One of the more spacious booths at this year's PAX East offered up a couple of playable demos of Dauntless, the upcoming co-op boss hunter from Phoenix Labs. The game immediately brings Monster Hunter to mind, but with a few key differences that are important to note. First of all the game is fully focused on taking down bosses, behemoths that range in appearance and behaviour; it's simply a matter of taking an airship to a floating island, locating the monster and taking him (or her) out as fast as you can. There is a certain degree of exploration and items that you can gather, but primarily you're out to do one thing - kill behemoths.
"Even just being compared to Monster Hunter to us is such an honour, such a great game, we're all huge fans," said Phoenix Labs' Jordan Dodds when we talked to him at PAX East. "Dauntless is a little bit more focused combat-side, the combat is very deliberate, feels very Souls-y almost. You've got very calculated dodge rolls, very calculated combos, you've got to know when to break, when to go for the big hits."
The setting is that of a fantasy world called the Shattered Isles, a series of islands that for some reason float in the sky and that humans travel between in airships. There is a source of power called Aether that holds this world together, and for some reason, a bunch of behemoths have appeared to feed off of this Aether and thus they threaten to destroy the world. That's where you, an aspiring hunter, come into play; you set out alone or with a few fellow hunters to take out these beasts and progress your character and gear in the process.
The developers were keen to highlight similarities to Souls titles, what with precision dashing being a key component. You'll have to manage your stamina as you use dash to move in and out of range. That said, perhaps it should be noted that the game is not that unforgiving, although we're sure there are more challenging encounters than the ones we tackled on the show floor.
You'll be able to craft gear and various potions to take with you into the encounters, and while there are no set classes it's not a terrible idea to bring along one or two friends with support abilities or items. The loadout we used offered a bit of a healing aura, and we also had health potions and a temporary damage buff. Otherwise, the weapon you carry will dictate your playstyle (you're locked in for the duration of a mission). We sampled a couple and what's interesting to note here is that they were both viable damage dealers, you just needed a different strategy in how you moved in and out depending on the speed of your attacks and dash ability.
One thing that you'll notice immediately with Dauntless is its art style. A stylised look with a somewhat subdued colour palette created great readability. This is naturally very important as each monster will have patterns and things like fangs that, if removed by the players, will negate the monster's ability to use a certain attack. Each monster also goes through a couple of phases, much like in Monster Hunter, and you'll need to track them down anew. If you take too long the monster can feed on rifts in the ground (you can also use these to heal, though it comes with the drawback of angering the monster), replenishing its health some. In some ways the artstyle feels like a stylised take on monsters you'd see in games like Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star. Perhaps you could say that it's these games seen through a Blizzard filter.
Playing with a couple of experienced developers at PAX East, we made fairly quick work of a couple of behemoths - the flying Shrike, and the dino-esque Quillshot who, as the name suggests, had the ability to shoot volleys of quills from its back, forcing the player to retreat. Interestingly the Quillshot had this move where it rolled over on its back, only to quickly get back up and launch a counter. Something that would cost you health if you were locked into a combo at the time.
This says something about Dauntless. At first glance, much like Monster Hunter, it would appear to be a hack 'n' slash affair, but there's much more depth to it and knowing when to execute your most devastating combos is key to being a successful hunter. We particularly enjoyed the speedy dash move (especially when using the chain blades), and management of your stamina is key to making the most of it.
At PAX East we didn't get a taste of the progression, crafting, or community aspects of the game for natural reasons, each of which will be quite significant in determining the success of the title. Judging by the brief time we've spent in the current beta (leading up to the open beta which launches on May 24), Ramsgate (as the social hub is called) will be a good place to meet other players and take care of your crafting needs. It's not terribly large, much like the floating island, and so the game is a very focused experience where you jump in to take care of business for a single mission (which might last up to 30 minutes) or a series of them.
We quite enjoyed our first excursion to the Shattered Isles, particularly how the combat felt fluid. Much of Dauntless's success will depend on whether the community will be there in numbers and whether there's enough depth to how you progress your character, your gear, and so on. What we experienced from the demo and the ongoing beta wasn't perfect (there are some menu issues when using a controller, for instance), but there's promise here and on May 24 the game heads into open beta. Of course, that's just the beginning of the adventure as Phoenix Labs promises an ambitious roll-out of updates and features from there on in.