Hammerwatch Review - Bringing It Back To Basics
Deveoper/Publisher: Jochum Skoglund and Niklas Myrberg
Genre: Hack 'n Slash
Players: 1-4 (Online and Local Co-op)
What can be said about Hammerwatch that hasn’t already been said? Well, quite a lot, actually, but I need some way to open up this review…
Hammerwatch is a modern take on the dungeon diving hack and slash games of old. Though I say modern, that really only applies in the sense that they took a very old school take on the genre, applied features which the developers of yesteryear wish they had at their disposal and created something which aims to perfect the beloved formula. At its heart, Hammerwatch is still very much a classic game brought a bit up to date to better fit modern gaming conventions. Though a game cannot succeed solely on its nostalgia factor, so what does Hammerwatch really do pull you in?
For starts, it offers a combat system which, at first, is incredibly satisfying and remains simple throughout the entire game. Hearing what you have so far about Hammerwatch, you’d probably assume right away that what you’re going to get is a game which simply steals the combat mechanics from classic titles like Gauntlet and tweaks them a bit. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong in that regard, but what you ARE getting is a re-skinned package which comes pretty damn close to perfecting the formula.
Let’s take it to the beginning, however, with the set up screen. From here we choose the difficulty, add any modifiers which can either make the game easier or significantly more difficult and, of course, the character we’ll be using for our adventure. We’re given the choice of four characters, each with their own unique attacks and powers…
Paladin – This little guy starts off with a simple melee attack with a wide arc as well as dash attack, making quick work of enemies.
Mage – Our Mage likes to cast fireballs, quickly wiping out groups of enemies on account of its splash damage. He also gets a spell akin to that of a flamethrower.
Ranger – This one comes with a very quick, very long range arrow attack that does a bit less damage than other primary attacks. Legend of Zelda works its way into the mix with this one in the form of a drop 'n run bomb attack.
Warlock – Unlike the Paladin, the Warlocks melee attack has no arc and is instead just 'hit whatever is directly in front of you' kind of weapon, though they have my personal favorite of the special attacks; a bolt of lightning which arcs to surrounding enemies.
Every class is upgradable, though not in the way that you might first imagine. Rather than earning EXP through kills or completing objectives, what seems like nearly every wall in the game is lined with crates, pots and barrels which drop varying amounts of gold once they are destroyed. This gold, which can also be found just lying around, is then used at vendors, each of which specializes in a certain area. Most of these upgrades are class specific, such as the Rangers upgraded arrow penetration, but some are universal. The vendors are usually spread throughout the levels and provide increasingly powerful upgrades the deeper you go. There are even some new abilities to unlock!
As previously stated, the combat in and of itself is far from complex. As you’ll no doubt notice, the game is played from an isometric perspective. This allows you, the player, to move and attack in all directions with equal ease. The attacks themselves don’t require very much effort to perform; you just turn in whatever direction and press the button. Simple.
This simplicity ultimately becomes to the downfall of Hammerwatchs combat, however. Now, you might be saying to yourself, “How can the combat turn out to be ‘bad’ when you've already said that it was nearly perfected!?” Well, the answer to that is simple; they perfected a formula which becomes tedious by its very nature. It’s certainly not ‘bad’, but after a couple of hours you’ll realize that the combat will involve little more than simply kiting the enemy around a corner and then picking them off as they come along. You can stay and fight like a man, so to speak, but the tedium doesn’t end there. It simply becomes tedious in a different way, having to dodge shots while also trying to attack. This wouldn't be much of an issue if the enemies themselves weren’t so numerous.
Speaking of enemies, there isn’t much variety to be had there either. Though the four levels (they’re all rather lengthy, so don’t let that number turn you off) all offer different enemies, most are little more than stronger, faster, re-skinned versions of previously encountered enemies. These enemies are all found within groups, lying dormant until you either attack them from afar or come close enough to wake them up. The tedium of combat could have been fixed in a pretty big way had there just been more enemy variety.
Combat as a whole isn’t the only area where Hammerwatch falls a bit short, unfortunately. Before we get into that bit of it, however, it’s not a bad idea to give an overview of how it works.
Throughout the levels are keys represented by different kinds of metals (copper, silver and gold) which can be used on their corresponding doors. While copper, and sometimes silver, keys are mostly used to reach areas with some extra loot, silver and gold keys are used to reach areas which are necessary to continue the game. While these levels may not be labyrinthine in nature, they become adequately expansive and complex to the point that they can seem that way to some people.
Keys and the doors that they unlock may play a vital role, but they are not the only thing found within these levels. Scattered throughout are traps, secrets and well-designed puzzles, some of which require completion to continue the game or otherwise reward you in some way for working past them. The secrets in particular are well hidden and hunting for them provides a good bit of fun.
Once you finally work your way past the traps, puzzles and countless enemies, the only hurdle remaining is the boss. The bosses are usually just normal enemies on steroids, such as The Queen of the first act or The Knight of the second act. The tedium of normal combat is immediately broken once you enter a boss area, mainly because the difficulty is cranked up to eleven. It’s not necessarily difficult to land a hit on the bosses since they don’t rely on a pattern of vulnerability, but the real challenge lies in their own attacks. Some of these attacks are near impossible to dodge and when they land they’re going to hurt. Thankfully there is a vendor found before each boss room which can sell you different potions and even extra lives, making the whole process a tad bit easier.
While all of these levels are carefully designed and well put together, even fun to explore your first time through, Hammerwatch could have most certainly come to benefit from some kind of procedural generation. Subsequent playthroughs, which are encouraged since all of the characters are fun to use, are tedious and actually reach the point of being boring at times. It's harder to reach a level of design that Hammerwatch provides if you use procedural generation, but it would have cut the tedium of the whole process in half.
In addition to the single player experience, there is also a multiplayer component which involves either playing through the normal campaign or through a kind of tower defense where you are the 'towers'. There isn't very much to say about it beyond that since it's very much the same thing, but most things are more enjoyable when playing with a couple of friends, so it might be worth running through it with a buddy.
You probably noticed that the word 'tedious' and 'tedium' was thrown around an awful lot there. Unfortunately, if you had to sum up Hammerwatch in one word, it would be 'tedious'. It's a very competent game, achieves everything that it sets out to achieve, and for the first 3 or 4 hours provides a great amount of fun. It's even pretty to look at! None of this changes the fact, however, that getting through can be a very tedious process for people who aren't instantly enamored by it. Playing it with friends can be really fun, and I'd actually recommend that you do so. With that being said...