Way back when Halo meant inefficient headwear, Gauntlet was the best bet for frantic multiplayer action. The franchise seemed to fall into a malaise in recent years, and sadly, counter to Midwayâ€™s hopes, the latest edition dubbed Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows doesnâ€™t do much to return the storied series to the spotlight. At least it makes a fitting titleâ€”for a game plagued by development ills, tons of axed features, and a walkout by gaming giant John Romero, this is one game that spreads its theme of sorrow straight to the player with repetitive gameplay, boring characters and a growing sense of doom in every level.
Seven Sorrows opens to the melancholy tale of the late Emperor, killed by his six advisors in a bid for supremacy of the land. As per their requests before his death, the Emperor had his four most loyal fighters, the revered immortals simply known as the Warrior, the Valkyrie, the Wizard and the Elf, killed: the first of his â€˜seven sorrows.â€™ After resuscitating the four as his last action, the Emperor now begs his warriors to do away with the six advisors so his ghost can rest in peace. Itâ€™s a neat setup, to be sure, but unfortunately not much is done with the tale besides positioning it in the playerâ€™s mind. The only glimpse at the narrative whole is done through 2D stills in between missions, giving off an interesting work-in-progress feel, but failing to progress behind simple potential.
If the story backfires, the chaotic action should carry a band of four gamers through till the end, right? Sadly, not in this case. Each of the four character types, Warrior, Valkyrie, Wizard and Elf share attacks that are suspiciously similar in effect and button presses, if not animation. All characters have the same control setup, with â€˜Aâ€™ and â€˜Xâ€™ performing radial and focused attacks, â€˜Yâ€™ a launch attack, and â€˜Bâ€™ a projectile. The black button unleashes a screen-filling mana attack that drains the mana bar, and the four d-pad directions activate smaller-scale magic attacks. Each character starts off with a paltry selection of moves, but thankfully more combos can be added to your arsenal by cashing in gold found throughout the levels. Crushing enemies builds up experience, which can be used to enhance your health, damage and mana regeneration skills, but you can buy all the purchasable skills not even halfway through the game, rendering gold completely useless later in the game.
Even with all moves unlocked, there isnâ€™t much to combat to keep it interesting. There are certainly different enemy types to encounter and battle, though none are very interesting or pose much variety in terms of attack strategies. Whatâ€™s more, foes almost always issue forth from green, glowing enemy generators, turning 95% of fights into generator-smashing fests. Co-op play is heavily promoted, since this is a Gauntlet game after all, yet there are no support attacks involving multiple players or any kind of gameplay wrinkle to keep players invested. Occasionally, Death himself will appear in a booby-trapped treasure chest, slowly draining your partyâ€™s health bar until someone launches the mega-mana attack to spirit him away. Weirdly enough, the voice-over that announces the Grim Reaper is performed so that the line â€œDeath has appearedâ€ sounds like â€œDeath has a beard,â€ for an added bizarre flavor.
Seven Sorrows accordingly fails to impress graphically, with decent enough visuals that merely do the job. Every so often thereâ€™ll be a visual hitch, with a texture or two spazzing in place as was common in the PS1 days, and the 2D health sprites that fallen enemies drop look low-grade and cheesy (yet one of these health icons is a slice of cheese, so that works out). The camera only has two modes, zoomed-in and zoomed-out, with the sacrifice being visual splendor for an accurate assessment of the battle area, with no in-between compromise available. Sure, there is an occasional pretty highlight, like one boss who breathes particle fire and bleeds magma, but the overall theme of Seven Sorrowsâ€™ visual scheme is staidly average.
Be prepared to bear some repetitive audio as well, since when your health drops below the mid-mark a grave voice proclaims â€œRed Wizard (or whatever character) needs food badly.â€ Somehow, instead of being a helpful indicator the booming orator just gets on your nerves after the 20-millionth wave of baddies descends onto your party.
Despite being woven into the narrative so centrally, boss battles also fail to feel epic, with hardly any strategy involved beyond â€˜strike, dodge, heal, repeat.â€™ This can be artificially toughened sometimes with spotty collision detection, and on one occasion I witnessed an enemy stuck running in an infinite loop, clearly fallen victim to a nasty glitch. Levels are no more than key hunts, enemy generators can be destroyed from a distance if you donâ€™t trigger the next waypoint, and boss-less stages come to abrupt ends, all elements contributing to a chintzy feel.
You can take Seven Sorrows online via Xbox Live, though the experience doesnâ€™t match up to four flesh and blood compatriots. Besides questionable network performance, you can only select 4 different â€˜mapsâ€™ to play, with each map set being a few levels from the story mode. Any players you might encounter online will most likely have high-level characters since you can import your fighters from the offline mode, but youâ€™ll likely have to ratchet the difficulty up a notch or two if you want anything smacking of a challenge.
With no real differentiating qualities other than a half-baked outline for what could have been an original take on the Gauntlet mythos, Seven Sorrows is purely a by-the-numbers exercise in keeping a franchise alive, albeit in questionable health. If you find yourself craving a dungeon-crawling, hack â€˜n slash adventure with a unique bent, pass up this problematic DVDâ€”donâ€™t add Seven Sorrows to your own.