The Hunt That Never Ends
HIGH Rewarding progression, a high skill ceiling.
LOW Lack of a compelling endgame.
WTF Just let me sit in a Tavern and share a drink with a rando, please.
Phoenix Labs’ free-to-play action RPG Dauntless cuts right to the chase. It wants players to hunt hulking monsters called behemoths, kill them, craft gear made from them, and then hunt some more. It’s a refreshing premise, made possible by stripping away all unnecessary mechanics and rewarding players with a satisfying progression system.
It’s a good thing the play grabbed me because the story didn’t give me much to go on. Even now I don’t exactly know why I’m hunting these behemoths and, honestly, I don’t care. Most of the dialogue feels like it was designed to be skipped, and that’s alright — narrative has never been a huge selling point for the monster hunting genre and I’ll take a streamlined experience over lore-heavy text any day.
Clearly, gameplay is the heart of Dauntless, and the combat is well-balanced by being straightforward enough to ease beginners into a new weapon but offering more than enough depth for those that want to master it.
The premise of Dauntless may be simple, but it’s not superficial. There are six weapons to choose from, each with a unique move set, combos, and abilities. Swords and Chain Blades are great introductory weapons with easy combos. Hammers are more challenging to wield but offer considerable stagger damage and nearly tangible impact. Ostian Repeaters allow agile hunters to dish out damage at close range, while the War Pike is used to inflict wound damage and charge up powerful mortar rounds. Lastly, the Axe is the heaviest hitter and slowest weapon.
The behemoths of the Shattered Isles have fascinating mechanics, but unremarkable designs. Players will fight overgrown owls, horned lions, angry turtles, and deranged beavers, among other things. This strange combination of woodland creature and fantastical beast adds a layer of predictability to the fights — players will instinctively know what to expect in terms of movement based on their look.
Once past the introductory monsters (which are pretty pathetic) I was challenged by behemoths that jumped through dark portals, sent frosty minions to fight me, or created shock barriers to split my team apart, and players will encounter these behemoths again with new and enhanced mechanics on higher difficulties. At this point in Dauntless, effective use of consumables, potions, or grenades is crucial for surviving grueling encounters. Pylon deployment should also be timed with the squad’s movements or successful behemoth staggers, because they grant area-of-effect bonuses like decreased damage taken, increased damage given, or HP regen for nearby slayers.
I appreciate the fact that Phoenix Labs didn’t increase difficulty artificially by simply upping behemoth damage and HP — they instead added new movesets and abilities to every tougher behemoth variation, forcing players to adapt their strategy. Still, I feel that Dauntless falls short in the content department, especially in its later stages.
There are 19 unique behemoths, but some use very similar models (e.g., the Pangar and Hellion). Furthermore, at the point I’m now at, most of my squad is so strong that we feel overpowered. Formerly-difficult missions take a maximum of five minutes to complete, there are no new quests, and everyone is working towards increasing mastery by repeating the same encounters over and over again.
Also, despite how colorful as the world is, it feels empty. Even at peak hours, the hub town of Ramsgate doesn’t visually reflect its bustling community. There are a few hunters here and there, but there are no roaming NPCs, there’s no idle chatter to engage in, nor any points of interest. The hub is simply a place to pick up quests, craft stuff, and pet dogs. The three types of biomes are equally empty, with almost nothing to explore or engage with past the behemoths and farmable materials.
In terms of crafting — a key part of the hunting genre — every victory in the field rewards players with materials that can be used to create armor sets and weapons. There are seven behemoth types (blaze, frost, terra, shock, radiant, umbral, and neutral) with respective strengths and weaknesses. Completing sets and matching weapons provides unique bonuses, so players can adapt to any situation.
Even though some behemoths are harder, items crafted from end-game monster materials are not inherently stronger than starting-level ones since each armor piece has unique perks that can bring players closer to their desired builds. Further, each armor piece has its own cell socket. Players can socket five types of cells –defense, mobility, power, technique, and utility. Ideally, players should socket cells that complement their weapon and perks, which means paying attention to the type of socket provided by each piece.
Players can also enhance and customize weapons and armor power with certain drops. Besides the gear, there’s also a Mastery system for players to engage with that unlocks new skills and rewards like extra health, stamina, move sets, and more.
The social component is my favorite part of Dauntless, but it still needs a lot of work despite being marketed as a social game. There are only ever 20-30 players sharing the same Ramsgate session and it’s impossible to predict who’ll be in a party. A guild feature also exists, but it’s lackluster — there’s no global chat or any other method to find active players, and individual hunts are too short to create a connection with someone. That said, I’ve met quite a few slayers through my stream that I play with on a regular basis, and there’s nothing quite like coordinating with three other people, being the first to spot a behemoth, comparing scores at the end of a hunt, or cheering a teammate through a clutch encounter.
As a free-to-play title, Dauntless has microtransactions, but it’s definitely not pay-to-win. Most purchasable bonuses are cosmetic, but there’s also a Hunt Pass that unlocks limited-time rewards on the slayer’s “track” similar to how Fortnite’s battle Pass works. Each slayer has access to a basic track and upgrading one’s Hunt Pass with real money unlocks the elite track’s rewards in addition to the rewards from the basic.
While the Dauntless experience is generally solid, it does have a few bugs. Some of them, like the inability to cancel matchmaking or getting frozen after a hunt are annoyingly forgivable, while others like behemoths getting stuck in the environment or having unresponsive controls can ruin the entire experience. The good news is that Phoenix Labs is constantly rolling out updates to remove glitches, game-breaking exploits, and to rebalance the game.
All in all, Dauntless is a good free-to-play experience that has the potential to become great. Its playful art style, streamlined combat, and rich progression system can provide hours of entertainment, and the fact that it features cross-platform multiplayer is a major triumph all by itself.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Phoenix Labs and published by Epic Games. It is currently available on Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Dauntless is also scheduled for release on the Nintendo Switch for late 2019. This copy of the game was obtained via free download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. Over 50 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Violence and Blood. It also contains some PG-rated language in the intro cinematic. The violence is stylized and not very graphic. There is no sexual content.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game can be played without sound. There are some audio cues that can be used to predict a behemoth’s movement, but these movements can also be predicted with the help of visual cues. Most dialogue in the game is subtitled, but idle chatter in the city is not. All quest information is available as text. The text cannot be resized.
Remappable Controls: On PC, apart from the X (Xbox controller), left and right thumb sticks, all controls are remappable. However, remapping the keys/buttons is not very practical because you need to click on the control you want to remap, input your desired control, then click again. Controls cannot be remapped on the PS4.