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Preview: Hammerwatch II

19 Jun 2023

I found myself with a fair number of feelings when it came to Hammerwatch II. None of them were perhaps the ones the developers wanted, but as I’ve said many times, what is far more important than what I think about a game personally is what the game is trying to be. And in no small part, Hammerwatch II is trying to be Hammerwatch again, but bigger.

This is, broadly, all the review that you need. Hammerwatch was a perfect version of Hammerwatch. Who wanted Hammerwatch? A whole heck of a lot of people, as it turns out! And if you are one of the people who loved the heck out of Hammerwatch and had perhaps some minor criticisms, chief among them being that eventually you ran out of Hammerwatch to keep playing? Here is a game that will hammer the heck out of Hammerwatching. If you didn’t particularly like the original game, well, why are you playing this one?

But let’s get down to brass tacks, hmm?

You’re Gonna Hammer that Watch

So here’s the biggest… I don’t want to say problem, exactly, but issue with Hammerwatch II. I don’t know how serious the developers expect me to take the story. And while there isn’t a right answer to the concept of how seriously you should take a story, the problem emerges when you find yourself thinking that you’re unsure if the story is a joke or not.

On some level, I know that the story in Hammerwatch II is not meant to be taken all that seriously. For one thing, it’s a five-minutes-later sequel to the original that offers no explanation why your character or characters, just having beaten a big dragon, are now de-leveled and de-powered. There are enough little notes here and there that signal “this is all a bit silly, don’t take it too seriously.” And you know what? That’s fine! That’s not a problem.

But then there’s a whole big lore dump right at the start explaining the actually really dark backstory wherein you’re fighting back against an undead blight that threatens your entire nation… placed right alongside rather low-stakes quests like fetching a little girl’s wooden horse toy. I don’t know if the game is trying to be fairly light-hearted generic fantasy action or if it wants to be taken seriously with the occasional smirk. There’s nothing really setting the tone.

It’s the sort of thing that bothers me solely on the level of… like… neither one of these aspects is bad, in and of itself? It’s not a problem if the game is functionally an excuse for fantasy antics and it’s not a problem if the game is mostly serious with occasional jokes. But it’s a little problematic if I can’t tell which one I’m supposed to be feeling at any given moment. Not a game-ruining problem, but a problem just the same.

Anyhow, part of the problem was that this early preview was locked off to one area with a bunch of quests to do. If you’ve played the original, you can probably expect a similar tone. And again, if you played and liked the original, this is the game for you.

Watch Me While I Hammer

At its heart, Hammerwatch II plays like Hammerwatch, which is to say that it’s Diablo by way of Gauntlet. You choose a class, and then you get a whole bunch of different abilities for that class as well as a basic stat outlay. From there, you descend into areas full of enemies, and you hack, slash, and detonate your way through them. Equip the right set of items for your particular playstyle, build your stats how you want, hope for good item drops and lay waste to everything.

Control-wise we’re in the twin-stick shooter mold, or if you prefer the mouse-and-keyboard mode where the mouse points your attack while your keyboard handles movement. Attacks can cost stamina or mana, with both recovering at a steady rate but never fast enough that you can just spam either with abandon. Dodge attacks and smash your enemies. In practice, at least for me, this usually amounted to picking off a few early, then backpedaling into safe areas while melee enemies trailed after me, slowly picking them off as I went before going back to the initial spot and starting again.

The Diablo or just general RPG feel is kind of like if Gauntlet went further in its overall aesthetic. Everything gets leveled, gear is more than just a straight upgrade, and you will spend a great deal of time examining your various gear options, picking the best one, and hoping for an even better reward later on. Most gear has minimum stat requirements rather than class requirements; if your Warlock has a lot of points in Strength, you can absolutely be a plate-wearing Warlock. Why you would necessarily want to do this is another matter.

And hey, if you like grinding out specific and unique stat increases, equipping better gear, then plunging into enemy lairs to gain more stat increases and more gear? This game is going to give you exactly that. In spades. If “it’s like Gauntlet but more RPG” attracts you? Well, you probably liked Hammerwatch. And this delivers on exactly that. I don’t mean to be reductive, but precise.

Too Hammered to Watch

Whether or not this game matches your particular gameplay, you cannot deny that it is gorgeous. The game’s pixel art is highly detailed, and while it does have a slight issue wherein some of the items you can pick up are not immediately visible against the background (it’s hard to pick out significant environmental objects when everything is assembled with beautiful detail), drops are given nice shiny auras so you can’t miss them. Everything working as you would expect and ask for, in other words.

The music and sound effects are high-tier, as well. Sounds are chunky and crunchy, and while the music isn’t intensely memorable it is appropriately atmospheric and will ramp up the energy of the various caves and lairs you find yourself exploring. I was pleased with it, and between the visuals and the sounds there’s nothing to break the illusion of place as you roam the map.

One thing I do have to be a bit critical of is the character creation at the start, though. It’s functional, but it doesn’t do a great job of making it clear how the various options cycle through to create your character and is also kind of bad about explaining what the options mean. What is the material difference between a Ranger and a Rogue, for example? I suspect you know if you’ve played the first game, but I did not, so I do not. It asks you to figure it out by trial and error. Doable, yes, but a bit annoying.

Watchez 2 Hammerz

There is no better way to evaluate Hammerwatch II than to look at that title. I mean that in the most positive possible sense. Treating that title as not merely a trademark but a descriptor is perhaps the smartest way to look at it. Here you are, in Hammerwatch II, doing all the stuff you did in Hammerwatch but this is the sequel.

And hey, I’m not going to mince words either. If that’s what you wanted from a sequel? You are going to have a grand time here. Seeing as how most of the people who are inclined to pick up such a game are likely to be those who liked the original? Hey, awesome. That’s all that needs to be said. You had a cake named Hammerwatch, now you get a second one and can be all “heck yes, two cakes.” That’s a win for fans.

Preview copy provided by Modus Games for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Modus Games.