Phoenix Labs’ not-Monster Hunter monster-hunting game Dauntless is obviously standing in a big shadow after E3 2017. I wasn’t yet fully aware of what Monster Hunter World was doing, but I’ve seen solid games lose to their larger rivals who are slower to innovate in the past. Capcom, while constantly disappointing Mega Man fans, is generally quite good with its co-op hunting series. RaiderZ, a Perfect World published not-MH game that also tackled the monster hunter genre, made minor changes to the formula and came as an actual MMO but still shut down. Though the Phoenix Labs guys weren’t aware of RaiderZ‘s failure, they seemed barely fazed by Capcom’s announcement, and maybe they’re right. Surprisingly, they’ve innovated a few things Capcom itself is doing while also adding a few things Capcom isn’t.
Think Monster Hunter lite
For those unfamiliar with the monster hunting genre, let me give you a quick rundown: Think action combat raiding, like TERA, but without the colorful circles telling you where not to stand. Now take away all that auto-attack nonsense and move with an urgency similar to Dark Souls. Remember to attack certain points on your enemy to disable their attacks, like cutting off tails to nullify tail attacks or break horns so you don’t take as much damage if you get head-butted. You’re still gonna have to gather and make your consumables (often in the field) plus craft armor (from the bloody body parts of your fallen prey), but you’re doing that slow and steady as soon as you start the game, not after 40+ levels of skipping through forests with a (hopefully) engaging story before realizing that the real game is devoid of story and didn’t prepare you for this kind of experience. That’s the kind of gameplay we’re talking about.
Now enter Dauntless. The very first thing that struck me about Dauntless was how accessible it seemed. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but aspects like being able to carry all of your items without having to bank are huge. Having multiple armor suits and multiple weapons makes inventory management a game in and of itself in the MH series. While the maps are more open than current MH maps are, they feel just as interactive as the main series games, having rocks and plants for you to collect for gear, though you don’t have to worry about item space in this game.
Dauntless, instead of piling everything into one bag, organizes everything by slots. Click your paperdoll’s head to see helmets, weapon for weapons, etc. You can’t change gear mid-combat, but it does make visiting the world hub for crafting easier. Sadly, there’s no trading in-game, though, not just in terms of gear like in the MH series but for consumable as well. The team feels its better to avoid trading altogether rather than fight players while on a slippery slope. Dauntless may not be an MMO, but I understand that trading items also opens games to secondary markets that may use real world currencies, causing problems for most of the playerbase as well as the developers.
One nice additional slot is the lantern. Dauntless had lanterns leading players toward their main hunt objective in game, “behemoths,” before MHW revealed the addition of scout flies. Independently creating the same mechanic to simplify similar systems should help show that Phoenix Labs has a similar understanding of the monster hunting genre and what it takes to make it more accessible. However, Dauntless’ lanterns also give players a slot for an ability, like group heals to help ensure players don’t die as much. These small changes or additions, rather than tweaks, are what generally win me over, and the way Dauntless handles team play really suggests it has a certain audience in mind.
Death was another innovation that surprised me. In MH, the team has a limited number of shared deaths. Die too many times, and the whole group fails. Instead, Dauntless uses a “Danger Meter.” Taking damage, getting KOed, or even just having the fight go on for too long will increase the Danger Meter. If the meter hits 100 and a player dies, the whole team has to retreat. The game’s only in alpha, but while the developers kept dying, we never went over 30 Danger during the demo from what I recall. Doing damage, forcing it to run, and other things can help to reduce your Danger.
One aspect of Monster Hunter that appears completely absent, however, is the ability to hit allies. While this has never directly damaged other players in MH, it can indirectly damage them. For example, in MH, you can kick an ally who’s got a sleep effect on to wake up, or whack an ally into the air if it looks like she’s going to get hit, but those same moves could not only interrupt an ally’s combo but also fling her into harm’s way. This has always been a potential issue with MH missions, but its local multiplayer gameplay often makes it something the team can try to coordinate more easily. Especially among online players, though, it’s made certain weapons feel like a liability, similar to people choosing Hanzo in Overwatch. By removing team attacks, Phoenix Labs makes it so no weapon’s user will be ostracized in the same way it might have been in MH (though other factors could naturally cause this).
That isn’t to say you don’t have to save your allies anymore. Monsters may create environmental hazards (like ice) that when touched will freeze a player, so it’s good to make sure you break these. A downed ally can be revived, though you’ll want to make sure you have some space and time to do it. The combat itself is still like MH’s, and you’ll need to learn when you can attack and when you can dodge. However, for veterans, there are moments when a behemoth prepares an attack and gives you a risky opportunity: Connect an attack at just the right moment to cause a critical failure and leave the behemoth wide open for multiple attacks, or take massive damage if you fail. I admittedly never learned when these occur myself during the demo itself, but the developers did show me both the right and wrong way to do it.
At the end of each hunt, we didn’t need to rush to get out loot as we do in MH. We didn’t have to run back to the tail we lobbed off to gather anything. Any “breaks” or monster bits you get are automatically looted and given to you at the end of the mission, with the lore reason being that the guy that dropped you off will haul away your kill(s) as well, which makes perfect sense.
Dauntless isn’t just a tweaked Monster Hunter. It has the same MH feel at first, but the differences become apparent quickly. For example, I’m generally a hammer user. Think “tank,” even though every player is naturally going to get aggro and need to help make sure the monster doesn’t hit their teammates. I’m in the front of the monster doing my best to hold its attention and keep others from harm. A lot of this comes from whacking the monster in the face to stun it. However, in Dauntless, the hammer isn’t just for smashing heads. It’s part gun, similar to MH’s gunlancer. It gives the hammer user a ranged attack, and I was told there was some way to even ride the hammer. It got the job done, but think I prefer my hammers gunless.
The game’s newly released “chain weapons” were quite appealing, though. Chain weapons are like harvesting scythes attached to chains. Similar to MH’s dual swords, they’re for weaving in and out of combat. However, they also have a neat special feature: You can use your chain weapons to pull yourself to the behemoth when you’re far from it or pull yourself away from it if you’re too close. I usually prefer big, long weapons for tail cutting and have adapted to patiently trading blows as I hulk about my prey, but as the chain weapons have a long reach during their combo as well as mobility, I may have to try them again some day.
Player organizations in the Monster Hunter series have always been an out-of-game “feature,” similar to how people organized themselves in the original StarCraft and Tribes games. Dauntless doesn’t currently have guilds either but plans to add them with Cataclysm-era World of Warcraft type guild perks. But you won’t just join and get free bonuses. The plan is to make the individual “prove loyalty” to unlock the rights to share perks. WoW also did this, but perhaps Phoenix Labs’ specifics will work out better after seeing how Blizzard struggled to make it work.
As in any RPG, you have multiple damage types, and Dauntless tries to make sure they help each other. For example, piercing damage does more damage to exposed flesh. If a blunt damage weapon breaks a behemoth’s armor, or a slashing weapon cuts off a tail, piercing damage will increase in those areas.
Dauntless’ environment, as in Monster Hunter World’s hands-off demos, is important. For example, when you’re in the snow, snow based monsters will naturally be tough, but if you happen to find them in the desert, expect them to hot, tired, and easier to defeat. There are no mounting behemoths, and I didn’t get to see us drop rocks on them or trap them in vines, but there were objects to interact with. For example, there were cracks in the ground that would release a healing steam for my allies, and I believe the behemoth was trying to use these as well.
There was one last aspect I kind of liked, mostly for bragging rights. At the end of your mission, everyone receives a grade, as well as other little bonuses, like a notification that you got top DPS. My Japanese hunting mates would be proud to hear not only that I never died in the three hunts we did but that I managed to snag top DPS from my first round. It’s a small addition, but knowing how you ranked can act as an additional motivation for improving gameplay. I just hope other aspects, like most healing or least damaged, make it in too!
A solid entry point
My Dauntless demo was good. Feel free to go through my E3 articles and see how often I say the opposite (it’s often!). This was a demo that felt like organic gameplay and showed off what the team’s advertising as the core experience. Our gear felt matched specifically for our encounter when in reality we’d probably be in gear one tier below, but press (and developers) often need a bit of a boost to ensure they can experience the demo quickly and easily. For me, though, jumping into the game felt natural. In fact, I was surprised to learn not everyone demoing the game could beat the three missions we took on. To me, as an MH and action combat veteran, jumping into the game felt natural. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but I felt familiar while remaining accessible. It’s what Hearthstone is for Magic the Gathering, teaching some good core skills (like patience and dodging) while cutting out some tedium (item management and painful mission failures).
Although the team isn’t worried about the Monster Hunter World reveal, I am. I’ve seen other good, accessible, innovative games die off because a bigger name releases around the same time. Unless MHW really condenses the MH experience itself, Dauntless could be a much better entry point for those intimidated by the genre, better than RaiderZ, which sadly never seemed to find its stride. It’s especially difficult due to MH hype and Capcom’s constant content recycling with newish games that probably should have been DLC or an expansion. It’s another area that could help Dauntless stand out, at least in the western market, but the game probably needs more marketing, which the team knows well. It wants more people to bring their friends, and that’s important since the team is asking people to buy the game before releasing it as a free-to-play title.
On the showroom floor, almost no one had heard of the game, but everybody seemed impressed by the design choices. MHW has a lot of people excited, but Dauntless is showing that there’s room for innovation in the subgenre.