Christopher Scott reviews Hammerwatch, a game in which you dodge bullets while delving dungeons.
It's hard not to look back at the past with rose-colored glasses, thinking about how much more joy was had from games during those earlier years. There was a magic there that has been replaced with cold understanding. Games are still very entertaining, but we now know the limits of what developers can do rather than exclaiming as children that the "possibilities in Mario 64 are endless!" However, independent developers have done a fantastic job of bringing back that old charm, both visually and mechanically, stoking a bit of flame in this dead man's heart. Jochum Skoglund's and Niklas Myrberg's Hammerwatch is one of those fire irons.
Hammerwatch is reminiscent of earlier games such as Gauntlet and the Commodore 64 and DOS title Demon Stalkers. You hack and slash their way through multiple levels in four acts as pixel warriors in a pixel world, fighting hordes of enemies and powerful bosses within the dangerous halls of a dark castle either alone or cooperatively.
You start the game by selecting one of four classes. The paladin is a powerful tank, capable of charging through enemies, deflecting projectiles with its shield and dealing wide damage with the arc of its sword. The ranger can pierce lines of enemies with a crossbow while simultaneously placing bombs. The wizard casts destructive fireballs and can scorch mobs with a jet of flame. The warlock is somewhat of a hybrid, utilizing a dagger to poison foes and a ball of magic to fry them from a distance.
You are then dropped into the lowest levels of the castle. There's little plot to guide you, and for a game that plays off of nostalgia there's little need for one. Hammerwatch is about refreshingly simple frenetic action. Enemies come at you in hordes, streams of them around every corner, while you move with the analog stick and churn them into dust with the face buttons.
It's not as easy to defeat them as it sounds, however. At any given moment you can come across waves of archers, projectile spewing slugs, statues emitting 360 degrees of magical orbs, skeletal warrior summoning necromancers and other deadly traps. It can be a rather stressful bullet hell, especially when you run out of lives and are low on health. Dying sends you back to a checkpoint, and without manual saves the threat of losing progress between those points can make each encounter frightful. But laying waste to those armies and becoming more skillful at weaving through the castle's dangers proves to be a potent combination for fun. It feels good to finally get past a troublesome trap or enemy, minus the carpal tunnel from quickly mashing the basic attack button.
Secrets and progression drive the experience, as well. Throughout each level are gold and other treasures. These are often incredibly well hidden by clever walls, switches or puzzles. And spending that gold at the shops dotted around the maps is the only way to improve and unlock statistics and abilities. The paladin, for example, can unlock a devastating spin attack and a self-heal ability. Accruing wealth and then scouring the map for a shop to spend it, then to see my new capabilities in action kept me moving forward well past the times when I should have stopped.
This modern take on those older classics is also crafted with a great presentation. The pixel art is downright charming. Cavorting around a dungeon as a small sprite fighting dozens of small skeletons and other beasts, watching damage numbers fly off the screen is a delight. And advanced lighting, shadows and other effects give its environments an edge of dimension in an otherwise flat world. Post-processing options can even be enabled to give the impression of playing on an old, curved CRT display. Equally worth mentioning is a soundtrack that is as energetic and engaging as its gameplay.
Those frantic skirmishes translate well to a multiplayer environment. Hammerwatch allows you and three others to play together either locally or online. Local play restricts everyone to the same, single screen, which thankfully expands to a decent distance so as to not feel cramped. Local or otherwise, working together to defeat the overwhelming legions is pure fun as each character can have their own unique methods of handling those odds. Add in puzzles made easier with friends and you've got a recipe for a good evening.
Hammerwatch offers a good deal of replayability, but there are issues to take with how it achieves that and some of its related mechanics. The good, of course, starts with the four varied classes. Their playstyles are wildly different, and with a single playthrough taking up to and over six hours to complete, a lot of hours can be had trying them all. In addition, modifiers can be set between six challenges and three crutches. The shared health pool in cooperative play was particularly entertaining, leading to numerous tense and hilarious scenarios. And despite not having randomly nor procedurally generated levels, which would have been a great fit for this kind of game, it does ship with a level editor. It's an easy enough tool to use, though not every item is clearly marked in the lengthy file lists.
Unfortunately, its disappointing finish line made me not want to immediately start fresh. Unless you retrieve every hidden plank in the game, you are essentially served an abrupt "too bad" screen and told to restart from the very beginning if you want to reach the actual ending. There's no new game plus option to start over with the planks you already found, and with no manual saves – only auto-saves to a single slot when moving over checkpoints – and exits that close between acts you can't go back to look for those you missed. And they're very elusive in Hammerwatch's very large and maze-like levels. After close to eight hours of hunting those passages during my initial playthrough, mustering the effort to go through all that again was difficult.
Regardless of those faults, Hammerwatch is a wonderful game. Its hidden treasures, charming pixel graphics and heaps of monsters to crave through give it a whole lot of simple pleasure in a small but lengthy package.