Elaborate castles and temples full of secrets and traps, hordes of fantasy monsters roaming the labyrinthine halls, a band of up to four diverse adventurers, and the promise of loot – this is the basic premise of Hammerwatch, a retro-styled dungeon crawler that harkens back to the days of Gauntlet on the NES. After starting life on PC back in 2013, Hammerwatch finally comes to consoles in a (slightly) spruced up form, providing a classic dungeon-crawling experience for better and, sometimes, for worse.
Don’t expect much story in Hammerwatch; gameplay comes first and is as simple as you’d expect from a title inspired by a game first released in 1985. Up to four players (currently local coop, online to be patched in later), take control of several heroes from a top-down perspective and get to work slaying monsters, dodging traps, finding switches, activating runes, solving puzzles, collecting loot, and generally surviving whichever campaign you pick. You slay monsters and loot chests to find gold, then use that gold to purchase upgrades from merchants; simple but effective progression mechanics. There’s the original Castle Hammerwatch campaign that sees you progressing up twelve floors of the titular castle, or the more involved Temple of the Sun campaign that sees you striking out from a hub area into Egyptian-themed environments to defeat an evil Wizard (it also introduces some basic lore to the Hammerwatch universe).
Hacking through monsters while avoiding traps and solving devious puzzles is the name of the game.
Gamepad support was available on PC but the console release offers a new twin-stick setup in addition to the original mash-a-button-to-shoot-in-the-direction-you’re-facing method (which personally feels more intuitive and won’t wear out your triggers). Whichever you pick, you’ll quickly learn to dodge traps and projectiles while kiting hordes of creatures. Each class eventually unlocks three additional skills – usually AOE attacks, buffs, or dash moves to get you out of trouble - that eat into your slowly regenerating mana pool.
Even before considering the highly customisable difficulty settings, the game does an excellent job of balancing each class. The Paladin and Warlock may be robust melee fighters but both have to get in close and this makes tackling the game's multiple bosses a challenge. The Ranger and Wizard can deal immense damage from afar, yet are fragile if surrounded and failing to dodge is often fatal. The Sorcerer, a new character for the console launch, is a versatile blend of the Ranger and Wizard, with a focus on using ice magic to slow and cripple foes before decimating them with ricocheting ice balls.
Your hard hard-earned loot nets you upgrades to your basic stats and skills from vendors. Keeping ahead of the curve is vital to surviving later levels.
Although the game offers the standard Easy-Medium-Hard difficulty settings (which have been tweaked for console release), you can also select a number of “crutches” or “challenges” that can shift the game from a child-friendly hack-and-slash adventure to a tough-as-nails roguelike. Infinite lives (you normally have to find additional ankhs) combined with regenerating health and mana allow you to recklessly wade into foes. Alternatively, you could turn off any extra lives and give yourself 1HP for an insane challenge.
Solo players should note that the Temple of the Sun campaign is a lot tougher than Castle Hammerwatch by default and is best played with friends. That said, the Castle Hammerwatch campaign runs about eight hours and loses steam in the second half due to formulaic progression, whereas the Temple of the Sun provides a more focused and diverse four-hour campaign.
Sufficient health and damage upgrades go a long way towards defeating bosses but you'll also have to be quick on your feet as well to avoid hemorrhaging lives.
The presentation is great, so long as you appreciate the retro stylings (that you can enjoy at 4K on the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro!). The simple 2D artwork is both perfect for tracking your position and spotting traps while engaging massive hordes of enemies and it allows the developers to hide dozens of secrets just out of sight. Several bonus stages even straight up replicate the style of the original Gauntlet. The game offers an options to toggle on pseudo-CRT visuals with a curved screen, visible scanlines and phosphorescent colours that’ll make your eyes bleed. It’s fantastic for solo play but a bit of a nightmare to track everyone in co-op. If I have one complaint, it’s that this is an all-or-nothing toggle on console whereas the PC version lets you individually adjust the degree of screen curvature and the intensity of the phosphorescent colours. The music is another highlight with some catchy and upbeat tracks for each set of stages. That said, if you send a lot of time hunting down every secret in each level, it can grate over time.
Hammerwatch was meant to be a game that thrived on mods but it never took off on PC. With the promise of mod support for consoles and the possibility of future campaigns and challenge maps, I’m hoping a larger market and renewed interest could give it the lifespan it deserves. A roguelike spinoff called Heroes of Hammerwatch is already in development and, if this game takes off on console, I hope BlitWorks pairs up with Crachskell again to bring the excellent Serious Sam's Bogus Detour as well.
Hammerwatch is not the most complex game you’ll play, reminding me of both the best and worst elements of classic NES-era games at times, but it’s a fun and customisable coop experience that anyone can enjoy. Better still, it costs less than R150 on all platforms.
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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PS4, Xbox One
14 December 2017
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