Raven Software's MageSlayer is a homage to top-down action games, specifically Atari's Gauntlet. In "single slayer" mode you assume the role of one of four assassins, attempting to prevent Lore Thanes from ruining your plans to attend the college or university of your choice. To accomplish this, your MageSlayer hacks and spell-casts through five stages of maze-like levels, each with its own set of monsters. Hackneyed plot aside, MageSlayer is a glowing, well-rendered, well-planned, and well-implemented trounce through dungeons, sewers, rivers of death, lava pits, and monster rooms. The gratuitous gore will leave parental advisory groups nonplussed, as dungeons are ripe with carrion and replete with blood. Bodies fly apart in full 3Dfx or vanilla display, walking on or shooting dead flesh makes squishy sounds, and in some rooms off-screen light sources cast shadows - gross distortions of monsters over the character. The game is just plain scary.
The conceptual inventiveness is the strong point of the game. Character classes are dark extensions of fantasy archetypes, whose abilities cohere to the game's morally ambiguous theme. Nowhere is light versus dark or good versus evil mentioned as a motivation; instead, inquisitors take the place of clerics and archdemons of warriors in an attempt to prevent one bad apple of a mage from ruling all. The monsters and bosses are of a more standard ilk (giant spiders, rats, a frost giant, and so forth) but even the lowliest of worms and small rats will unexpectedly bite a character from behind, forcing him over a precipice or into a trap. The better endowed opponents have some nifty AI: Some will hide, some will bait you into an ambush or trap, most will attempt to flank when attacking in numbers, and spell casters will fight behind their melee counterparts for their own defense, creating a challenging combat system.
MageSlayer contains a few specific references to its obvious inspiration, Gauntlet. Many of the levels have monster generators, which characters must destroy, else be destroyed. There's a secret level called Run the Gauntlet. There's even a magic gold skull that transforms the finder into Death from Gauntlet incarnate. Sure, lots of games have an item that gives you some form of limited invincibility, but none are this fun. Better still is the way Raven has tied the locations of the various magic items to riddles embedded in the titles of certain levels.
The game lacks the variety of tricks, traps, and monsters needed to put it over the top. Each level has four or five monster types, but they attack much like the monsters from previous levels, only wearing different costumes. You'll soon find yourself wishing a more diverse crowd were pursuing you. That's not to say that the more difficult of the three levels of play aren't challenging, they are. But they failed to get me in the gut. The subdued soundtrack, infrequent lockups, and frustrating Direct X 5 installation subtract from the otherwise superior coding of the game's engine. But fans of Gauntlet will find it a blast, especially with its excellent multiplayer options.