You creep through the dank, pixelated walls of a castle basement. Gross maggots and bats pour into the halls and lunge toward you with mindless bloodthirst. Torches provide scant beacons of light, while cracks in the wall betray hidden treasure. Is this Gauntlet? Close! It’s the console release of Hammerwatch, Crackshell’s substantially updated 2013 hack-n-slash title that puts you in the role of a cute little hero for a fun, straightforward - and ideally multiplayer - experience.
Hammerwatch nudges you in the co-op direction right off the bat, opening your save file next to three empty player slots as you choose your class. Of the seven, at least three of them are disadvantageous for singleplayer. Fortunately, that’s not where your choices end. Two campaigns are offered here, along with difficulty modes and modifiers like buffers and handicaps that affect score percentage. These options are crucial, because as of writing, online multiplayer has yet to be implemented (though it is promised through in-game developer promises).
Setting aside how many players are involved, the meat of the game is straightforward and easy to understand. In fact, I inadvertently outlined most of it in the opening paragraph; this is primarily a game about knocking things down and picking stuff up. And I emphasize the latter, because Hammerwatch gives you access plenty of upgrades to movement speed, defense, offense, and everything in between. When you’re not fighting, expect a lot of key-finding, trap-dodging, switch-pressing, and backtracking (we’ll touch on that momentarily). As you continue, you’ll unlock new mana-dependent moves that help to alleviate the feeling of tedium that inevitably creeps over you.
As you may have already guessed, said tedium is one of the pitfalls of playing a game like this alone for extended periods of time. There were several times where I had overlooked a secret room with a mandatory key, or simply waltzed right by a hallway just out of view, leaving me to retrace my steps at a leisurely pace through the now-barren chambers. When you play with others, this not only happens less often thanks to extra pairs of eyes, but is hardly a problem because you still have someone to chat with. Aside from staving off monotony, having another player adds an extra layer of depth. For example, if you choose to emphasize speed and mana while your partner shoots for HP and attack, the results are as engaging as you can imagine. Now you can strategize, which becomes very useful during boss fights, or at the very least, you can marvel at the busy screen while your avatars clean the floor.
While presented in a pixelated style like so many other games, this title aims for the 32-bit look of the 2D PSOne RPGs. The result is a beautifully dense canvas of grainy art stretching across your modern TV. This can be accentuated by a phenomenal CRT filter that adds contrast, softness, and a bulbous curve to the image. Unfortnately, there’s no denying that enemy designs and environments fail to break any kind of mold, always conforming to dungeon crawler tropes with little distinguishing personality. Continuing with the theme of adherence to the CD-ROM era, the music here is fully orchestrated, although chiptune notes do come into play. There’s a tongue-in-cheek irony to these soaring melodies, because in terms of gameplay and story, this experience is intentionally arcade-like. Not so much in a jokey way, but when doors open with a little chime, when bosses routinely bust out death rays, when lives unabashedly tell you “1up,” it all comes together in a way that immerses you not in its dungeons, but a video game about dungeons. Again, there are generic elements here, but the game nonetheless crafts an atmosphere perfectly conducive to picking up and playing in short bursts.
If you’re playing singleplayer - which, until the update, you most often will be - then that’s how to best enjoy Hammerwatch; short bursts. It’s nice to sit down every now and then and just relax with something charming and humble. Yes, it will take weeks to complete its two six-hour campaigns this way, but every time you come back, you’re a little stronger, maybe a little faster, and definitely richer. In singleplayer, it’s a good game. In multiplayer, it’s something more. Keeping in mind that the PC version already has online multiplayer, I am confident that Crackshell are being honest about the forthcoming update. So if you're on the fence, at least keep an eye on this one.