Discussion Review: Hammerwatch

Review written by Matt Litten & Tim Mack.

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Tim: Rocky IV turned out to be a pivotal moment in gaming for me. Three cousins and I had gone to watch Rocky pound Ivan Drago on the big screen. Before we sat down, we noticed a new arcade cabinet that stood out from all the rest. A huge footprint with four joysticks, this beast of a cabinet called to us like no other. Each of us fed the machine and after a moment of bickering over who was going to play as the girl, we were sucked into the classic better known as Gauntlet. We almost missed watching the movie (which is the only reason we even found the game) because we were instantly hooked by the fantasy dungeon crawler. Giving up our spot on the cabinet, we reluctantly sat and watched the movie. As soon as the credits began rolling, we dashed back to see how far we could get before our ride arrived.

Not since that winter of ‘85 have I played any dungeon crawler that has come close to capturing my imagination as much as that introduction to Gauntlet with my cousins. Sequels to Gauntlet have come and gone — and there’s even a modern reboot on the horizon. Better looking dungeon crawlers have been released since then, but nothing has hooked me like the arcade original. Until now. Crackshell has created a retro-inspired dungeon crawler that eschews some of the coin swallowing tropes of Gauntlet while adding more true RPG elements in Hammerwatch. Read on as Matt and I discuss this fun and challenging indie title.

Part RPG, part bullet hell action game, all dungeon crawler loot fest, Hammerwatch pits up to four heroes on a quest to defeat a dragon. Of course, getting to the dragon means wading through hordes of nasty enemies and collecting lots of treasure. Like Gauntlet, the heroes of Hammerwatch face off against a seemingly unbalanced number of enemies, only to slaughter those enemies as if simply scratching an itch. Foes typically gather around a spawn point: worms around a massive worm, bats around a tree, skeletons around a buried nest of bones. Variations of each enemy type also appear which mostly means they have slightly different gear (or just a different color) but have more health and deal more damage.

For the most part Hammerwatch is nothing more than carefully wading into large groups of enemies, cutting them down, collecting coins and finding copper, silver or gold keys. The keys allow forward progress through blocked color-coded barriers, yet some areas aren’t necessarily accessible without backtracking because a specific key to a door may only be on the far end of some seriously heavy enemy entrenchment or on a different floor of the dungeon. Backtracking plays fairly heavily in each stage of the game, because along with the meager coins that drop when enemies die, there are also vendor coins which provide a discount when purchasing weapon, armor and skill upgrades.

Venders offer increases to damage and defense, boosts in health and mana, unlocks to a combo system with various modifies which offer health regeneration and a short duration projectile blast, as well as various potions. The upgrade path is one that I found myself fretting over much of the time. While vendor coins offer a discount toward purchasing items, the fact that coins are in a limited quantity means choosing one upgrade over another may mean the difference between life or death, especially when the bosses come into play. Sure, I could not destroy the spawn nests and let a large number of enemies repopulate and then collect a few additional coins, but doing that is sort of counter to playing through the game.

While playing Hammerwatch solo is doable and fun, I find my inability to pick an upgrade almost a detriment. Weighing the cost of an upgrade to maximize damage, or increase health versus adding an area attack once a combo is triggered (which potentially could then take out even more enemies at once) is a bit crippling. Fortunately, playing Hammerwatch with other players helps reduce that indecision. Having a balance of ranged, melee and magic allows for less worrying about picking the most effective upgrade and instead focusing on just clobbering every enemy on screen.

The early portion of the game is a bit unforgiving because the upgrades and combos aren’t available to help clear out the large hordes of enemies. On the other hand, once the upgrades start to stack up, the enemies become much more challenging. The early game can be a bit frustrating because of that. Save points are located sporadically throughout parts of the dungeon, but those mostly only are useful to reduce the amount of walking or backtracking through the sprawling sparse dungeons once enemies have been dispatched.

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Matt: Hammerwatch‘s homage to Gauntlet is anything but subtle. Beyond the developer’s own bullet point stating that the game was inspired by the classic dungeon crawler, secret bonus levels in the game straight up clone the old Gauntlet aesthetic and level design as a fun, nostalgic nod to the past. Digging into the graphics settings will even uncover various filters and distortion effects which, when combined with shutting off some of the advanced shadowing and texture settings, allow the game to be played in a simulated arcade cabinet format.

But Hammerwatch does a whole lot more than just cash in on the fandom of Gauntlet, it builds on top of the fast paced, twitchy dungeon crawl mayhem with a simple but fairly deep system of RPG progression. The game’s four original character classes (a fifth has since been added in an update) have unique weapons, abilities/spells, and physical attributes as far as starting health/mana pools, attack strength, and defense. This provides for a lot of variety when choosing which class suits your style, as each hero requires a different skill set and tactical approach from the other. The warrior can tank damage well, block projectiles with his shield and dish out damage up close in personal, but he doesn’t move as fast as the others and is easily surrounded by enemies if you aren’t careful due to his limited attack range. The ranger on the other hand is nimble and can pick off enemies from a distance (or even blow up a crowd with bombs, Link style) but has a tough time in close encounters. The wizard is similarly range attack oriented, using a host of fire-based spells to mop up the mobs of skeletons, bats, slugs and beetles, but has low health and weak armor and will often die in a hit or two, especially early on.

Although it does take a while to gain access to upgrades and as a result the initial three floors are a tough slog, eventually you will come across shopkeepers that finally validate your OCD tendency to break every last crate, barrel, pot and treasure chest to loot every last coin in sight. Money is fairly tight so you do need to make your upgrade decisions count, but I didn’t fret over it as much as it sounds like you did, Tim, as I made all my choices based on the role I was playing. For example, if I’m playing as a warrior, I concentrate on beefing up attack damage and defense before anything else. While as a wizard I found it best to upgrade the range of the basic fireball attack as quickly as possible and also focus more on boosting the combo skills since his explosive attacks deal widespread damage and seem to build combos faster than the other characters. Movement speed and health are universally important regardless of class.

This game can definitely turn into a grind. Grind-it-out dungeon crawlers like this are right in my wheelhouse, but I’m not going to lie and say that this game doesn’t grow incredibly monotonous at times, because it does. The levels are so huge and labyrinthine that sometimes it is easy to miss a certain door or switch and then slowly have to backtrack to find a key door you haven’t unlocked or one little area that somehow escaped your attention on the first pass. In this respect, the game could use a better map system. While it’s nice that the map can be pulled up in real time and transparently lays over the screen so you can play and navigate at the same time, it’s disappointing that you can’t scale the map on the screen or manually pan the view to scout the area. As it is, the map only scrolls as you move, so instead of just being able to pull up the map and search around for a missed area, you have to walk back through the dungeon and keep an eye on the overlaying map as it automatically scrolls based on your movement until an area covered by fog of war is spotted. It’s a serious drag on the fun.

Procedurally generated dungeons could have helped cut down on some of the monotony and increase replay, especially during the early stages of the game as the first few floors always seem to be the slowest going, but I’m actually kind of happy that the developers didn’t go that route. Since the levels aren’t random, they have a more detailed, handcrafted feel that I really appreciate. Had the game used a random map generator, the developers likely would have been restricted on the way they set up the game’s switch puzzles, bonus collectibles, and numerous secret rooms and Easter eggs. Replaying the game to find all the hidden goodies has been one of my favorite aspects of this title. As much as I would love map layouts change every time, overall I prefer the consistency of having the layouts the same.

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Tim: Hammerwatch truly shines in multiplayer, allowing up to four players to connect locally or online and explore the same level of the dungeon without having to necessarily be in view on the same screen. Of course, sticking together is a smart idea because the difficulty increases when there are additional players. Playing locally does require players to be in the same area, but due to the art style and size of the heroes on the map, two players can be relatively far apart while remaining in the same area of the map.

One downside to multiplayer, however, is the shared keys and extra lives pools. If one player sucks a lot and constantly dies, they could end up wasting all of the lives for the other players. Shared keys isn’t nearly as critical, but from time to time I would run across a copper key with the intent of using it on one specific door, only to have my son use it on another. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just means we had to spend more time looking for hidden passageways or sections of the dungeon we had missed in order to replace the key we had spent.

Matt, you are correct in pointing out that the vendor options seem more robust by the latter part of the game. Trying to skimp by with only a few upgrades is something I found much more challenging playing a paladin than playing a wizard. Maybe the chance of getting hit while performing melee attacks was something I couldn’t get used to after playing a wizard and having the ability to decimate large groups of enemies from a distance without worrying about getting hit. That being said, I do wish the levels were procedurally generated so that the game felt different upon subsequent sessions with different classes. While I definitely enjoy playing the game once I take the time to settle in, I admit to finding it difficult to load up a new game just to grind through the same layout time and again. On the other hand, playing in a co-op session never left me with that sense of potential boredom.

Tim-BuyIt

Matt: Crackshell deserves a lot of praise for providing regular upkeep on the game. Hammerwatch originally launched on Steam last August, but it has grown quite a bit through frequent content updates. Since I first began playing, the upgrade system has been expanded through attribute loot drops. So instead of only being able to use the vendors for upgrades, certain mini-boss style enemies and treasure chests will randomly drop power-ups which will permanently augment one of the base attributes (attack, health, defense, etc) by a small percentage. This provides an additional sense of reward that helps to make the constant grind feel like it’s more worth the time and effort. The game also recently was updated with a brand new hero class, the Thief, an interesting character compared to the others because his special attacks actually require coins to use, and yet he also gains a passive pickpocket ability for a chance to loot coins from enemies with each attack. He has smoke bombs and a throwing dagger spread shot which is a deadly crowd control attack, but since coins are needed there’s a new dynamic and extra challenge to judiciously using specials so you don’t blow your wad and not have money left for upgrades when the next vendor pops up.

The content updates aren’t over yet either. Crackshell has another class, the priest, and a Sun Temple desert campaign add-on coming at some point. All of the content so far has been added in free updates, which is always nice. A level editor also comes packaged with the game. I’m not into modding and map creation so I haven’t used it other than to open it up and tinker around with the menus to get a feel for its capabilities, but for creative types I’m sure it will be a major plus to have. Unfortunately, though, the game isn’t integrated with Steam Workshop so the process of finding and installing user-made maps will likely pose a barrier for more average players. I know it has deterred me.

As for online versus solo play, I actually find myself preferring to play alone. Of course, that’s just my personality for anything really. I’m OCD about searching every last centimeter of a map and playing at my own pace, so while having others along is a blast when you can find a group of trustworthy adventurers who don’t all go running off in different directions, most of the time I choose to go at it alone. Like you, Tim, I also get incredibly annoyed by another player blowing through precious lives with the shared respawn pool or rushing ahead of the group. Then again, playing with others does cut down on some of the time commitment as well as offer added challenge as the enemies scale in difficulty in co-op. Multiplayer also opens up access to special difficulty modifiers and crutches to either intensify or ease up on the challenge.

Hammerwatch is an all-out dungeon crawl grind, and that’s why I adore it so. It can be tedious, no doubt about it, but time after time I find myself drawn back to the game for reasons that aren’t exactly easy to put into words. The game’s just fun and absurdly addictive, with an epic high-fantasy soundtrack that is similarly repetitive yet strangely seems to reinforce the hypnotic compulsion to play onward. I’ve put 60 hours into the game across two solo campaign completions (and nearly a third that I lost towards the end when my old computer died on me since the game doesn’t have cloud saves and I didn’t have a manual backup) as well as numerous co-op sessions and several attempts at the survival and tower defense-esque side modes, and even now whenever I start it up to just sort of play around the next thing I know a couple hours have passed by and I’m still glued to the screen, hacking and slashing away, saying to myself “I’ll stop when I reach the next save point” only to immediately forget that thought ever crossed my mind.

Matt-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Fun retro dungeon crawler with some modern design improvements
+ Huge maps allow for massive quantities of enemies to kill
+ Challenging but fun boss battles
+ Subtly addictive music
+ Well balanced for challenging solo play as well as co-op
+ Nice variety of hero classes, each with distinct play styles
+ Lots of fun secrets and Easter eggs to discover
+ Excellent post-release support and content updates

Cons:
– Character progression doesn’t carry over to new sessions
– Shared keys and lives in co-op
– Maps are the same for each new game
– Mini-map isn’t as helpful as it could be
– Backtracking occasionally bogs down the pacing

Game Info:
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Publisher: Crackshell
Developer: Crackshell
Release Date: 8/12/2013
Genre: Action RPG
Players: 1-4 (online, LAN and local co-op)
Source: Review codes provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!