As soon as the Phoenix Labs' marketing manager and head of community, Nick Clifford and Ian Tornay, start talking about Dark Souls in relation to their upcoming title, Dauntless, my heart fills with dread. I'm not one of those. I don't even want to contemplate playing anything comparable to From Software’s masterclass in sadism.
By the time I went on my first hunt it turned out the marketing speak, thankfully, was just that, and those initial fears were unfounded. Dauntless is a perfectly accessible game, even for pathetic louts like me.
Why the Souls references then? It's because Dauntless is trying to smoosh together a lot of popular genres into a new form, and attract fans of those titles. Due for launch later this year, after a beta, Dauntless is a free-to-play co-op RPG that pitches itself as a combination of Monster Hunter, Destiny, and Dark Souls. It’s also Phoenix Lab’s first release since the developer's formation in 2014. A group of players hunting dangerous monsters isn't a wildly original concept, but the way that the game goes about delivering it is what makes Dauntless turn heads.
In our demo of the game, three of us went toe-to-toe with a trio of beasts called Behemoths. According to Tornay, these particular Behemoths provided an accurate representation of the kind of difficulty curve that players could expect in Dauntless, which is to say easier hunts introducing the basics, before the training wheels come off and players are free to take on any challenges they wish. Players still need to progress through the main storyline to unlock more Behemoths, but they won’t be restricted to any single hunt at any given time. So you can take on anything, after a point, whether you've got a decent shot at succeeding or not.
The first Behemoth we fought was called Shrike. Shrike is a rather beefy owl, capable of swooping down and dashing helpless players aside. Despite the ferocity of the beaked monstrosity, I picked up the general rhythm and flow of the combat fairly quickly — well, it was surprising to me anyway. It's easy to pick up because the inputs aren't especially complicated, and the challenge really lies in choosing your attack (light, heavy, or special) and your position appropriately.
Unlike your average ARPG, there are no classes and no skill-trees. What distinguishes each player from the next in Dauntless, and this may all start to sound rather familiar to Monster Hunter fans, is the kind of gear you’re packing — and you harvest materials for new gear by killing beasties. For our encounter against Shrike all three of us wielded standard swords and armour. On the second monster, the Quillshot, we changed our setup to individual play-styles: I was brandishing a massive axe, while Clifford was rocking some pretty baller chain-blades.
Warning bells may be ringing for some players, with the fact that Dauntless has a crafting system and is also free-to-play. Crafting new weapons, armour, and other items is the progression system and, no matter how good you are, without ever-better kit you won't be able to hunt the more terrifying nasties.
Acquiring new crafting materials is a matter of finding them, but both of the reps insist Dauntless does not have a pay-to-win system — they would, of course, but their argument is that the only things players can buy are purely cosmetic. That is encouraging, though it also rather undercuts an enormous element of Monster Hunter's appeal, which is making a coat out of a monster that actually looks like it was made from the monster. How can cosmetics be incidental in a game system like this? Nevertheless, it is important that the money side doesn't intrude on the progression system itself, and hopefully that remains the case.
Having a strategic mind is essential to getting good at Dauntless, as hunts will vary wildly depending upon both the Behemoth and its current habitat. Fighting certain Behemoths is bad enough; our team was slaughtered by the Quillshot (whose design is apparently inspired by a collection of weird alligator videos), but the monsters get much, much worse.
Aspects such as weather and climate can both boost and weaken a Behemoth’s abilities. For example, facing off against the Pangar in a blizzard made dispatching the beast a whole lot harder for us, as its ice powers were bolstered by the flurry. These variables will shift and change as both the Shattered Isles and their monstrous inhabitants move around. Every variable will affect the difficulty of each encounter, with bigger rewards for taking down a Behemoth in its most powered-up natural state.
A Behemoth’s power will also shift and grow mid-battle, similarly to how monsters become enraged in Capcom's series. At this point you do feel that there should be some kind of royalty cheque heading over to Japan. It does work slightly differently, to be fair. Players need to watch out for visual clues that precede changes in behaviour, indicating whether to push the attack or back off. When fighting the Pangar, the scales on its back would grow and glow blue, which meant that gigantic icicles would soon be forming under our feet.
Behemoths can also attempt to flee from battle if they sense their end is near, wonder where they got that idea, so you’ll want to pile on the pressure as the fight reaches the latter stages. The beasts can sustain wounds and lose limbs or tails after enough damage, which permanently removes corresponding attacks from their arsenal — this wasn't confirmed at my demo, but presumably it also leads to a higher drop chance. As in Monster Hunter. With no more tail, for example, the Quillshot was unable to attack behind itself — providing us a new way to deal unanswered damage.
These challenges might seem daunting to new players with little gear, but Dauntless promises to provide ways and means for fresh players to quickly advance. There will apparently be a matchmaking lobby designed to enable more experienced players to help out newbies, part of an overarching ethos from Phoenix of trying to ensure leaderboards don’t grow stale, and that players always have a reason to come back.
As you may expect, Phoenix intends to continue supporting the game post-launch with everything from new Behemoths to new areas and seasonal events — all the stuff you expect from the modern breed of games-as-a-service. It's also the case that Dauntless reflects the more generous side of that model, less concerned about squeezing players for every penny (hello Evolve) than keeping them happy and hoping the money follows.
Whether there's room for a game so clearly inspired by other big series, when those games themselves are moving on to new things — Fromsoft has left Souls behind, Capcom is in the final stages of Monster Hunter World's development, and the Destiny comparison doesn't really fly — remains to be seen. Dauntless looks like a free-to-play game with an engaging world, a plethora of challenges, and a bright future. But whether that will be enough to make it stand out, in the white-hot competition of the current gaming marketplace, is a big question.