It has been roughly a week since Dauntless made the switch from closed to open beta. As part of the move, Phoenix Labs included a number of polishing touches and updates to welcome in new players. And, despite a rocky start, it seems to have worked - over 800 thousand players joined the fight since servers went live.
But, as the monster hunting adventure makes its move towards eventual release, it becomes possible to take stock of what we have. Much of the core game is locked down, and many of the ancillary game systems are in place. The studio does have an openly published roadmap of features that are still on the development stack, but that central experience of slaying behemoths is fairly well defined.
More fundamentally, with dyes and cosmetics now loaded in-game, it’s possible to spend real money on Dauntless. As a consequence, it’s worth checking in to answer three questions: is it worth downloading, worth playing, and worth spending cash on? Don’t think of this as a review, but more of a status check on the road to final release. After all, your time is the most precious resource around.
The Red Carpet Airship
In the run-up to open beta, you might have seen the new cinematic trailer. What surprised me, however, was that these are actually in-game cutscenes that feature your freshly-generated character. It was a surprising and immersifying touch that strengthened the introduction to Dauntless, and definitely rolled out the red carpet. Add in a hefty dose of voice acting, and the questing experience in and around Ramsgate has definitely stepped up a notch.
Dauntless also now does a better job of providing the reasoning behind the conflict. About how the world was shattered into a number of floating islands, and how precious Aether is the only thing keeping them airborne. About how the behemoths are drawn to the Aether as a food source, causing the islands to crash out of the sky and putting the safety of Ramsgate at risk. While scholars and researchers develop longer-term solutions, the Slayers represent a more immediate fix.
Enter the basic premise. Keep the city safe, thin the herd of behemoths nearby, loot crafting materials from the creatures, and make new gear to take on tougher challenges. Focus on mastering a single weapon, or spread out your resources and learn them all. And, underpinning it all, a progression system that trains the basics before stepping up a gear.
Battling the Behemoths
At the heart of Dauntless is simple enough combat loop. A party of 1 to 4 players land on an island to hunt and slay a behemoth, using a range of weapons and gear to aid them. For the most part, it’s also huge fun; there’s a sense of mastery from learning how the various monsters behave and accurately anticipating their attacks, and a sense of growing familiarity with your chosen weapons as you learn how to get the most out of them and discover hidden combos. Combat works well: a good fight can have fantastic momentum as the behemoth is regularly stunned and kept under control.
But there’s also a nagging feeling of repetition. From what I’ve experienced up to the Yonder Keys area, Behemoths tend to follow a regular pattern. They run away at similar points in the battle, and tend to move between the same locations. They become enraged and glow an eerie red, but they use a constant set of attacks. I’ve had plenty of ‘woah’ moments from when Embermane starts shooting fireballs, or when Charrogg starts doing his rotunda-of-flame, but the novelty of these does fade after a while.
While we’re on the subject of behemoths, I also have a gripe about leaving a mark as battle progresses. Yes, some creatures can have their tail cut off, and it makes a significant difference to the attacks they can make. But I’ve never seen one make a desperate attempt to limp away, or struggle to fly. It’s as if the behemoths exist in a binary state of living or dead, regardless of how many scars or wounds they’ve accrued.
Progress to Launch
Slaying behemoths isn’t just an event by itself, but it’s also a means to an end. The citizens of Ramsgate offer rewards for taking down particular creatures and hauling back body parts, but reputation can also be earned for using those parts to craft items. Spend time with the weaponsmith and you can unlock new weapon types, or work with the alchemist to unlock new concoctions.
I think my gripe here is that it’s very much based on becoming best buds with the chap milling the herbs or lady at the anvil, and there’s less about allying yourself with the various factions and political forces that could be bubbling just beneath the service. We get hints of it from the various conversations and quests, but it never really feels like it comes to the fore. Of course, Phoenix might be holding back on this until the full launch, ready to unfurl over time as the live game progresses.
Likewise, guilds are a little bare-bones right now. We’ve been running a small team for a while, but it’s difficult to tell who’s online without also adding them to your friends list. There’s also little benefit to being in a guild beyond having a shared name and chat channel, and it’s not clear what plans there are to build or improve it.
Time to Try
As a new entrant in the monster hunting genre, Dauntless is a strong experience that delivers engaging combat, with a sufficiently high skill and knowledge ceiling that can have a meaningful impact on how the battle evolves. The mix of behemoths provide an interesting and varied challenge that ramps up difficulty at a reasonable pace. And the flexible grouping systems allows you to wait for allies, form a custom party, or even dive in solo.
But, in Open Beta, Dauntless is also the core of an incomplete game. Guilds and reputation systems aren’t yet fully formed, and the tutorial is shallow and rudimentary. Currently, there’s a reliance on the burgeoning community on Reddit and the official wiki to produce guides and descriptions on everything from damage types to weapon attack combos.
All this is fodder for ongoing development, based on capturing data from the millions of fights as much as collecting feedback from players. But responding to this is going to make all the difference between an experience that players churn through, and one which continues to surprise and amaze them months or even years down the line.
Personally though, Dauntless is a game that scratches a major itch. As a long-time fan of challenging PvE content it delivers in spades, earning a regular spot in my rotation of games. As a free-to-play game, I’d argue that it’s worth the download to experience for yourself, as there’s nothing quite like going ham on a giant behemoth. Whether or not it’s worth opening your wallet for is up to you, but the collection of cosmetic perks is completely optional. At the end of the day, it’s skill that makes you a badass in Dauntless, and that’s exactly where it should be.
BETA VERDICT: Download & play (for free), but keep an eye on delivery against that development roadmap.