Hammerwatch is clearly a labor of love created by Jochum Skoglund and Niklas Myrberg, the individuals behind the indie studio Crackshell. One of the rare Greenlight success stories, it originally released on Steam back on 12 August 2013. Through a constant barrage of tweaks, patches, updates, and introduction of new content, this homage to Gauntlet-style games has managed to cultivate a growing fanbase. The pixel art graphics and punishing gameplay are certainly worthy of its inspirational sources, but the rough indie edges might cut too deep for some gamers.
The basic goal is to battle your way through hordes of monsters and escape the tower of doom you are trapped in. With six classes to choose from (paladin, wizard, ranger, thief, warlock, and priest) there’s some diversity to be had here, but without any sort of information tab or central codex it’s difficult to really know what you’re getting. While every class has a life/mana bar and starts with 2 abilities, there is no XP to speak of. The only way to get more skills or improve stats is by finding vendors hidden throughout the tower that you can purchase them from. In my personal experiences, I found the melee-based classes to suffer a severe disadvantage and were often quickly overwhelmed even while playing co-op.
The problem I found with Hammerwatch was the incredibly repetitive content. Many enemies operate the same mechanically while simply being faster or having a larger HP pool in later levels. The boss fights themselves are, sadly, also easily overcome with your adversary exhibiting overly obvious attack patterns. While it’s true the same could be said of other Gauntlet-style games, the pacing of Hammerwatch makes the pain of repetition more acute. While some people might think massive size and scope of levels is a good thing because it means more content, in the case of Hammerwatch it just reinforces the issue of monotony. Puzzles are few, far between, and not nearly interesting or clever enough to keep things lively, but at least the effort was made; I dread to think of what it would have been like without their inclusion at all.
Here’s the other big issue, and my biggest complaint personally: both saving and multiplayer connections are unreliable. Considering the time and grind investment the game demands from you, the shoddy auto-save and failure-to-load rates are unacceptable. A quick forum search actually tells me that this feature has improved dramatically since its debut, but I found the system unreliable at best. While the drop in and drop out multiplayer has been added, which is great, the actual stability of the connection was terrible. If I can play Borderlands 2 at max settings with a smooth 60fps, how on Earth does Hammerwatch lag? In a Gauntlet-style game lag means certain doom, if it doesn’t just cause outright death. While local co-op may offer a more even experience, I can tell you that, currently, the net code is not what it needs to be to provide a frustration-free experience. To invest 3-4 hours on a run through the tower only to have a TPK due to lag, then restart only to have members of the party disconnect and the save file fail to load is brutal.
Believe it or not I HAD been having fun up until the TPK. I don’t want to make it sound like there’s no enjoyment to be gained from this game, because Hammerwatch does have some appeal for hack ‘n’ slash fans; I just want to make it clear your mileage may vary. I am no stranger to repetitive gameplay, I mean, I certainly enjoyed Gauntlet, but, in this case, I can’t see myself going back for too much more punishment. It’s a good time-killer if you can pick it up on sale, but I find that $9.99 USD at full price is a little steep. That said, it’s a somewhat impressive offering considering it’s the product of such a small indie studio that are clearly still making improvements and adding content. Who knows, maybe, given enough time, it’ll get the polish it needs to be a great game. For now though my final verdict and suggestion is: If you’re craving Gauntlet, why not just play the remake Arrowhead is offering?