’s still someway from genuine greatness and its unwillingness to go either full retro or full remake does leave it in something on an artistic no man’s land, but for the most part, the PS4 upgrade, Gauntlet: Slayer Edition comes tantalizingly close to creating a modern but wholly recognisable take on the Gauntlet franchise.
The core of Slayer Edition is essentially the same as it was last year, but Arrowhead have made a number of minor but hugely effective changes to the gameplay that have served to fundamentally overhaul the overall experience. This is still a relatively deferential re-imagining of the original games in the series with its top down visual style, basic arcade gameplay, cheesy dialogue and innumerable fantasy archetypes, but it has made some much-needed and totally necessary concessions in the form of unlockable gear, additional abilities and minor rpg-esque stat upgrades that elevate Slayer Edition beyond the realm of mere arcade-style brawler. Don’t get me wrong, this is no Diablo III (the only things you are picking up here are money and food), but it does at least try to find a reasonable middle-ground between the arcade sensibilities of the original games and the more modern tastes of contemporary gamers.
Last year’s release already included a number of rpg-lite additions to the core Gauntlet template, but this time around, Arrowhead have wisely built upon the depth and diversity that was already in place. The most notable addition is arguably the ability for each of the characters to gain unique special abilities based upon the current weapon they are using. Like all else in the game, these additional weapons need to be unlocked, but as always, they do serve as something of a hanging carrot to chase after. One of the issues with the PC release was that there was rarely enough reason to keep grinding across the relatively limited number of stages and worlds available, and while that number is still limited (the random‘ish’ly created maps don’t deliver as much diversity as one might hope), the unlockable weapons and their potentially game changing special attacks do deliver another much-needed reason to return to previously completed missions. Further to this, Arrowhead have also added potion abilities that, while not as fundamentally game changing as the unlockable weaponry, do help to make the gameplay that little more varied while offering additional tactical options across all classes.
It’s not just the mechanics and abilities that have seen an update either; Slayer Edition has also seen tweaks to the difficulty (it’s generally harder across the board this time) and is now home to additional and generally better looking enemies. It’s far from a graphical overhaul, but with the environments also improved, Slayer Edition is certainly a better looking game on the PS4. Rounding off the upgrades is the all new Endless mode that, rather unsurprisingly, allows you and three friends to a run a seemingly never-ending, well, gauntlet of randomly generated stages of increasingly brutal difficulty. It’s nothing new in the grand scheme of things, but this kind of endless challenge actually works rather well within the confines of Gauntlet’s relatively simplistic but surprisingly addictive gameplay.
And that’s the thing – Gauntlet: Slayer Edition is above all else addictive. It’s not quite, Diablo addictive, but it does get its claws in, and while I would have preferred if Arrowhead had gone a little more retro heavy with the visual design, there is no doubting the fact that they have done a pretty good job of capturing the magic of the arcade original while offering up enough in the way of new content and mechanics to make this a more than viable option for those who have never played a Gauntlet game before. It’s simple but addictive gameplay is very moreish and with each of the characters having decidedly unique move-sets, there is plenty of reason to replay stages with each of the playable character with those same distinct abilities also serving to ensure that the multiplayer co-op remains fresh and entertaining throughout. By not allowing character duplication in co-op play, Arrowhead successfully encourage teamwork and variety by ensuring that you’re never stuck with four Warriors ploughing head first into battle.
Of course, Gauntlet has always been at its best when played with friends, and while playing locally remains the best way to experience Slayer Edition, playing online can prove just as enjoyable with a group of like-minded players. At the time of writing, the online infrastructure is still having a few issues (it certainly appears to be a tad slow), but once you do get a game together, Slayer Edition can be as riotously entertaining as just about any co-op video game currently available on the PS4. If anything, it’s here that the lack of traditional levelling makes the most sense – yes, you can unlock different special moves and abilities, but for the most part, a ‘newb’ can jump straight in with a group of seasoned Gauntlet pros – fancy equipment obviously helps, but personal skill ultimately trumps new weaponry and equipment every time.
The game could certainly do with a bit more in the way of variety, it arguably lacks visual flair and it can be easy to lose your hero in the melee of battle, buy you know what, despite the lack unique surroundings, Gauntlet: Slayer Edition offers plenty of ways to experience the strong core gameplay, and above all else, the game remains consistently enjoyable despite its faults. Yes, I do wish that they have had included a few more nods the series’ past beyond the still fantastic ability to kill food and the inclusion of some nice dialogue references, but despite these minor issues, Arrowhead have done a largely fantastic job of updating one of my favourite games of the 80s while still managing to maintain what made it quite so special in the first place.
Yes, concessions have inevitably been made, but never at the cost of series’ soul with both the feel and core mechanics remaining largely intact. Those used to a diet of Diablo might begrudge the lack of traditional loot drops, but let’s not forget, Gauntlet was always more of an arcade adventure than an action RPG, and in that sense, I’d argue that Arrowhead have got the balance just about right. It might not be the perfect reimagining of the series that fans have been hoping for, but Gauntlet: Slayer Edition is about as close as anyone has come to delivering the contemporary Gauntlet of our dreams.
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