When the original Gauntlet debuted in 1985, it became an instant hit in arcades, revolutionizing multiplayer gaming. Gauntlet was among the first games to offer a simultaneous four-player action experience, and its quarter-munching records were considerable. Several sequels have been spawned by the original, including Gauntlet II, which saw the addition of dragons but didn't really mess with the original game's formula too much. Gauntlet Legends took the series into 3D, and Gauntlet Dark Legacy is an upgraded version of Legends. This 3D incarnation has appeared on several different consoles in both Legends and Dark Legacy forms with varying degrees of mediocrity. The Xbox version of Gauntlet Dark Legacy doesn't buck this trend--it provides a passable four-player experience, but the game's extremely dated appearance and poor performance keep it from competing with other four-player Xbox games.
The game's storyline, while almost completely unnecessary, places you in the role of one of a series of heroes who are destined to rid the land of an evil mage named Garm and his demonic summonings so that his brother, the rightful ruler of the land and your wizardly benefactor, Sumner, can return to power. Up to four characters must travel through eight different lands and several hidden areas to collect the powerful artifacts, rune stones, and gems that lead to a final boss battle with Garm himself.
Each of the eight different characters available at the outset has his or her own particular advantages and disadvantages. The warrior and dwarf classes are easily the strongest melee fighters, and they're able to turn junk into valuable treasures when they reach a high level, but they're cursed with pathetic magical capabilities. The knight and valkyrie are the heavily armored pair, and as such are able to withstand more punishment, and they can nullify the effects of traps when they reach a high level. The jester and archer are extremely fast, and they benefit from an efficient rate of fire with their bombs and arrows, respectively. Later in the game, they can reveal hidden passages. The arcane sorceress and wizard characters make best use of the game's magic, and at a high level they can transform poisoned food into its more edible counterpart. Each character's weaknesses can be lessened by raising his or her statistics at the tower's store, where treasure can be traded in for statistic augmentations. Characters also gain experience points and levels as they fight, improving their abilities along a relatively linear curve, enhancing their strong points quickly and their weaker points slowly. The action, which basically boils down to you hammering on the attack button for hours at a time (or simply walking into enemies, which executes your attack animation), gets extremely repetitive and is broken up only by brief bonus areas (which let you unlock hidden characters by picking up coins in a classically themed Gauntlet maze) or the amusing and fairly challenging boss battles. Some of the boss enemies will be familiar to veterans of Gauntlet Legends, such as the laughably crude dragon, but others will be new to those who haven't played the Dark Legacy version of the game, such as the Liche.
Gauntlet Dark Legacy's gameplay is fairly intuitive. Each character is able to pull off weak and strong attacks, use magic, and execute other maneuvers such as strafing, blocking, and using turbo. Each character also has a ranged attack in the form of a projectile like an arrow or the ability to throw his or her melee weapon. When in melee combat, each character can pull off a variety of combos that are useful for dealing with crowds of enemies. Magic, as in the original Gauntlet, comes in the form of potions, now color-coded to signify what type of magic they release. These potions can be consumed to provide an elemental shield or thrown for offensive effect. There are also a great variety of power-ups that are activated with the controller's D-pad, although fairly unintuitively. Characters can find weapon augmentations, antideath abilities, and even a power-up that transforms them into a fire-breathing chicken.
While the single-player mode is long enough to provide for lengthy solo play sessions, the strength of Dark Legacy is its multiplayer capabilities. Up to four players can join the game, each using an individual character and thus covering for each other's weaknesses. Playing Gauntlet with four players is really the only way to go, because it's the human interaction element that makes this type of bland hack-and-slash affair playable. You can go through the dozens of levels various times to accumulate treasure, fight bosses for experience, and max out one of the eight starting characters, or to try out the bonus characters once they've been unlocked. In essence, there's plenty to do, and there's always more for players to discover.
Sadly, while this version of Gauntlet Dark Legacy features all the secrets, characters, and levels of the arcade version, it falls way short of current console standards in terms of graphics and sound. While the Xbox version doesn't suffer from the same stuttering frame rate of the GameCube version--it performs slightly better with four players onscreen and looks somewhat sharper--there is little noticeable improvement in this version to set it apart from the bevy of Gauntlet titles that have been released in the past few years. The environments, character models, and effects in the game seem downright primitive considering the system's capabilities, and the grainy, low-resolution look of the game betrays the fact that it was developed during the time when the archaic Voodoo 3dFX technology was state of the art. Nothing that you'll find in Gauntlet: Dark Legacy is visually impressive enough to offset the game's weak animation routines, flat-shaded backgrounds, and poor use of lighting and particle effects.
Gauntlet Dark Legacy is equally bland from an audio standpoint. The yelps and cries of the various characters are adequately done, while the sounds of battle--consisting mostly of explosions and weapon clashes--are equally fair. The game's music and ambient sound are either poorly recorded or simply not emphasized throughout the game, although there are some fairly spooky exceptions. Many of the sounds heard, however, are grating or otherwise unappealing--to the point of making you want to turn down the volume. The traditional Gauntlet voice, whose wonderfully retro cries of, "Knight needs food badly!" and, "Red Knight has gained a level!" is as booming and abrasive as ever. Whether or not this is a good thing depends, of course, on each player's personal preference.
Ultimately, Gauntlet Dark Legacy is a dated game that has remained unchanged in this latest release, and it should only interest those entirely new to the series. If you've never played Gauntlet Legends or Dark Legacy, then you and three friends can conceivably have fun playing this simplistic, albeit sizable, game. Although with other, more modern, attractive, and original options on the immediate horizon for the Xbox, few players can justify picking this up. The message most clearly stated by Gauntlet Dark Legacy may be that Midway should concentrate on creating something new instead of releasing console ports of 4-year-old arcade technology.