Last Friday, I finally received my invitation to participate in the Dauntless closed beta. While the beta actually started earlier this month, it was mostly for people who helped fund the game (i.e., paid money for early access). Since few gamers are ever invited into closed betas, I consider myself lucky. Still, I spent my weekend playing Dauntless and finally wrote this review/preview. But, before I continue, I should give the following disclaimer: I am going to compare Dauntless to Monster Hunter — a lot. After all, Dauntless was originally designed to give western Monster Hunter fans the PC monster hunting experience they richly deserve, well before Capcom announced Monster Hunter World. Still, since I am a Monster Hunter fan, I’m contractually obligated (no not really) to compare Dauntless to Monster Hunter, which is why I’m going to judge Dauntless on its own merits and as a replacement for Monster Hunter. So, on with the review.
The hallmark of a good art style in a video game is that it doesn’t look like any other video game, and Dauntless’ art style is nothing if not unique; the game uses semi-cartoonish, cell-shaded graphics that give every character sharp cheeks and a big chin — think Wildstar but less Saturday morning cartoonish. The monsters…sorry, behemoths…however, look a bit off to me. While I don’t want to call the behemoths generic, after getting up close and personal with them, I think Phoenix Labs’ designers tried too hard to make the behemoths look unique and somehow circled back into genericness, not unlike how unmarked black vans are more noticeable than a regular cars. Sure, most of the behemoth designs are cool, especially the Gnasher and the Pangar, but most gamers have probably seem similar designs before. Except for the Shrike, because it’s just a flying owlbear, which is about as generic as you can get when it comes to monster designs. Although, I do have to credit the designers for some special little touches they added to the behemoths, such making them look more ragged and beaten the more players damage them. Oh, and I have to give kudos to the character creator, because it provides players with a novel, if superfluous, option to make their characters look like the descendant of two pre-made characters. And it comes with a heterochromia option. That’s cool.
If I were to describe Dauntless‘s gameplay, I would say it’s a streamlined (or stripped down) version of Monster Hunter. Players can chose a mission from the mission board, either select to hunt in a team or solo, and start hunting their quarry on a floating island. These islands are rather small, which makes the behemoths easier to hunt, but the islands don’t offer any unique locales; players can only hunt behemoths in either a generic floating forest or a generic floating tundra. Furthermore, Dauntless‘ missions are currently limited to “kill X behemoth,” whereas Monster Hunter offers a wider variety of missions, including searching for crafting items and capturing monsters instead of killing them. However, some of Dauntless’ missions task players with hunting rogue behemoths: smaller, weaker, and slower versions of behemoths that let players practice on what is essentially easy-mode before hunting the full-strength version. I actually want this kind of mission in Monster Hunter World. Still, Dauntless is only in beta, so players might see new mission types in the near future.
Combat in Dauntless revolves around effective use of weapons, tools, and stamina. Right now, the game only has four weapons with more on the way: the Sword (a two-handed weapon that acts as the game’s de facto balanced weapon), the Axe (a slow weapon that is most effective when players charge up attacks), the Chain Blades (two kamas players swing around like Kratos’ iconic Blades of Chaos/Athena/Exile), and the Hammer (a rocket-powered war hammer that can be used as a makeshift shotgun). Each of these weapons has primary attacks, secondary attacks, and special attacks that players can string together, albeit in extremely limited combinations. Monster Hunter veterans will quickly see that several Dauntless weapon mechanics are almost identical to some Monster Hunter weapon mechanics (e.g., the Axe’s special attack temporarily increases attack damage like the Long Sword, and the Hammer needs to be reloaded every so often like the Gunlance). However, Dauntless‘ weapons are different enough from Monster Hunter‘s weapons and are not wholesale clones. Moreover, players can pack as many tools as their inventory allows in Monster Hunter, but Dauntless intentionally limits players to five: a stack of healing potions, several offence potions (usually a stamina regeneration potion or an attack-increase potion), a totem that revives players and teammates, an unlimited use flare, and an airdrop (usually some free healing items or the ability to locate gatherable resources). Also, Dauntless lets players equip a lantern that can buff/heal allies or locate behemoths. However, once players start a mission, they are limited to their selected items and equipment until the mission is over, especially since crafting items is only possible in the main hub. Weapons and items are neither better nor worse in Dauntless, just different. But stamina is objectively worse in Dauntless. In Monster Hunter, running out of stamina is a death sentence, as it forces the player to stop for several seconds and catch his or her breath, which nobody should ever do when fighting an angry dragon. However, running out of stamina in Dauntless is nowhere near as much of a punishment as it should be. Aside from panting heavily and moving slightly more sluggishly, I noticed no significant difference between a character with full stamina and a character with zero stamina. Maybe I missed something, but this is not how stamina should work in a video game: characters who are out of stamina should not be able to move. Then again, maybe Phoenix Labs is planning to add in proper punishments for running out of stamina in future patches, or perhaps I encountered a glitch and didn’t realize it. This is just the beta build of the game, after all; everything I nitpick is subject to change.
Since Dauntless is in a beta, it includes several bugs and glitches, including body parts that clip through armor, river water that doesn’t splash, and Dauntless‘ take on Overwatch‘s “Play of the Game” screen not properly displaying. Even though Dauntless can be played with either a controller or a mouse and keyboard, sometimes the game bugs out and forgets to show the proper controller prompt, and certain in-game menus even refuse to acknowledge any controller input. However, not all problems are bugs or glitches. Voice acting in Dauntless is rough at best, and some text is nearly impossible to read. Moreover, the main hub requires a serious redesign (it’s just too big and empty), and the devs really should find a way to let players use emotes and plant banners with the controller. However, the biggest problem I witnessed in the closed beta was an optimization issue. I ran Dauntless on an MSI GT72 2QD Dominator laptop with an i7-4720HQ CPU, an NVIDIA GTX 970M GPU, and 12GB of RAM. It’s not the most advanced gaming laptop available, but it can play DOOM on high settings at over 30 FPS. However, Dauntless had trouble maintaining a steady framerate at even medium settings. And yes, I checked the system requirements; they aren’t that much different from DOOM‘s requirements. Here’s hoping the devs at Phoenix Labs can fix these problems, especially the optimization one.
So, how does Dauntless generally stack up against Monster Hunter? Currently, Dauntless lacks a lot of the smaller details that help make Monster Hunter popular. For example, players can’t set up traps, lay down poisoned meat, or throw exploding barrels. Mechanics such as weapon sharpness and character temperature are dropped completely, and elemental weaknesses don’t seem to play any part in the game. Some players might be happy they don’t have to worry about these problems, so they can just focus on the hunt, but others will argue these tiny mechanics make the hunt more exciting. These gamers believe Monster Hunter is great because it actively encourages preparing for each hunt, since it’s easy for a fight to go sideways, and all that stands between victory and defeat can be one solitary item. Without those mechanics, Monster Hunter just becomes a slower, more methodical hack-and-slash game. And that’s what Dauntless feels like: a slower, more methodical hack-and-slash game. That doesn’t make it a bad game, just not as in-depth as Monster Hunter. Then again, maybe that’s what Dauntless should be: a game more friendly to newcomers than Monster Hunter.
All in all, Dauntless is a decent experience and a good first attempt at a Monster Hunter-esque game. It’s fun despite its flaws and bugs, and while most gamers will enjoy Dauntless, Monster Hunter veterans will find the game lacking and bare-bones. Dauntless gets rid of all the busywork of sharpening weapons, searching numerous zones for monsters, and carefully laying down pitfall traps and barrel bombs. This streamlining will attract players who think Monster Hunter is a little too complicated, but many, including me, enjoy the busywork and feel it elevates the game and makes it unique. While I can easily recommend Dauntless to most gamers (when it releases, that is), Monster Hunter fans might be better off just playing Monster Hunter World. Of course, I look forward to Phoenix Labs proving me wrong and improving Dauntless.
Big thanks to username Necrochild for pointing out the game has elements and elemental weaknesses. I completely missed this in my playthrough due to a lack of in-game explanation.
Dauntless (closed beta)
- Unique art style
- Novel character creation
- Tries to stand out from Monster Hunter
- Hunting in teams is enjoyable
- Rogue behemoths
- Lacks weapon variety/weapon combos
- Generic hunting grounds
- Not optimized
- Gameplay mechanics lack depth
- Kinda grindy