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Hammerwatch Review: A Love-Letter To Gauntlet
Platform: PC (Steam), works with Mac & Linux
Price: £6.99/$9.99 or £20.99/$22.49 for a 4-pack
Release Date: 12 August 2013
Developer: Jochum Skoglund & Niklas Myrberg
Not so long ago, there weren’t really that many games with online co-op for PC available. However recently there has been a flood of them, aiming to entice small groups of friends to all buy a copy and share the experience. Honestly though, co-op games have somewhat lower standards than normal games simply because your friends are there – even a terrible game can be hilarious if you get to laugh at Steve constantly dying to the buggy mechanics. With this in mind, I distinctly remember protesting when my friend declared after 4 hours of playing Hammerwatch together that she needed to go to bed. Not because I was having so much fun that I didn’t want to stop, but because we were nearly finished and I wanted to complete the game so I never had to play it again.
Hammerwatch is a retro-style dungeon crawler RPG inspired by Gauntlet. You race through the levels killing hoards of monsters and completing basic switch/lever puzzles. Now, the problem with Hammerwatch is that it is very difficult, but it is not randomly generated. It seems that the game expects most of your play time to come from dying repeatedly and trying to get farther each time you enter, but there’s really no motivation to do this as the entire layout and monster placement is the same every time you play. And you always start from scratch each time so you don’t get to start with any boosts or unlockables to help you pass through the early levels quicker. This would be fine if the game was designed as a rogue-like in which the environment is different each time, but killing the same monsters and walking down the same corridor over and over again is not entertaining. There is a level editor included with the game and the developers may have expected the community to maintain itself with interesting new maps. However, there is no in-game utility to upload your maps – you can dig around to find a forum post collecting them but for some reason it’s not even linked on the official website. More should really be done to help people access player-created content as it will likely become the biggest strength of this game, as currently you need either the patience of a saint or short-term memory loss to complete the campaign.
A lot of people may argue that harder games are good, but unless you enjoy hitting and running away constantly it might not be for you. The characters have very basic abilities, including a standard attack which is either ranged or melee, and a special attack that consumes mana. The overall variety is fairly minimal and they are all essentially damaging abilities. You don’t have anything to slow or stun monsters, or boost yourself in some way, and monsters are the same. Most of the monsters you fight are brainless-zombie types who will just slowly follow you in drones as you pick them off from afar – or hit them a few times and run in circles for the poor short-ranged characters. The rest are monsters who just stand at range and shoot projectiles at you that you have to dodge while dealing with your new zombie friends. Because of this, the majority of the game’s difficulty comes from you having no patience and trying to run in and kill the monsters more quickly, inevitably taking a little bit of damage. This won’t kill you of course but naturally the game doesn’t include health regeneration unless you enable it yourself. There are actually a lot of features that you can use to make the game easier, however it can be tough to find a sweet spot that suits you. While the unlimited lives option will allow you to explore and find secrets and puzzles a lot easier, it also makes the already boring troupe of monsters even more dull as they will pose no risk. Being able to switch on health regeneration and extra damage does help to make the game less painful though.
Characters don’t level up in Hammerwatch, you simply buy upgrades from the various vendors that you find throughout the levels. There are a couple of interesting upgrades though most of them just involve increasing your damage or your healthpool. This really adds to the lack of progression – you don’t get to see your experience bar tick higher as you kill monsters, and you don’t even get to collect shiny magical pants like in Diablo. The bosses are the only enemies that will provide you with a somewhat novel experience, though it’s easy to feel cheated if you’re playing with a small number of lives. The first boss is pretty engaging, but it’s very difficult to avoid her area attacks until you figure out how to counter them, which may end in a swift loss of your precious lives. This kind of difficulty isn’t usually that bad, but when you are risking having to repeat the first 3 levels all over again it’s not acceptable to have unavoidable damage in order to learn an encounter. Luckily the rest of the bosses mostly just involve straightforwardly dodging their attacks and hitting them until they die.
The graphics are really a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of deal. The environment is fairly attractive and clean though there isn’t really anything overly complex. The pixel characters are all obviously retro-inspired which may be cute or simple depending on your taste. Similarly the music features a soundtrack reminiscent of retro games and will be very pleasing to nostalgic gamers, but is fitting and atmospheric regardless. The sound effects are also fairly decent and don’t get repetitive as quickly as most games.
The biggest strength of Hammerwatch are the secrets dotted around each level. There are secret passageways, breakable walls and hidden switches that will reveal areas full of gold or extra puzzles. A lot of them are hard to spot which adds to the triumph when you do find them. Although, obviously this only counts the first time you find them, there’s not much motivation to run around stabbing the walls when you’ve already found most of the secrets during a different playthrough so it doesn’t add any replayability.
The level design is decent and many of the puzzles can be fun, such as the floor stones that you need to hit in a certain way or the floor spikes that will roast you if you don’t follow the exact pattern across to the other side. It would be nice if the levels were more compact as they become humongous after a while which can create problems. One such is that it becomes incredibly easy to get lost and there’s no level map – the overlay map that shows what’s nearby becomes less helpful as the levels expand. Getting lost is frequent in multiplayer also, because there’s little incentive to stick together after a while. None of the puzzles require multiple people to complete so it quickly becomes apparent that you might as well just split up to complete the level as quickly as possible. It can also become frustrating when you have explored most of the level but realize you have missed a switch and have to just run around like headless chickens to look for it as you have no indication of where you have overlooked. Nothing would be lost from the game if the levels were smaller, there was a whole-level map and if puzzles – especially ones that require multiple people – were emphasized instead of ‘exploring’ generic hallways over and over.
Overall, Hammerwatch feels like a beta game to me. It has a solid foundation and many simple improvements would pay off massively. It seems like even the developers know this, as they have commented that they want to release some new content such as more diverse monsters and replayability, but that it would be difficult now that the game has been released. Although I doubt such a drastic change like including randomly generated levels is possible, making the game less repetitive with more interesting abilities and exciting features could make the game good, instead of just passable.
Check out the official Hammerwatch trailer: