The original Hammerwatch was released ten years ago, lauded for its simple-yet-addictive action-based gameplay and multiplayer feature. At the time, finding an indie title with competent multiplayer occurring simultaneously with well-designed gameplay was unheard of. But a frequent discussion topic here at RPGFan is whether a game holds up today. A series gets stuck in the past, RPGs attempting to cash in on nostalgia rear their heads every year, and an old indie darling steps forward with a sequel. The latter of the three describes Hammerwatch II. Does it innovate on a formula that found success, or does it stagnate, failing to keep pace with the changing times?
Hammerwatch II takes place immediately after the events of Hammerwatch, though its predecessor is quickly forgotten as the heroes turn their heads toward the Blight and restoring King Roland to power. The Blight is a corruption taking over the land, bringing monsters and harming civilization, while King Roland leads a resistance against those who overthrew him. Naturally, your heroes are the only ones who can stem the flow of both corruption and megalomania.
Unfortunately, not only is the premise uninspired, but so is the storytelling. Conversations with NPCs occur in gigantic dialogue boxes with little in the way of aesthetics to engross the player: just white boxes with black text. Aside from the presentation, the actual dialogue itself is chocked full of excessive, dull detail. In writing classes, students are quickly told not to describe every detail of a character’s day; we don’t need to know that they brushed their teeth, showered, and ate breakfast. While Hammerwatch II doesn’t go to quite that length, the amount of filler numbed my brain, and I had to re-read several sections of dialogue because I had been so uninterested that I retained nothing that I read.
I think the developer attempted to create an engrossing world, but what came out of the oven is half-baked. In most open-world games, developers try to create a living, breathing world that is as equally detailed in its minutiae as it is vast. Hammerwatch II is an open-world game, but it does not tell a compelling story through its worldbuilding. Instead, it boasts benign, inconsequential dungeons littered about that don’t exactly make sense in relation to the environment or surroundings. Salt & Sacrifice earned similar ire from me with its seemingly random placement of platforms that didn’t make sense in relation to the structures or ecosystem around them.
All is not tiring, though: Hammerwatch II promises sound multiplayer with seamless connectivity combined with simple, yet addicting, hacking and slashing. While not exactly revolutionary, each class offers a unique skill tree of four passive or active abilities at each tier that make all characters feel unique. I played a life-sucking summoner while my sibling played a dagger-whipping rogue, although don’t expect to be locked into just those styles of abilities. To complicate classes more, every character has a mana and stamina bar, and using certain abilities draws from one or the other. For instance, my summoner siphoned souls with stamina, and used most of its abilities with mana, though sometimes I could keep the souls to instead grant myself more powerful attacks in place of expending the souls.
Expect loot salad, as you’ll be comparing numbers and wondering what the symbology means. Fortunately, Hammerwatch II doesn’t reach Borderlands levels of loot vomit, but comparing numbers is a big component of deciding what to use. Occasionally, interesting decisions have to be made, such as choosing between two unique passive abilities, but that’s the degree of depth items bring. Players can craft equipment, cook food, sell items, and all that usual nonsense, but none of it ever feels necessary or fascinating. Expect basic game design reminiscent of that observed ten years ago.
Which brings us full circle to the opening of this review: what have we learned over ten years, and have we innovated on the formula? Revisiting Hammerwatch isn’t a bad idea because it was an indie darling at the time. But what makes old games in the modern era enthralling is how inspired, novel game design freshens up the old. No one would expect the developers to completely revamp what gives Hammerwatch II its identity, but I felt like I was playing a ten-year-old game the entire time.
Dungeons have random walls, corridors, and furniture that seems intended to add character or a sense that this is something’s home. But rarely are these decorations coherent, and they lack the gravitas that might endear someone to each location. Every cave, sewer, and tower feels like an asset dump with little sense of place. Worst of all, that simple, addicting gameplay I referenced earlier becomes a slog as enemies become meat shields and dungeons turn needlessly labyrinthine in the last third or so. Enemy assets are reused frequently, and enemy attack patterns lack depth. Fortunately, speccing one’s character and making hard decisions on what abilities to learn make for a somewhat thoughtful jaunt, so each level up has weight.
As has been the trend in this review, Hammerwatch II’s visuals and sound design feel dated, as well. At points near the end of the game, I was surprised with a banger track, but this was the exception to the rule in an otherwise ho-hum soundtrack. Visually, enemies animate fine if you’re into sprites, but I would never suggest Hammerwatch II is an artistic game. Bosses are the exception: they clearly received a great deal of labor, making them feel both intimidating and momentous.
Hammerwatch II is stuck in the past, which is a shame, because with some added niceties or more thoughtful design, it has the potential to be as impactful as its predecessor. An unoriginal premise doesn’t have to kill a game’s narrative, but with text walls and inconsequential, filler phrasing, caring about this world is nearly impossible. Being a fan of Hammerwatch, I found this review hard to write. For the first time I can ever remember, I actually put off writing a review, because the idea of hammering (heh) this out brought discomfort. I take no joy in the negativity of this review, but I feel like would-be consumers need the information to make wise purchasing decisions and the developers need the feedback.