It’s a little bit Monster Hunter and a little bit Dark Souls with a dash of Destiny thrown in for good measure.
Dauntless was conceived as a game that takes the joy of hunting down the massive creatures in a Monster Hunter game and delivering on that experience without the need to grind, bug hunt or roam endlessly in search of that one big fight.
And my short time with the game left me thinking that maybe that’s what developer Phoenix Labs has achieved. More importantly, likely much harder than simply delivering the key highlights of a game like Monster Hunter to fans without all of the downtime, Dauntless combat feels as strategic at Dark Souls, it’s deaths as instructive and the necessary camaraderie formed to team-up and take down a behemoth just as communal as some of the best experiences in Destiny.
Most importantly though, as the game continues to broaden its closed beta, the team remains open to the need for constant community interaction and game evolution. Dauntless is very much a work in progress and Phoenix Labs isn’t shy about throwing out entire systems or reworking mechanics to make it better.
Earlier this week I sat down with Phoenix Lab’s Nick Clifford and Ian Tornay to try my hand at the game. Even before I had a chance to run out of the game’s social city hub Ramsgate, I was asking questions about some of the choices the developer made.
Character creation, for instance, has players choose two ancestors which then are combined to give your character a certain base look. The ancestors aren’t meant to be your parents, just essentially two people whose looks you like and want to steal from for your character. Once you’ve established your base look, you can go in and modify just about everything.
Unlike many character creation systems, the one in Dauntless doesn’t have you choose a gender. Instead, you shape your character the way you want, and if gender is important to you, you can decide which your character is.
“Much like we don’t tell you your character is allergic to milk, we don’t assign a gender,” Tornay says, when I ask.
You do have to decide which sort of slayer you want to be, a decision that impacts both the main type of weapon you use (ax, chain blades, hammer, sword or war pike) and the sort of skill you get to charge up and use in battle. The game also allows you to tinker with the weapons you find, tinkering with their colors and adding cell modifiers to give them special additive powers.
For my hunt, I used a pre-loaded character, buffed up for our encounter. We moved out of the Ramsgate and into the wilds of one of the many floating islands that make up the shattered world of Dauntless. Each of the islands has their own flora and fauna, gatherables, and even smaller critters you can take down if you’re so inclined. We were on the look-out for Skarn, a massive boulder-skinned creature that can burrow into the ground and burst out for attacks.
While most encounters start by finding a rip in the ground that exposes seething raw aether - the power source of just about everything in the game - this time we found two glowing craggy holes. It turns out one of them was the Skarn.
The game prides itself on what the developers call “pixel perfect combat.” What that means is that the creature’s hitboxes are matches very closely to their geometry and that taking one down takes a lot more than wailing away at the thing. A big part of success involves evading attacks. While evading your character is invulnerable. You also need to learn the attacks and tactics of the creature you’re trying to take down, to read its movements so you can attempt to interrupt its special attacks and power moves.
It’s not uncommon to lose in your combat with the behemoth, that’s part of the gameplay and learning curve. In the fiction of the game, you’ve been dropped down on the sky island by a pilot who is keeping a close eye on things. Each player gets one potentially life-saving airdrop from the pilot during an encounter. But more importantly, when your team is out of aether, having died too many times, the pilot pulls you out and returns you to Ramsgate.
Our first encounter with Skarn went as expected. We had knocked much of the rock off one of its sides and its head and had weakened it, but ultimately it took us all down, and we had to go back to town. The combat felt confusing at first, but once I adjusted to the movements of my character and timing of his swings, it began to feel like the sort of game the team was aiming for: all boss fights not grind.
Later we took on Kharabak, a massive hornet-like creature that can loose a swarm of bees against enemies. It didn’t end well.
Right now the game has about 20 behemoths, and Clifford says it’s about a 100-hour game. But they continue to add weapons, cores, and creatures into the co-op role-playing game. They also continue to rework major systems in the game. Most recently, the team overhauled the game’s progression system, tweaked combat and how damage works and expanded the way players can augment equipment. They also added the two behemoths I tried slaying in my demo and the war pike as a weapon class.
“The patch refactored progression in a substantial way,” Clifford says. “Before the patch, it was a linear path that took you from zone a to zone b. Now we load you into the first zone, and you have a chance of defeating one of five behemoths.”
The idea is that if you run into a behemoth, you can’t kill you can wander the island to kill some of the smaller critters and craft weapons or armor that will help you get over that hump.
The game features 25 different armor sets and about 200 different empowering cells. Players can switch out cells on a weapon to change its abilities or buffs, but it will destroy the cell you already have placed in the weapon.
The game also includes quite a bit of costume customization, the sorts of things that change the look of your gear, but not the way you play. Everything, for instance, can be dyed. Dyes are one of the ways the game will make money. Players will start with six starter dyes, but anything else will cost you. Once a player purchases a dye they have it forever. They can be used and reused as much as the player wants. There are also custom flares that can be shot into the air to show other players where you are, emotes and banners.
While the team is creating a game that will be free-to-play except for the cost of these customizations, they’re very mindful of the concerns players have about microtransactions.
Many in the team came from Riot, developers of League of Legends, and have a deep understanding of microtransactions.
“We didn’t pick free-to-play because it’s an opportune way to go,” Clifford says. “We wanted our game to be accessible. We wanted to earn our money. So play the game, try it out. Then if you want to spend $5 on dye, do that.”
The team recently decided to rid the game of loot boxes, a decision, Tornay says wasn’t driven by the recent turmoil surrounding the monetization system.
“We wanted to remove them before the whole Star Wars thing,” he says. “We are really in touch with our community and want to have an open, honest relationship with them. One of the things we heard early on was, ‘We understand why you’re into the loot boxes, but we don’t like it.’
“We were in the process of changing things and then the brouhaha happened, and it was an affirmation for us.”
While it would be easy to see Dauntless as a direct competitor to Monster Hunter, the team behind the game don’t see it that way at all. Monster Hunter, to them, is an entirely different sort of game, one that many on the team are eagerly waiting to play. The team built a game for people who may not want to spend hours finding food or taking down lesser creatures, but that doesn’t mean those who are working on Dauntless don’t enjoy that grind.
Dauntless goes into open beta early next year, and received its latest patch today, the day before the Monster Hunter World own beta kicks off.
“Candidly speaking as a gamer, I want to enjoy Monster Hunter in its own light and not have to think about Monster Hunter or Dauntless,” Clifford says.
Tornay adds they all remain huge fans of Monster Hunter and are looking forward to the betas as much as anyone.
“We scheduled this press tour today,” he says, “so we wouldn’t miss out on the press tour.”