The final game I got to go hands-on with at PAX East 2017 was Dauntless, the upcoming co-op action RPG from Phoenix Labs. Dauntless only debuted at PAX South in January, so this was the first time that Co-Optimus was able to get a good look at the game.
Prior to my hands-on demo of the game, I had the chance to sit down with Phoenix Labs President and Co-Founder, Jesse Houston. Phoenix Labs was founded in 2014 and is composed of 40 close-knit developers who have career histories together. Many of these devs have had previous positions are big name studios like Riot, Bioware, and Blizzard, so this certainly isn’t their first rodeo.
Jesse described Dauntless as a Monster Hunter-like experience for PC that is “unapologetically co-op.” By this he means that while the game technically supports a solo experience, the game is designed to be played and enjoyed with friends (much like the Borderlands series). The game will have a Destiny-style hub (a Central City Island) where players can craft, customize their gear, and engage in matchmaking. From there, players will embark on missions, which are intended for a 4-player experience (specifically “balanced for 3.5 players,” as Jesse told me). If you have less than 4 players, however, the missions will scale down in difficulty.
This missions will take place on individually-crafted islands, which are the home to hand-created monsters. Jesse explained to me that Phoenix Labs has found that procedurally-generated content can often lend itself to everything looking the same, or everything looking random. They want to ensure that all the creatures and the islands in Dauntless look polished and distinguishable from each other. Instead, the variety will come from other sources. One such source is the monster AI which will be procedural. Monsters will be equipped with kits that will tell them to react certain ways depending on their current terrain. So fighting an Owlbear on the beach will be different than fighting an Owlbear in a forest. The second way Phoenix Labs is planning to keep things fresh is with an Island rotation. They’re still figuring out the details, but Jesse envisions they might have 6-10 islands in a timed rotation for players to hunt on. After the week (or whatever time unit they choose) is up, a new 6-10 islands will be rotated in.
One of the things that really sets Dauntless apart from other co-op action games is how the character progression works. When making a character in Dauntless, players will be able to pick from Monster Hunter-style classes that will predominantly be determined by weapon. Character progression will be crafting-based, with your equipped gear, weapons, and airships determining your skills. For example, a gear set might grant a new skill as a full-set bonus. This might be a good place to segue into my time with the game.
I was put into a 4-player demo of the game with three other people who had been waiting in line to try out the game. At the beginning, we were asked to pick from one of four character classes which were defined by their weapon: two-handed hammer, two-handed sword, two-handed axe, or dual swords. Our party consisted of one two-handed swordswoman, one axeman, and two dual swordmasters.
We were dropped into one of the islands with tranquil fields and forests. We picked a direction and set off, getting our bearings on the controls. After a minute or two of running around, we came across an Owlbear, which was clearly our target. Much like a Monster Hunter or Dark Souls game, we spend a good amount of time figuring out the monster’s kit. He had different attacks (e.g. a charge, a cleave, a ranged wind strike from his wings) and different modes (e.g. a raged/berserk mode where he glowed bright red for a period of time). He even flew away a couple of times and we had to go hunt him down again. Each of our characters were equipped with a limited amount of potions, but as the fight raged on, we began to wane on our supply. People began to get periodically downed, but were brought back to their feet again by a helpful teammate. Our characters also each had a special skill that charged up with our normal attacks and could be unleashed on the Owlbear. Through coordination and persistence, we eventually brought the monster down and the demo ended.
I came away from the demo feeling like Dauntless has a lot of potential. I really embrace the idea of what they’re going for (i.e. co-op monster-hunting on PC) and really like the art direction. Since it was a pre-alpha, some things were understandably rough. For example, the controls and animations could use a little smoothing out in order for them to feel a bit more natural and responsive, but I feel fairly sure that will be addressed during continued development. I’m looking forward to seeing how the game continues to grow and change over the year and I’m really hoping that it will be a gem that I want to sink countless hours into with my friends.
Dauntless is currently in pre-alpha with an open beta planned for Fall 2017. Not only will it be bringing co-op monster-hunting to the PC (a rare combination), it will be doing it with a Free-to-Play model. Jesse emphasized that it will not be a “pay-for-power” model and microtransactions will instead focus on cosmetic personalization and dye.