I have some really fond memories of playing through Gauntlet on the NES. "Red Warrior needs food, badly!" it would warn, reminding all of us that the Red Warrior player SUCKED. "Red Warrior, your life force is running out!" Then the annoying heartbeat-esque sound effect would kick in. Jesus, Red Warrior, get it together!
"Someone shot the food."
Hammerwatch rekindles some of those great Gauntlet feelings, except with online multiplayer and a custom level editor, and without charming sound bites to demean its players.
Hammerwatch (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])
Developer: Hipshot & Myron
Release Date: Aug 12, 2013
The story of Hammerwatch truly is a modern masterpiece in storytelling. As the campaign begins, the line "The small bridge broke behind you...there is probably no way out!" is displayed.
And that's it. That's the plot.
Hammerwatch isn't the type of game that really needs a plot, however. The fact that the bridge broke and there is probably no way out is actually a decent introduction to the game as a whole: a light-hearted, if not a bit shallow, romp. In addition to the campaign, there is also a wave-based defense mode and the inclusion of a level editor for creating custom levels.
Doing its best to harken back to classic Gauntlet, Hammerwatch is a cooperative hack-and-slash action game. There are four classes to choose from: Paladin, Warlock, Ranger, and Wizard. Each class starts with a regular attack as well as a special attack that drains a certain amount of magic points. More special attacks are eventually unlocked, though it takes a bit too long to actually earn them. In my experience, nothing comes close to the effectiveness of a Ranger since their default attack pierces through enemies -- continuing its trajectory to harm even more enemies -- and their bomb special attack is perfect for kiting and killing large groups of enemies at a time.
It's also possible to strafe while moving, which is perhaps the most important thing to take away from this review if you buy Hammerwatch, as it’s not immediately apparent within the game. Mastering the strafe-and-attack is crucial for any class' survivability, since moving diagonally while attacking is so freaking useful.
There are a handful of secrets, puzzles, and obstacles that don't necessarily require fighting at all. Hidden rooms permeate each floor, and if the player keeps an eye out they should be able to find just about all of them. Puzzles are never too difficult, and in fact sometimes they are insultingly easy. These variants do a good job of breaking up the monotonous wave-clearing gameplay that makes up most of Hammerwatch.
Playing alone feels hollow, since a large part of the difficulty comes in the form of more and more of the same types of enemies being thrown at the player -- a challenge that's far easier to enjoy when in the company of friends. Single-player reveals the game's shallow mechanics; movement and two attacks don't really make for the most compelling gameplay.
Progression comes from a variety of vendors throughout the levels. Early on it is a very linear progression since only certain vendors are available. The first upgrade is the ability to combo, which allows players who kill at least 10 enemies in a row very quickly to gain a temporary boost to their stats. Later upgrades will build off of this, making it easier to combo and giving better benefits for comboing. By the end of the second act, players will finally have access to more special moves as well as having a little more open-endedness to their character's build.
The problem is that the end of the second act is a decent chunk of game away -- especially for players going it alone. While the level design is very open-ended and non-linear, the character progression is the exact opposite and takes way too long to become interesting. It can feel like forever when slogging through the seemingly endless waves of enemies with the basic attacks, waiting for something cool or interesting to happen.
This is where the bosses come in. After a pretty easy time mowing down countless enemies, the first boss steps in and SMASHES YOUR FACE INTO THE GROUND. Seriously, the difficulty shift from regular enemies to boss fights is gigantic! The bosses are quite challenging, but don't cross the line into becoming unfair (though this can easily depend on the player's class). The bosses utilize genuinely interesting mechanics for the most part and are a real blast to play through cooperatively.
Besides adjusting the difficulty, there are a variety of modifications that players can include to make the game way harder or way easier, or both! Things like limiting all players to 1 HP per life, removing mana regeneration, and allowing no extra lives can make the game super difficult if that's what you're into. On the other hand, you can add infinite lives, HP regeneration, and double damage if you just want to breeze through the entire game and not worry about a thing. The amount of options, gameplay or otherwise, is really delightful and a beautiful sight to behold.
Playing cooperatively can be done locally or online, the latter of which doesn't require sharing the same screen. Playing online does tend to stutter a bit, but never so much that it affects the gameplay in any meaningful way. The worst thing that seemed to happen was that it would look like my buddy got hit by those spikes, but on his end he was just fine. Just be warned ahead of time: you may need to open router ports if you want to host a game.
The default controls for the keyboard are okay, but if you've got a controller you're going to want to use it. The keyboard uses WASD for movement and the arrow keys for attacks. However, the arrow keys don't attack in their respective direction; they just each perform a different attack in whichever direction the character is facing. So, the up arrow will always use the basic attack in front of the character. It can get confusing since naturally players will think that the up arrow attacks upwards, but I suspect that most people will get used to it easily enough. Plus, the controls can be remapped, so everyone can find something that works for them.
The game does look very nice, as the pixel art is some of the best I've seen. It's basic enough to allow me to reminisce about the old NES days while providing enough detail and animation to really look fluid and alive. The enemy design is generally nothing special, but I love that it is immediately apparent when a stronger version of a previous enemy arrives just by looking at it. The audio is likewise great, but there is no fading in and out of music tracks; one will end abruptly and another will begin, causing a very rough and noticeable transition.
The deciding factor for Hammerwatch depends on if you’re planning on playing it cooperatively. If you've got a buddy or two who would play through the game with you and you enjoy some mindless hacking and/or slashing, then it will not disappoint.
As a solo venture, the game can feel boring and tedious as it starts off way too slowly, despite throwing in some interesting boss fights later on. My recommendation is that you play it with friends, chat over some third-party voice program, and forget about your worries as you mindlessly slay hundreds upon hundreds of worms and skeletons and bugs and bats.