If Monster Hunter were free-to-play it’d look a lot like this.
If you stripped Monster Hunter down to its core components and redesigned it as a free-to-play (but not pay-to-win), online-only game, you’d get something very close to Dauntless. It takes most of the best parts of Capcom’s iconic franchise and redeploys them in a way that’s accessible and fun with a whole lot less baggage. While it can lack the depth that arises from that complexity, Dauntless’s streamlined approach offers something else that more than makes up for it.
The hook is simple: you’re a slayer, and you slay big, nasty monsters called behemoths. That’s it – slaying is basically all you do. The lack of a real story beyond inconsequential blocks of text at the beginning and end of missions that foster little empathy was a bummer at first, but I quickly forgot about it. Then again, storytelling has never been the selling point in other games in this genre (such as Monster Hunter itself or God Eater) so it’s hard to say I miss it very much. Instead of being a source of lore-heavy dialogue, every NPC in Dauntless is either a vendor or questgiver in the hub town, so when you’re not customizing things in menus you’re out in the wild chopping off tails, dodging fireballs, and slaying enormous beasts. It’s very focused.
Dauntless is all about constant progression. Every monster you kill nets you a bunch of crafting materials like hides and feathers and scales that are used back in town to craft weapons and armor based on those very same monsters. You need to harvest fire-based creatures to craft fiery weapons that will help you take down ice monsters, and you need to harvest the ice monsters to make armor good enough to withstand the ice-based attacks of even stronger ones. Every enemy has a clear strength and weakness so you can intuitively craft the right equipment for any given situation, which then feeds back into the “hunt, craft, repeat” loop for the next fight. There isn’t a very wide variety of activities to do, but the moment-to-moment gameplay is so excellent.
It’s a progression system that rewards commitment.
Beyond crafting better equipment, there are Mastery levels as a form of progression. The more you use a type of weapon or slay a type of beast the higher your Mastery rank increases in that specific field. The higher your mastery level is the better gear you can make, the better upgrades you can unlock, and so on. It’s a system that rewards commitment and, refreshingly, it doesn’t punish you for not spending money on Dauntless’ optional (and primarily cosmetic) microtransactions.
Each of Dauntless’ six weapon types feel unique and powerful, with slots for items called cells that you can use to upgrade and customize them to your tastes. The sword is nice and balanced as a good entry weapon, but the flashiness of the war pike makes it an exciting one to wield for extended combos. The only dual-wielding melee option, the chain blades, are extremely fast and efficient, whereas the repeaters offer a mid-ranged handgun style to mix things up. Hammers are the slowest of the bunch but inflict huge damage and the axe is somewhere between the sword and hammer as a massive bladed weapon that’s fine-tuned for slicing and dicing.
Of all the weapon types my favorite was the war pike because it felt the most unique compared to what I’ve tried in other monster hunting games over the years. It’s got good range for a melee weapon and can attack either very quickly to build up your special meter or slowly for strong slashing attacks to break off monster parts. It’s combos and combat style are the most nuanced and tricky of the weapon options, but it feels great once you get the hang of it. It also just looks really cool to use thanks to all its spinning and visual effects.
Dauntless’s monster designs are often a mix between fantastical creatures and more grounded, real-world animals – like the Embermane, which looks like a rhino and lion merged together, or the Shrike, which looks a whole lot like an Owlbear from Dungeons & Dragons. While not quite as other-worldly as the bombastic beasts from God Eater, nor as realistically designed as Monster Hunter’s dinosaur-esque creatures, Dauntless has a striking style all its own that really grew on me over time. The bright, contrasting color palette is easy on the eyes and each behemoth has a lot of personality. The boar-like Quillshot has a habit of lunging sideways to try and stab you with the spikes on its back that kept me on my toes, and the surprising speed of the terrifying and fiery Hellion always caught me off guard.
It’s got a great rhythm of planning and execution in each fight.
Learning attack patterns and perfecting your dodge roll is just as important as knowing your weapon combos. When you dodge you’re invulnerable for a brief time, so you can actually roll towards and through enemies mid-fight. But since so many weapons are huge with deliberate wind-ups, timing things so that you don’t get stuck in an attack animation right as a behemoth is barrelling towards you is paramount. It’s got a great rhythm of planning and execution in each fight.
The often slow-paced and methodical build-up of a big expedition in Monster Hunter is a key part of its charm, but Dauntless trades all of those extra layers for something much smoother and more accessible. A lot of the fluff is gone so you don’t need to cook meat out on a hunt, lay down traps, track creatures, or spend time staring at loading screens between map zones. Instead, you’re just dropped into one of three fairly straightforward types of biomes (either temperate, frozen, or arid) and have to go find the monster. Part of me missed doing other things due to how empty some of the environments feel if you don’t find the monster right away, but it’s a worthy trade-off to make hunts easier to enjoy overall.
Whenever I logged into Dauntless (assuming I wasn’t stuck in one of the hour-long queues that accompanied its launch week but have thankfully mostly been resolved) I’d often jump right into matchmaking for a hunt in under a minute. Most hunts last less than 10 minutes and then you’re right back to the hub to quickly craft before going out again. Hardcore Monster Hunter fans will likely miss the complications they’ve grown to love such as tracking monsters, capturing them, and exploring multiple zones across each hunt to find the right beast in the wild. But having a more streamlined experience removed a ton of the friction that would otherwise slow me down, which made enjoying the genre that much easier.
Technically you can play Dauntless privately without matchmaking, but you’ll still need to be online and I wouldn’t recommend it anyway. If you get downed or die during a hunt at all (which is much more likely while playing solo) then your rewards are dramatically reduced, and other than torturing yourself with artificially inflated difficulty that makes every fight take three times as long there’s nothing to gain. Plus, multiplayer is a blast. Working together to slay a behemoth is much more personally rewarding, and between the variety of weapons and armor plus colored dyes it’s nearly impossible to see two players that look the same.