This could be the easiest review I've ever written. Do you like Gauntlet? Do you think Gauntlet could use better graphics, some more satisfying powers and combos? Then Hammerwatch is the game for you. You think I'm joking, exaggerating some modern homage, but I'm not. Hammerwatch is nearly to Gauntlet as Rise of the Triad is to Rise of the Triad: Dark War. The parallels are so concrete and deep, such an embrace of Gauntlet's design that if this was rebranded as a revival of the franchise, the critical praise would have been immense. However, as we have it, Crackshell has seen a Gauntlet-sized void in the marketplace and decided to fill it. So is it fair to condemn them for not just homaging but nearly ripping off a classic of the action genre when they do so to fill a hole in the market? I'm not sure but I do know one thing. I like Gauntlet and Hammerwatch more than lives up to the comparison.
Starting off, you pick a class. Paladins are great defenders with limited damage, Warlocks are great crowd-control with lots of health but weak armor, Wizards are great damage strikers but little health, Rangers are great ranged strikers with fast speeds but medium health. Hopefully you have some friends along for the ride as well because Hammerwatch is just as deafening in its difficulty as Gauntlet was, possibly more so in the later levels. Regardless, single player is certainly an option and a possible one but I would recommend easy for the faint of heart. The game's bullet hell-like approach to enemy mobs, the limited, pooled amount of revives for the party, the simply massive levels, and scarcity of proper health all culminate in what some might say is a “proper” video game challenge.
The simple truth of Hammerwatch's difficulty is that it is an archaic learning curve created out of greed for more coins in arcades, carried on by misguided fans to limit the potential scope of players within their genres by preserving the cathartic elitism of overcoming a game that is unfair and uncaring. With that said, that doesn't mean my friends and I didn't love Hammerwatch and our repeated deaths. I state this because while Hammerwatch has its niche, I do not really support this model on any larger scale than niche throwback. It represents one of the biggest challenges for new gamers and getting rid of the curve not only helped expand gaming but it also allowed gaming to explore other stories and concepts that didn't necessarily require incredibly difficult action to progress.
On the flip side, that limiting curve creates a rather unique experience for friends. The constant, brutal punches to everyone's faces, the humor and ridiculousness that inevitably rises out such games, the shared exhaustion, the stories and in-jokes that will forever embed them in your friendship. The numbers flying above the enemies as you fight, that adrenaline of taking out an entire mob with one health point left. There are even options to warp the screen as if your HDtv was a tube-TV in case the aura of it all wasn't nostalgic enoughThese experiences are rooted in our history as gamers and, as the Mountain Dew flows and pizza oozes, it's hard to deny the enjoyment. A very different enjoyment from the more artistically ambitious games of recent that focus on the single player, thought provoking experiences but a perfectly valid enjoyment all the same.
However, while Hammerwatch is very much rooted in its niche and you'll obviously need some attachment, there is such a thing as being rooted to a fault and I'm not talking about the previously discussed difficulty curve. The music shifts are non-existant, simply starting and stopping abruptly in a rather distracting fashion. For a modern action game, even on the independent level, there's very little feedback when fighting enemies. They seem to go on and on until mobs die, giving little tangible feeling to your power. No overt movements from the player, vibration of the controller, enemies squirming for just a moment. The numbers overhead are certainly helpful in this regard but for the most part, there's a lack of feeling in the game. On top of that, this is a rather long game that runs out of steam level design wise and eventually descends into repetitive action that only serves to ramp up the difficulty and extend the game. The powers also, even with its purchasable upgrades, lack variation as the game goes along and the game itself lacks the opportunities to evolve each classes' play styles.
Essentially, Hammerwatch benefits from all the strengths of Gauntlet and fails in all the ways Gauntlet did with a few factors of its own thrown in to just barely solidify its place. I certainly enjoyed Hammerwatch despite its flaws and refusal to attempt to evolve its old school game design. Not every throwback game can be Out There Somewhere or Rogue Legacy. Sometimes, you just want the “good old days” but might lack an affordable way to actually play those old games with friends. For just ten dollars on GOG.com, Hammerwatch is well worth the price of admission for fans but for everyone else, tread cautiously.