A co-op RPG that’s out to bring monster hunting to the masses
Felling a beast the size of a modest skyscraper is a universal videogame fantasy – using its parts to fashion yourself a fancy new pair of kicks, perhaps even more so. Despite this, the Monster Hunter series has never really managed to win over the west. Capcom’s forthcoming Monster Hunter: World is looking to change this, of course, extending a friendly hand to all with a worldwide, multiplatform release. There’s nothing quite as accessible as ‘free’, though, is there?
Canadian developer Phoenix Labs knows this. But then, Phoenix Labs knows a lot of things. Founded by a team of former Riot Games devs, and since bolstered by more hires from Blizzard, BioWare and Capcom, the developer is well-placed to snag a section of this genre’s territory. Dauntless is its champion: an action-RPG with a focus on co-op that’s free to play, certainly, but which our demo suggests is far from cheap.
What might have been a bloated swathe of open world is instead a selection of sandboxes that fit neatly within the game’s lore: following a cataclysmic event, the world has shattered into sky islands menaced by man-eating Behemoths. Once you’ve gathered up to three friends in the social hub, fast travelling to your prey’s particular hunk of rock starts a hunt. Although the areas we explore are markedly similar in design (and a little empty, barring a couple of nervous deer-like creatures) they, too, look expensive. Ethereal fingers of light stretch through trees, over the cartoony grass and our stylised Slayer. Up ahead, a red flare explodes in the sky: a pal has found the Behemoth.
This one is a Shrike, part-owl, part-bear, all sweep attacks and nasty divebombs. And
ground-pounds. Oh, and tornadoes whipped up by its wings. And did we mention the talon slide-tackles? It’s an intimidating and varied moveset. Each assault is subtly signposted in advance, though briefly enough to constantly catch us by surprise. We’re not troubled enough to use our special moves, but there’s responsiveness and depth to even the basic combat which, like seemingly everything these days, cites the Souls games as a point of reference. Vague hitboxes and feather-light sword swings soon tell the real story. A preferable one: with Behemoths not staggered by blows, fights are weighted in their favour. A balanced cooperative challenge is, it seems, the priority.
Well, balance and loot. The latter takes the form of cores of varying rarity, containing crafting materials with which to smith weapons and armour. As in Monster Hunter, targeting certain parts of Behemoths will result in specific drops. Plenty of weapons can only be created with a smattering of Shrike beak, for example; still more powerful ones might mean having to chop bits off a tougher beast, such as the icy, armadillo-like Pangar. More challenging hunts require communication and preparation: there are no player classes in Dauntless, so team composition is a matter of loadouts. A set of chain blades in hand, and some Berserker potions on the D-pad, for instance, makes us the DPS to our partner’s tanky build.
Each weapon has its own perks; usually one or two offer some mobility. While our partner’s rocket hammer can propel them into the air to get the drop on our prey, our chain blades are even slipperier stuff. When a panicked Pangar rolls away from us during a second, more difficult hunt, we can throw our blades at its flank and reel ourselves in. The same ability up close will propel us away with a backflip. In theory, this is a bit of smart design that will have us slashing and slicing about like a buttered Bayonetta. In practice, things don’t go so smoothly. Our prey constantly harasses our friend, as they’re doing most of the damage, leaving us to chase after its very fast, very rangey roll. Using our chain blades to whizz back into the fray isn’t always effective: there’s no indication of the move’s range, making it difficult to execute consistently. For a choice that’s meant to favour manoeuvrability over raw damage, it’s disappointing.
But then, we’re not fighting as a full foursome. And with a full release set for 2018, there’s plenty of time for tweaks to the smaller stuff. The crucial takeaway for now is that not once do we feel lost in overly complex crafting, or frustrated by slow animations while chugging health potions mid-fight – and in that Pangar battle, we’re knocking plenty back. Making a beastslaying RPG accessible, after all, shouldn’t mean making an easy game: just one that’s easy to get on with. If its free-to-play structure manages to be as agreeable as its co-op combat, Dauntless might just be a hunter’s new best friend.
The term ‘free-toplay’ inevitably attracts suspicion; plenty of games have promised a smooth, cash-free experience, only to lock key weapons and items behind paywalls. Phoenix Labs is keen to stress that this won’t be the case in
Dauntless. We’re told players will only have to part with real money for cosmetic items, contained in special Chroma Cores, which are filled with armour dye to add gradient colours of alternate finishes, transmog stones, banners, differently coloured flares and more. You’ll have to pay up for a cosmetic pack in order to get guaranteed access to the Founder’s Alpha and Closed Beta this summer, however.
Each weapon has its own perks; usually one or two offer some mobility
A stamina meter attempts to introduce an extra layer of strategy to combat, although it rarely gives us any trouble
The Embermane is a sort of cross between a dragon, a lion and a rhinoceros, with the handy bonus of being able to breathe fire
LEFT Fighting the Pangar depletes our health potions. More HP can be harvested from aether fissures in the ground, but a long animation makes it a risky move.
Lanterns offer party-wide buffs of health or shields when activated, but charge very slowly, meaning dinner is probably served for this attacking Shrike
BELOW Chain blades might not be the best choice for every battle; if we want to break off bone for crafting, a hammer would be better