Whilst waiting for Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows to load, I casually glanced at my desktop calendar, and somewhere in my subconscious the date – 13th March 2006 – was stored. After 20 minutes or so of playing Seven Sorrows, and somewhat bewildered, I checked the calendar once again, and then on the web to see if this game really had only just been released and wasn’t in actual fact something that was stuffed down the back of the sofa at Midway headquarters and only recently found. Sadly it wasn’t; this really has only just been made, and how those with fond memories of the original title (as well as fun in general) may well wish it hadn’t been.
You may gather from that intro that Seven Sorrows isn’t very good. And boy would you be right, but before the slating that it so richly deserves spews forth from my fingertips, let us at least pretend to be fair and balanced for those still sitting on the fence, and focus on what it’s all about.
Gauntlet originally appeared in our arcades around 20 years ago, and delivered some great fast-paced multiplayer action where your only objective was to find the exit on each maze-like level, whilst collecting keys and treasure along the way. The kicker to all this was that your health was constantly draining, so you had to not only be quick in locating the exit and treasure, but also try to find enough food to sustain you. It was the type of risk-and-reward system that compelled people to continually pump coins into it in pursuit of a higher score or reaching the next level – dare you ignore the exit in front of you and continue to search the current horde-infested level for that much-needed bit of chicken? Of course, such primitive gameplay doesn’t bring in the dollars like it used to and people want more. So, in theory, Seven Sorrows was to be an update of the classic Gauntlet formula, but with RPG elements, a good plot and expanded combat. In reality, it’s just plain old rubbish.
Plot-wise, a dead-Emperor’s ghost tells us of his woes. You see, it seems the foolish Emperor tried to steal the immortality of our four traditional Gauntlet heroes by imprisoning them, and was guided in this evil deed by his six advisors. However, the plan failed, the Emperor died and the advisors had free reign over the lands. And as is traditional in these situations, they didn’t fancy making the world a better place. After spending a fair chunk of time engulfed in self-pity, our ghostly Emperor frees the trapped heroes and tasks them with dealing with the advisors and making the world a happy place once more. Told through spoken dialogue between levels, the story never really hits any great heights in terms of presentation or impact, with everything feeling fairly flat and convoluted. Sadly, the story is probably the best thing about Seven Sorrows. Once in the game, any pretence of a story immediately disappears; it certainly isn’t a narrative-driven game, for once the voiced introduction to the level is over, it’s all about the killing – or maybe pulling a lever. And that’s it.
At least in terms of being faithful to the source material, it retains a similar level of simplicity, except that in 2006 that just isn’t enough. Each level consists of merely getting from A to B, and killing everything in between. You’ll run around the linear maps pressing the same attack button over and over again. Sure, you can buy combos with the gold you’ll acquire from the treasure chests adorning the landscape, but you won’t need to use them, as enemies are too stupid to use any kind of tactics that necessitate the use of a carefully considered attack, and are content to just run at you blindly. It just all feels so very hollow and reminds me of playing a Square-Enix RPG (Xenogears, anybody?), where swathes of text are swept away with a press of the X button. It’s like that, but without the payoff of seeing big robots shooting each other – devoid of a certain level of interactivity you expect.
True, there is the occasional puzzle to overcome or trap to avoid, but the level design is so crafted to ensure that you don’t stray (nor fail to see where to go) within a level. You won’t particularly care or mind that the ability to explore is reduced, either, for the environments you see and the enemies you kill are fairly average both in look and variety. Your ears won’t be overly taxed, either, for the lead characters are mute (apart from the occasional grunt and groan), so you’ll only be hearing the clash of weapons and footsteps for most of the game. Even the legendary announcer of the original title (whose lines have been brought back from the dead along with our heroes) sounds like he’d rather be somewhere else.
Of course, the meat of the game is the combat, and one-dimensional combat would be lessened somewhat if there was at least a degree of fluency to proceedings, however, this isn’t the case. Everything feels so stilted, and your chosen avatar has no style or grace when moving. In fact, for some reason the developers saw fit to include a bit of inertia into the characters’ make-up, as when you release the analogue stick you won’t stop immediately, but instead take a little jump forward before coming to a halt. This wouldn’t be a problem were it not that some sections have dangerous floor panels that need circumnavigating in order to reach a chest or switch, and this added little ‘hop’ can mean the difference between squeezing through a narrow gap or finding a spike shooting up between your legs. Not pleasant, and it adds needless frustration.
Also worthy of scorn are the criminally-described RPG elements. In an attempt to make you feel some level of achievement with your character, your hero will gain experience from each kill and eventually level up. Each level bestows 1 point which you can apply to damage, magic regeneration or health, although it all feels very arbitrary and you feel no sense of being more powerful or healthier. As already noted, you can also spend gold on combos, and whilst there is little reason to do so, you’ll certainly have enough money by the mid-point of the game to buy everything (not that there is a huge choice anyway). It’s just all so disappointing. And you’ll be frustrated by just how poor everything is. Challenge seems to come from gradually increasing the hordes of enemies that pour forth from the numerous generators dotted about the landscape, although you can use these respawning enemies to your advantage should you be so inclined to exploit the poor RPG mechanic, slaughtering everything until your levels are maxed-out.
Unfortunately there are no saving graces. Everything is bad; not just nearly bad, but really bad. Even playing with friends online (the saving grace of many a title), doesn’t save it. Indeed, you may even lose friends if you insist they play this through to completion. It seems that Midway has removed what made the arcade game such a hit in the first place – the risk/reward system. Gauntlet wouldn’t have worked if you had the luxury of strolling around a level; it prospered because you had to rush, fight over food and kill only those that needed to be killed. Not so with Seven Sorrows, where you must kill who you are told, but at your own pace, and food fights are irrelevant as enemies will drop food when killed. You’ll certainly experience a fair amount of sorrow should you buy it, so best advice would be to save yourself the agony of having another childhood memory being tarnished. Get the original Gauntlet from Xbox Live Marketplace for the 360 and play that in multiplayer instead. You know it’ll be for the best.