The classic Gauntlet represents a style of game that doesn’t see much time in the limelight anymore. Mechanically simple, the game derived its immense replay value through addictive gameplay, multiple classes, and light randomization. Even its closest successors favor heavy role-playing elements over light arcade action, and that’s left a big hole that Warner Bros.’ new Gauntlet reboot could easily have filled.
This makes the way the game ultimately turned out even stranger in retrospect. Developed by Magicka house Arrowhead, Gauntlet borrows more than just the game’s quirky sense of humor. The Wizard class in particular plays almost exactly like the wizards in Magicka, with players combining spells to create new ones. There are tons of combinations to discover and the freeform nature of the spellcasting makes the Wizard the deepest and most rewarding class to play in the game.
Unfortunately, it also represents how fast and loose Arrowhead plays with the core nature of Gauntlet. This isn’t the simple and addictive arcade game you may remember from the old days. Gone are the days of lightning-quick attacks and only the Wizard and the Archer have ranged attacks. It’s definitely a different style of gameplay and while that doesn’t necessarily make it worse, it might not be what you expect.
One element that this new Gauntlet has retained from the original is the fun multiplayer mode. Playing with three buddies is basically essential and there’s a solid metagame in which players compete to wear the first place crown and earn more gold. There are ways to steal the crown from your friends but environmental hazards and traps can be used to easily steal it back. If you want to be "that guy", you can also still shoot the food, robbing friends of needed sustenance. Each character has its own set of skills and its own playstyle, so there’s a lot of value in working together and experimenting with new classes.
After the Wizard, the elven Archer is probably the most interesting class. It plays more like a dual-stick shooter than a typical hack ‘n slash game, with spread shot and other abilities rounding out the arsenal. The Warrior is a more standard class, with big swings dealing heavy damage over a wide area. Finally, there’s the Valkyrie, who adopts a defensive playstyle with her large shield. All of the classes have their own strengths and weaknesses but playing with the Wizard’s complex arsenal makes the others feel lacking in comparison.
Grabbing gold and food as a group is fun too, because pickups are shiny and make a nice, classic bing sound when collected. The pickups are just about the only part of the game’s presentation that stands out, though, thanks to the dull color palette and restrained visual effects. It lacks the stylistic panache of its distant cousins, Diablo and Torchlight. Additionally, the levels are small and constrained even in comparison to the old Gauntlet.
If you can look past Gauntlet’s dull visual palette and don’t mind not playing as the Wizard, the game makes for a solid way to waste away the hours with three friends. It’s far from revolutionary, but there’s enough fun in shooting the food and grabbing the gold to warrant a try. Solo runs are a different story, however. Without friends there to help, there’s no metagame to engage in, no interplay between classes, and no reason to continue running through the drab levels. The only saving grace for the single-player is the humorous tips which pop up during the loading screens - “Hints appear during loading screens” is my personal favorite - but even that feels out of place in a Gauntlet game.
Gauntlet could’ve perhaps been more memorable had it further embraced its roots as a simple arcade game. The levels are small and dull, and single-player is a generally joyless affair. Under the right set of circumstances, though, the game can be fun thanks to its varied classes and trolling-heavy metagame. Shooting the food with three friends can still be a great time, but you’ll have to temper your expectations.