The following statement may be sacrilege to some, but over the last few years I’ve had great fun doing co-op Dark Souls. While there’s a sense of achievement going it alone, I really believe there’s nothing quite like sharing the experience with a friend. Be it the exhilaration of defeating a boss and/or murderous invader, or jumping in to save the other from being slain, there’s something about the combat mechanics that really works with other players. And yet there aren’t any other games that offer such an experience. It’s why when Phoenix Labs revealed that their upcoming title, Dauntless, was a mash-up of Dark Souls’ combat with Monster Hunter’s enemies and progression, my interest was well and truly piqued.

For those that don’t know, Dauntless sends up to four players to a floating island to track down and slay Behemoths – gigantic creatures with unique and powerful move sets. It’s up to the players to bring them down, gathering resources from their kills with which to upgrade their gear. From there, it’s on to more challenging foes as the cycle begins anew.

Of course, that’s very much an oversimplification, because taking down some of the later behemoths requires timing, patience, and your fellow slayers to have your back. Thankfully players have the tools to take them down – the nimble Chain Blades, that allow quick assaults and disengagements; the punishing Axe, that can be charged up for devastating blows; the all-purpose Sword, that possesses a fine balance of damage and mobility; and the explosive Hammer, that combines a giant maul with a shotgun.

Which is as awesome as it sounds, I assure you.

Phoenix Labs have done a great job in making each weapon distinct, filling specific roles when taking down a behemoth. For example, Axes may offer the best damage, but they are slow and vulnerable as the strike charges up. So it’s up to the Chain Blade and Sword users to keep the behemoth busy until the Axe comes down. Unfortunately, landing those hits isn’t as simple as you might think, as much like in Dark Souls players need to judge the swing of their weapons and the time it takes to hit the target. Spamming attacks won’t work, either, as combo sequences are key to unleashing a world of hurt. There aren’t many combos to learn for each weapon, admittedly, but knowing when to use the right one is half the battle. The other half is knowing that behemoths won’t just sit there and take a beating. They’ll fight back, and will often switch target at a moment’s notice.

This is where dodging comes into play. Well-timed evasion can avoid devastating hits, but limited stamina means players can’t roll away forever. In fact, some attacks require stamina to engage, as does sprinting. All these different factors mean that players need to think about when to go all in, or if they need to keep something back just in case. This is the heart of what makes the combat of Dauntless so action packed and constantly engaging, even when you’re fighting a Gnasher – a giant, angry beaver – for the umpteenth time.

And fight the same behemoths repeatedly, you will. Although there are quests given to the player in the main hub of Ramsgate that gate progression, the main reason is upgrading gear. Each Behemoth drops items that can be used to craft armour sets and weapons that take on their characteristics. For example, gear made from the loot of a Shrike – giant ferocious Owlbears – will grant power and speed, while Embermanes – tiger-wolves on fire, basically – will drop items that will grant fire resistance armour and fire damage weapons.

Slaying the beasts won’t be enough, though. To get the rarest items players will need to target specific parts of their quarry, injuring legs, breaking beaks, and even severing tails. This is probably my favourite aspect of Dauntless, as doing so requires practice, teamwork, and a whole bunch of skill. There’s also nothing better than landing that critical hit, sending the behemoth skidding to the ground.

Which provides a handy segue to briefly discuss the animations and visuals as a whole. There’s something about how Phoenix Labs have given every movement a true sense of weight. Be it the swing of a weapon, the over-exaggerated way players fly into the air after being hit, or (once you’ve figured out how to do it) interrupting a behemoth’s attack and stunning them. It’s a testament to the animator’s skills to bring such a vibrant art style to life.

In fact, the first time I loaded into a hunt I spent a good few minutes just gawking at the environment – watching how the trees swayed in the wind, and the way water trickled down the rocky brooks. Even in the desert and tundra environments that appear further down the line, there’s a care and attention that’s highly impressive. The same can be said for the various weapon and armour designs currently in the game, which as I pointed out earlier capture the essence of their associated behemoths. Best of all, players can alter the colour schemes of their armour to make them stand out in the crowd or just look fabulous while slaying (a phrase I realise has more than one way of being read, and both are correct in this instance.)

Unfortunately, the praise needs to end sometime, as I go into what is perhaps my biggest concern for Dauntless right now – repetition of content. Right now there are seven behemoths in the game, and each one attacks in different ways. However, despite there being high-tier variants that add new attacks (or throw elemental damage to existing moves) the problem lies in its how it handles loot drops.

Or, if I’m being rather specific, how the RNG handles loot drops.

We’ve already mentioned how slayers much break parts of the behemoths to get rare drops, but the bulk of crafting recipes rely on what’s inside Aether Cores – the “loot chests” players get upon completing a hunt. Common, Uncommon, Rare and Epic can be won, but it’s down to the RNG gods to decide if you’re worthy. This is initially fine, as the first few tiers of equipment don’t require anything fancy, but the further up you go it starts requiring items only found in Rare or Epic cores.

This is where the problem kicks in. I must have run 10+ Embermane hunts in a row last week, and all of them were common despite my performance (something we’ll get on to shortly.) This is no doubt to offset the fact the game will be Free To Play, but considering all the paid options will be cosmetic it’s curious that the grind can be so punishing. It’s important to note that this opinion comes from the Alpha build – drop rates can and will be tweaked – but it’s still a concern that Phoenix Labs need to consider now that they are taking money for their work.

There is one aspect that could keep players interested during the grind, though, and that’s the post-hunt score. Ranging from S+ all the way down to E, players are graded on their performance at the end based on their damage, evasion, and if they used healing items. The team is also given an average score, all of which could have groups looking to prove they are the best returning again and again. Sadly, there isn’t any sort of in-game leaderboard for best scores or fastest completion times, but I imagine such an addition could provide greater longevity than a gear grind ever could.

There have been other issues with the Alpha build that need fixing too (and hopefully have been addressed for the launch of today’s Closed Beta). The UI has been incredibly clunky, especially when switching between gear or handing in quests, which is a shame as you can see the slickness the developers are aiming for. Likewise, the friends list (and the ability to add anyone) needs fixing, as the current process of using /invite is too long-winded (and only explained within the official forums underneath copious threads, not in-game.)

Yet despite the perceived problems I have still enjoyed the Dauntless Alpha. The amount of content currently in the game may be lighter than expected, and the depth of combat (and lack of combos) may irk Monster Hunter fans, but I’m finding it the perfect drop-in co-op experience that reminds me of the epic encounters I’ve had in Dark Souls. Provided Phoenix Labs deliver a steady stream of new content – be it more challenging behemoths or brand new weapons (with word of a ranged weapon incoming) – all signs point to Dauntless being a Free-to-Play title worth investing your time in.

The Dauntless Closed Beta begins today at 8 pm BST for those who buy a Founders Pack from the official website. The Open Beta is expected to launch later this year.