Dauntless represents a unique challenge as the first release for its creator Phoenix Labs. Many workers ended up at Phoenix after jumping ship from larger studios such as Blizzard and Capcom.
Dauntless launched in May 2019 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One after spending a year in beta for PC. The game must find a place amid the increasingly crowded market of live-service titles.
Then, there’s the challenge of matching or surpassing the quality of the Monster Hunter games it clearly draws inspiration from. It’s a tough spot for any game to be in, much less for an inaugural project such as this.
Dauntless doesn’t exactly help its case by opening with a plot setup curiously similar to that of Monster Hunter: World.
Upon designing a personal avatar, the player quickly enters the fray as a fresh-faced Slayer. On your way to hunt the mythic Behemoth creatures, you are stranded and forced to fight for survival.
Shortly thereafter, you are ferried off to the central hub town of Ramsgate. There, further hunts are undertaken and the remnant of humankind carries out their various trades.
World-building details are largely relegated to text doled out by the various quest-giving NPCs strewn about Ramsgate. A vague sense of rising conflict and eking out technological progress amid a possible apocalypse does start to come through. But it’s of lesser importance than what players will experience for much of their time with the game.
The sidelining of plot makes sense once one considers that Dauntless seems to have been designed in the MMO mold. The miniscule breadcrumbs of story details serve only as justification for repeated incursions into the wild, to do battle with increasingly dangerous beasts and improve one’s own combat prowess.
In itself that isn’t a bad design choice — video games have a storied history of de-emphasizing narrative in favor of action. But, it does mean Dauntless has more to lose should its gameplay systems falter.
Those systems are centered predominately on cooperative play. Hunting for Behemoths can be done alone, but the escalating difficulty of battles with these beasts quickly illustrates how important group work is here.
Whether alone or paired with up-to-three other players, you’ll be dropped onto one of several maps to seek out and defeat the Behemoth of choice (or a random Behemoth, depending on the type of hunt selected).
Combat in Dauntless is fairly nuanced, if burdened with a bit of a learning curve. Players pick a loadout before hunts, swapping between the various weapons and equipment pieces they own.
Akin to its spiritual predecessor, Dauntless features several elemental types — Fire, Ice, Electric, and so forth — that imbue one’s items with special bonuses and attributes. Of great importance is paying attention to how one element reacts when clashing with another.
For instance, a Fire weapon makes swift work of Ice-wielding beasts, but loses some power against Behemoths of a Fiery persuasion. Keeping track of which tools work best against which beast can be overwhelming at times, to say the least.
Then, there’s the item collection aspect, which factors into equipment enhancement and purchasing. During hunts, there are Behemoth body parts to retrieve for upgrades. There are special rocks and flowers to harvest for ability-boosting Tonics and specialized Grenades. And there are various metallic Cores to earn which grant Cells (the game’s equipable item for activating special perks).
It’s definitely satisfying to go into a fight with various perks stacked, a handful of Grenades that generate exploding flames, or even just a Tonic that increases one’s defenses. That said, the lack of an easy way to see what raw materials players have on hand is something of a nuisance.
Some folks take issue with the game’s embrace of grind and locking the more interesting cosmetic rewards behind a pay wall. Specifically, the premium track of the game’s Hunt Pass, intended to reward certain in-game achievements and progress, costs 1,000 platinum.
Constant replaying of the same few hunts to stock up on necessary upgrade parts only serves to underline how slight the world and its narrative concerns truly are. Little except the quest for more loot acts as player motivation.
Meanwhile, having to weigh enjoying the game as a free experience versus paying for a compelling range of clothing dyes is far from a fun time.
But, convenience of access isn’t the greatest weakness that befalls Dauntless. The biggest issue is the game’s technical shortcomings, especially where framerate and server stability are concerned.
Dauntless slows to a crawl at times when combat reaches a fevered pitch, impeding how quickly a player can dodge or strike at pivotal moments. Even in less intense areas such as Ramsgate, slowdown was a recurring issue. Additionally, the game outright crashed after some hunts, though most sessions remained stable.
On the upside, Dauntless remains a handsome game even as its charm and live-service loop wear thin. Phoenix Labs opted for a semi-cartoon style to pair with its use of Unreal Engine 4, resulting in a game world populated by bold colors and striking landscapes.
Truly, the assorted monster designs benefit from this blend of exaggerated scale and careful detail, each standing out as distinctive and intimidating in their own right.
The best that can be said of Dauntless is, despite its flaws, it fulfills its role as digital comfort food efficiently. It’s deep enough in mechanics and sufficiently engrossing in its rhythms to be adequate entertainment, but only just.
A lack of polish and a shallowness to its sense of place, coupled with some irritating choices regarding in-game purchases, make prolonged play less than appealing.