I can’t tell if it is an indictment of games or a credit to the longevity of Gauntlet that the coin guzzling gameplay of 1985 arcades remains viable in 2014. Sure, the outer layer has changed, there are a few more long term hooks and naturally it looks better, but in the end you are fighting off waves of enemies, knocking out summoning stones and shooting the food before your companions (who need that food badly) can get to it. You may want to hold back on that griefing; you’ll want those friends by your side as Gauntlet is a dreadfully dull single-player experience.
Each of the four classic Gauntlet characters control in a unique way, with a couple of base abilities and a special attack that has a cooldown. Unlike other Gauntlet games, only the Wizard and Elf have ranged attacks; the Valkyrie and Warriors are stuck with melee weapons but have charge attacks — and in the Valkyrie’s case, a boomerang style shield throw as her special attack — to help escape tight spots. Ranged is more useful than melee in single player; on later difficulty levels where single hits do significant damage it is hard to avoid taking shots in crowds even with your escape abilities, but this is negated in co-op multiplayer (as long as your team can work together).
Relics are the only method of character customisation, adding some unique abilities to any character. They are activated with the potions you collect through the level and range from boots that leave a trail of fire as you run to whirlwinds that knock enemies away or the ability to summon otherworldly beings to help you. These are unlocked with gold earned throughout the levels, but bafflingly gold and relics cannot be shared between characters, you’ll need to earn the gold to upgrade those fire boots with every character.
There just isn’t enough content to justify spending that much time with the game. Levels are overly long, repetitive and don’t do enough with the few unique concepts offered. The dark cave levels were my favourites, perhaps because they were the shortest and the most interesting of the unique elements, but it would be overly generous to describe some of the moments in Gauntlet as puzzles, you push or turn something then you move on. Escaping Death is the worst of the lot, where every minute or so Death chases you around threatening one hit death, forcing you to run in circles until he disappears briefly. I found it difficult to play through more than a couple of sets of levels in a sitting, it just got too boring.
That boredom is thankfully alleviated in co-op, which frankly is the only way the game should be played. While there is plenty of opportunity for griefing, when played as intended Gauntlet is a very entertaining co-op experience, for a while. On harder difficulty levels enough co-ordination is required for success that it turns into an intense and entertaining experience, but it can still feel like a grind when your team is in control. I had a lot of fun in the moments where we on the edge of disaster, one mistake away from being overwhelmed.
The lack of variety will eventually set in, even in co-op. Enemies are mindless and present challenge only in their volume, the environments are dull and the levels too repetitive. Even the randomly generated levels choose from too small a selection of scenarios, you will see the same set piece multiple times in a single level.
Gauntlet plays well, is balanced nicely for co-op and offers fun for multiple players in short bursts. Yet for those who enjoy well balanced but repetitive gameplay, there are better games that offer better hooks and rewards, such as Diablo III. If you can get a group of like-minded players together, it is worth a shot, but there is nothing here for solo players. Games may not have moved on a long way from the Gauntlet of 1985, but they have gone far enough to make this game feel outdated.