If one series has ever managed to stay so true to its ancient arcade roots, it’s gotta be Gauntlet. Every iteration since the arcade classic has retained the same basic gameplay and done little to advance the hack ‘n’ slash action genre. Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows tries to take things a step farther, but it’s so simple, mindless, and disturbingly short that by the time you get into the gameplay, the whole thing’s over.
As the story goes, a great emperor made a lot of mistakes in his time, the first of which being to crucify the four immortal Gauntlet heroes (the four here being the Warrior, Elf, Wizard, and Valkyrie). Soon after, his six deceiving advisers were twisted by evil magic into funky, creatively designed beasts who bumped him off. But before his spirit was gone, the Emperor managed to undo his original sin and set the four heroes free. Now, the only way to save the world from certain doom is to trust the man who sacrificed them, and destroy his six monstrous advisers who have unleashed magical hell across the land.
It sounds cool, but the story is told through static concept art imagery that does nothing to draw you in. There’s also no elaboration on the advisers, the Emperor, the magical world, or even the four heroes, leaving everything as flat and bland as the artwork that passes for cutscenes. Worse still, the American McGee-inspired images of the advisers look nothing like their in-game counterparts. Dark and gruesome monsters show up looking like Tolkien rejects with personalities encompassed by unintelligible grunts and howls. But Gauntlet isn’t about epic storytelling or robust character development; it’s about whacking the crap out of lots and lots of enemies, and to that end, Seven Sorrows delivers.
Fans will immediately notice plenty of changes from the previous title, Dark Legacy. Gone are the bizarre quips when picking up food and treasure. The onscreen info has been trimmed down to show only health, magic, and experience. Gameplay has been expanded to include all new magic attacks and combos, and the visuals have been given a more serious, yet totally fantastical, appearance.
But it seems like too much has been whittled away while trying to update the Gauntlet formula. Only four characters are available—only one of them female—and there are no color choices this time around. And while the stages look impressive, there just aren’t enough of them to last. Secret stashes and twisted paths are also few and far between, giving the whole game a linear, uninvolved feel. Generators are plentiful and pop up repeatedly as you backtrack to find keys and switches, but there are also endless streams of enemies that can’t be stopped. Half of the glory of Gauntlet is clearing out an area, and that’s now ruined at times by what seems like a half-assed attempt to make the game harder. Dodgy refinements aside, this is still Gauntlet, and there’s enough gameplay to keep the grunt-squashing fast and fairly entertaining.
Each of the four characters has three basic attacks: one fast, one powerful, and one that launches enemies for air-juggling. By collecting gold, you’ll be able to buy several combos and moves at the end of each stage. Some create area effects such as fire damage and blindness, some break through enemy defenses, and others let you attack enemies after you’ve knocked them to the ground. You’ll also be able to buy magic attacks that use a portion of your mana, which slowly refills as you play. These are usually flashy gang-rape-breaking blasts that come in handy in tight spots and are conveniently assigned to the D-pad. Rounding out the move list, everyone has a projectile attack for long-distance kills, a block and counterattack that never seems too useful, a powerful mana blast for dealing with Death, and an interesting multi-directional attack on the right analog stick. With all these attacks, it’s possible to string together huge combos, as the moves flow smoothly into one another; but in the end, it boils down to repetitive hack ‘n’ slash button-mashing.
Fortunately, the game presents a surprising array of visual variety to hold your interest, and runs smoothly even with huge swarms of enemies onscreen. While some of the sights are typical fantasy fare like enchanted forests and medieval towns, there’s also a sunken Asian city, a besieged Romanesque empire, and precarious dungeons loaded with traps. Each also has at least one graphical flourish, such as grassy rice paddies, giant looming architecture, or hillsides covered in long grasses.
Ditching even the most basic of RPG elements, treasure chests looking conspicuously like the Ark of the Covenant are hidden around the stages. Serving the visuals more than the gameplay, each chest upgrades your character’s armor and weapon, ensuring that even the sight of your avatar changes periodically. That said, it’s still easy to lose track of your character amidst the waves of lookalike bandits, trolls, and armored soldiers.
The audio also does little to stand out. You’ll hear weapon clashing effects at least a billion times along with thousands of generic grunts and groans, all backed up by an uninspired, lost-in-the-mayhem soundtrack. What little voice acting there is comes off well enough in cutscenes, but even the classic “[Color] [Class] needs food, badly” lines grow old quickly.
Alone, Seven Sorrows grows tiresome and tedious; like previous installments, multiplayer is where it’s at. Dragging three friends together, guffawing your way through the game, and fighting over gold and food makes the mediocre experience more enjoyable. A jump-in feature allows players to join a game in progress, and online play is supported for both PS2 and Xbox. But to be honest, if you wait too long to jump in, you’ll probably miss most of the game. With two friends in tow, we beat the game in less than four hours, and with no unlockable extras and a shallow RPG system for expanding your basic stats, there’s not a single worthwhile reason to revisit the game.
For all the effort put forth to rework and refine the Gauntlet formula, there just isn’t enough here to suggest anything more than a rental, and only if you’ve got a discount coupon.