Dauntless released in May 2019 and was met with a fair amount of success and fanfare. Taking inspiration from Capcom’s long running Monster Hunter series, Phoenix Labs was looking to take a piece of that pie by making it ‘Free to Play’, giving it a Fortnite-esque visual style to appeal to the masses. Seven months later and Switch users finally get to give this snoot-bopping, behemoth bashing game a whirl.
You begin by watching a fairly brief cutscene showing the world getting ‘sploded and the fragments of the earth becoming floating islands that humanity is trying to colonise. Lo and behold, the gravity defying slices of the old world are infested with a menagerie of monsters. It is down to hunters, of which you are one, to quell their population, harvest their spikey bits, create elaborately designed coats and beatsticks in order to kill ever bigger foes. Simple, quick and to the point.
Hopping into your first assignment really highlights all of Dauntless’ strengths and weaknesses in a teeny tiny, bite sized package. For one, the game looks rough. There is a fair amount of texture pop in, there are jaggies everywhere (even the HUD!) and the lighting is quite weak, leaving everything looking a little bit drab. Luckily the art style itself holds up quite well. Character models, enemy designs and the cartoony aesthetic shine through the weaker elements of the presentation and help balance it around the middling mark.
Unfortunately, even with the fairly significant graphical downgrade, Dauntless does not run smoothly on Switch. Frequent frame drops and freezes leaves the game feeling incredibly jerky at times, with these issues being exacerbated when the behemoths grow in size. We cannot possibly talk about a recent Switch release without touching on ‘Handheld’ performance., All of these issues are present on the dinky screen. In fact, they are noticeably worse. Presentation takes a massive dip becoming so blurry that it legitimately made me feel a bit sick when in motion. It is like the whole game, your eyes and your switch is smothered in Vaseline. It is just not a pleasant experience, so keep to docked.
Normally a game plagued with this many technical problems would be almost irredeemable, but Dauntless does manage to pull several golden rabbits out it’s hat. Dauntless is incredibly fun to play. Simple as that. Fighting the bevy of brutish behemoths on offer is challenging, satisfying and thrilling in equal measure. This is in part due to your foes having a wide range of unique attacks that require knowledge, skill and timing to overcome. The real star on show here is the combat system however. Your attacks are fast and fluid making combat feel exhilarating, almost ‘hack n’ slash’. However your moves cannot be cancelled mid swing, making every attack a dedicated assault that could backfire should you mess up your opening. As you rip into your foe, they come visibly damaged with broken scales, scars and even severed tails. You feel like every attack has impact and regardless of how the game runs, it manages to convey exactly what made Dauntless so appealing on its initial launch.
Your options in combat are vast, with a large selection of weapon types to choose from. These can be swords, pistols, rocket-launching pikes or even shotgun hammers to name a few. Each weapon has a unique list of combos and special abilities helping define their differing playstyles. Further adding to the depth is how each weapon interacts in combat. Blunt weapons like the hammer cannot severe tails, but can stun enemies by bonking them on the bonce. War Pikes can shoot down a swooping avian foe, and blades weapons can naturally snip off any stray tails that may be in your way. The weapons your team takes into a fight will greatly determine how effective you are at slaying your target. No one weapon is good against every foe, so experimentation is encouraged.
Whilst the combat system has a fair amount of depth, this sort of game lives or dies by its crafting system. Injuring, breaking, maiming and killing a big dooda will reward you with a bunch of materials. Take these materials to a vendor and you can create a weapon or armour piece themed off that monster. Each item has an elemental property that gives you an advantage against different behemoths as well as a selection of perks to differentiate it from other items of the same element. Perks can radically change how your character plays so combining and stacking specific perks that fit your build, or the challenge you are trying to overcome, is essential as you progress through the game. Adding to this depth is the ‘Cell’ system, which allows you to add additional perks to your equipment, allowing you to fine tune and tweak to your hearts content.
Dauntless is not afraid to drop you into the thick of it, whilst also being cautious about giving you too many options early on. You are given the vast amount of the weapon types from the get go, with the more complex ones being locked behind early quests. It will gradually roll out new systems as you progress, but I never felt like my hand was being held, only that more layers were being unveiled at a healthy pace.
Being an always online game, you would hope Dauntless would have fairly stable servers. Luckily it does, and even goes one step further by having rock solid match making. Due to the wonders of Cross Platform, you have an incredibly vast pool of players to hunt with. This means you can jump into a game with a full party in around 20 seconds or less. Cross Platform also means you can play with your friends no matter the platform they are playing on, making this an incredibly social experience. Unsurprisingly, playing with 3 friends is by far the best way to experience the game, so grab a few and kill some dudes. If you have no friends (like me), then you can still enjoy the game with randoms.
As I get older, the more I dislike the predatory nature of ‘Free-to-Play’ games. Thankfully Dauntless has adopted the least agregious method of monetisation – the ‘Battle Pass’. Pay some money every now and then to unlock a bunch of cosmetic goodies, or don’t and play the game for free. Heck, you even get a few goodies for free. You can also purchase additional cosmetics in the store, but they are not really required. Heck, I would argue that they defeat the point of wearing the corpse of your enemies as a pair of boots. If Dauntless had to be Free-to-Play, I can’t imagine a better way they could have implemented their store.
Dauntless is an undeniably flawed game on the Nintendo Switch. It’s presentation and performance leave a lot to be desired, which could put many people off. However, these issues are somewhat covered up by a host of satisfying mechanics. As a free game, this has the potential to be one of the best on the system, providing Phoenix Labs manage to get the game running a bit smoother. Until then, you still have a very good game worth playing.