Sharpen your blade, reinforce your armor and ready your potions hunters because there is a new bestiary of ferocious monsters to slay in the latest free-to-play addition to the hunting genre, Dauntless. Fresh out of open beta on PC and finally available on current gen consoles for new players to experience, Dauntless does a great job capturing the essence of what makes this sub-genre of games so enjoyable and addictive for hours on end, while also managing to keep the title free of invasive microtransactions and pay-to-win-elements.
Set in the floating ecosystems of the Shattered Isles, Dauntless’ world is rife with monstrous creatures, known as Behemoths, who are consuming the world’s limited resource of aether. Without this resource the Shattered Isles will fail to stay aloft and come crashing down from the skies. This is where players come in as the role of Slayers, hunters of Behemoths and protectors of the in-game world. This background fluff provides some decent context to the lore of Dauntless, but the real meat of the game players will primarily experience is the routine of preparing for a hunt, slaying a Behemoth, and using its broken parts to forge a variety of new equipment.
While the first opening hunts of the game are done solo so players can get used to the controls and a few of the in-game mechanics, Dauntless is primarily built as a multiplayer game and plays the best with a party of up to four Slayers. What makes Dauntless truly special in this regard is that it is fully cross-play between all of its available platforms, making it easily one of the most accessible hunting games to date for players with friends on different platforms to jump into. What surprised me even more though was that the game was fully cross-progress as well, which I learned through playing on my PS4 the first time only to see my open beta PC character when I logged in fully intact with all of his weapons and resources.
At launch, Dauntless has six weapons for players to choose from, each with their own set of nicely animated combo strings and unique specializations that fulfill different roles in the party during a hunt. Weapons like the sword and chain blades for example specialize in carving pieces out of Behemoths, while the hammer and the axe are great at staggering the beasts, opening them up for free attacks when they focus on hitting the creature bluntly on the head. My favourite weapon out of the ensemble though has to be the war pike because it feels like the true Swiss army knife of Dauntless. By attacking the Behemoth from all angles, war pike users inflict wounds on the Behemoth, opening it up for more damage and easier carves. The last ability are its hefty mortar rounds, which when charged can interrupt a Behemoth’s intimidating charge attack and leave them open for the party to attack while they struggle to get back up from the ground.
Just like in Monster Hunter World, the true stars of Dauntless are the Behemoths. Each of the 19 creatures at launch sport their own unique personality and stand out thanks to the game’s unique art style. While it’s obvious that quite a few of them share the same skeleton, Phoenix Labs succeeds in making each Behemoth feel distinct during the hunt. For example, when players first encounter the fiery Embermane they will have to deal with a swift quadruped that loves to spew fire and rush down slayers with charges, yet the umbral imbued Riftstalker, which shares the same skeleton, behaves completely different, constantly dragging players into the darkness of the shadow realm and utilizing portals to attack Slayers from their blindspot. The strategies to each of these hunts feels unique and brings their own set of challenges into the mix, keeping Slayers always on their feet.
Outside of the hunts, Dauntless has adopted the seasons pass formula of Fortnite for their primary source of microtransactions. Players of all types receive rewards by participating in the season by playing the game and completing weekly objectives, but players who pay into the elite level for about $10 USD a season will receive more items, more cosmetics and even premium currency at higher levels. Thankfully, the premium currency only has a few applications, none of which truly buy power to make hunts easier. Players who want stronger weapons or armour all need to put in the same work grinding out Behemoths whether they pay for premium currency or purely play for free.
Another important aspect to games as a service is developer communication with the playerbase, and after watching the Dauntless Twitter account during the course of this launch period, I can confidently say they do a great job. Every day since launch the account has been actively communicating multiple times every day to inform players of specific concerns being addressed by the devs, technical issues that they’ve quashed that day, or to inform the playerbase of a new patch update with fully detailed notes of what has changed. Other games as a service developers should take note from their example because clear communication is vital for creating a healthy playerbase for every multiplayer title.
Performance wise, Dauntless on a launch PS4 was sadly pretty rough. As of writing this review all platforms are experiencing a mix of bugs and glitches that are swiftly being addressed by the developer, but the constant frame rate drops and interrupting lag spikes on Sony’s hardware severely dampened that experience and urged me to revisit the game on PC instead. From my experience it was hard for the game to stabilize at 20FPS in the game’s hubworld of Ramsgate, while the hunts themselves didn’t fare much better, struggling to maintain 30FPS. Comparing this to my performance on a midrange PC, the smoothness of the gameplay was night and day. Hopefully Phoenix Labs can address this performance in a later update, but I don’t expect that for quite some time while they deal with the more pressing technical concerns at hand.
While I’ve enjoyed my time with Dauntless thus far, I can’t help but feel it’s missing something special to call its own. When compared to many of my favourite’s in the genre, from Monster Hunter, to Freedom Wars, or even Soul Sacrifice, Dauntless’ gameplay sticks far too closely to the bones of the genre’s formula and fails to bring anything new of note to the table besides it being a free-to-play experience. By introducing an original set of gameplay mechanics somewhere down the line, I believe Dauntless stands a much better chance breaking out from underneath Monster Hunter’s looming shadow and carving out its own lasting legacy in the genre, rather than just settling for being called a clone.
The developers at Phoenix Labs have created a great foundation at launch for Dauntless to build off of with the help of their rapidly growing community. While the experience as a whole is rather vanilla when compared to other titles in the genre, what Dauntless truly offers is a great entry point to hunting games that is easily accessible to players who have yet to experience the thrill of the hunt. With a clear roadmap ahead of where they plan to go next, I look forward to the future updates of Dauntless and can’t wait to see how they build the world out more with new content and powerful Behemoths.