Heroes of Hammerwatch Ultimate Edition PS4 review. “YOU DIED – YOUR APPALLING PERFORMANCE PAID OFF”, Heroes of Hammerwatch tells me in furious crimson, all-caps text on my first playthrough; a brutal yet apt reminder of just how much my initial foray into the game sucked. In reality, I merely turned around for a seeming split-second to pick up something that fallen on the floor before my hapless knight was chewed into pieces by Brock Lesnar sized ticks. But yeah, I sucked.
Heroes Of Hammerwatch: Ultimate Edition PS4 Review
Heroes of Hammerwatch doesn’t suffer fools gladly that much is for sure and yet, despite the lo-fi profile and charming retro simplicity of its audiovisual presentation, Heroes of Hammerwatch nonetheless ably acquits itself as one of the most fiendishly compelling and clever dungeon crawlers on the market. It’s just a shame that the game released in December 2020 which was basically Hell Month for so many folks. As such, it’s easy to see why when combined with its humble visuals that Heroes of Hammerwatch was so easily overlooked.
A common point of reference for the critique of any dungeon crawler tends to be Blizzard’s Diablo, but Heroes of Hammerwatch arguably owes a debt to a much older and often forgotten title in Gauntlet.
A Clever And Ingenious Evolution Of The Classic Gauntlet Formula
Certainly, rather than slavishly following in Blizzard’s genre defining dungeon crawler, Heroes of Hammerwatch instead feels like what Gauntlet could have evolved into if, you know, folks decided to evolve it. There’s no real story here that will wow you with its world building or deep characters and unlike Diablo, the emphasis on character build theorycrafting and gear synergy just isn’t on the same level. Instead, Heroes of Hammerwatch follows Gauntlet’s golden age design lineage where it’s all about killing stuff, destroying enemy generators and getting as far as you can, but with absolute lashings of roguelike goodness drizzled on top of it all.
At the beginning of your monster smacking career you’re given the choice from a quartet of different heroes that fall into usual fantasy tropes, with more unlocked as you progress through the game. You have your close combat focused Paladin, the Sorcerer that’s obsessed with raining long distance damage down on their enemies and so on and so forth. Though hardly revolutionary in their inclusion, each class nonetheless does a commendable job of allowing players ample amounts of creative latitude when it comes to matching up with playstyle.
Because I have zero finesse and largely abhor the notion of standing at some safe remove like any sane person would, I naturally chose the Paladin. After all, the notion of being a self-righteous meat grinder is a hardly a departure from the character archetypes that I usually choose in other similar games. It’s here that Heroes of Hammerwatch imparts its first and most deadly lesson pretty quickly and where the comparisons to Diablo begin to evaporate like a jury during a mafia trial.
You see, whereas Diablo enables players of almost any melee class to simply thrust their head into the nearest throng of bad dudes and windmill their arms like some sort of crazed, murder whisk from Boston Dynamics with penalty, Heroes of Hammerwatch puts a stop to that crap pretty immediately – you gotta earn that. Again, harkening back to its inspiration from 80s arcade legend Gauntlet, just about everything that can hurt you in Heroes of Hammerwatch can put you in the ground really, really quickly (see exhibit 1A – my initial, slightly whiny first paragraph for reference).
It’s certainly quite plausible to underestimate the steeply rising challenge that Heroes of Hammerwatch dishes out, not least because those diminutive and occasionally cutesy sprites of can lure you into a false sense of security. Lurking underneath its somewhat unassuming veneer is a dungeon crawler which prizes mastery above all else. Sure, you have skills that can be unlocked, buffs that can be accrued, powerful items that can be collected and gear that can be improved, but really a defining measure of whether you live or end up as a fine red mist is all down to the functional affinity that you have with your chosen class.
Let’s take the Paladin for example. In other dungeon crawlers, this righteous knight is often a wonderfully durable meat shield that embodies a pitch perfect marriage of swishing steel and helpful healing spells. Here, even the weakest enemy can damage you greatly and so the focus shifts from the usual smash-mouth approach that often proves all too tempting to take in these sorts of affairs, to a much more measured stratagem. Here you need to evade and backpedal from your foes, expertly judging the arc of your attack swings to do as much damage as possible while in turn absorbing as little grief as you can in return.
Equally, the Sorcerer behaves almost entirely differently to how current hack and slash affairs have conditioned you to believe. Though the basic tenet of striking from a distance remains true, the manner in which you engage in your magical malice is rather different. Once more in a nod to Gauntlet rather than Diablo, the Sorcerer can rebound damaging projectiles off of walls with the damage increasing with each rebound. This in turn allows the robed ravager to absolutely devastate hapless enemies who have funnelled themselves into a tight corridor.
Then there are the levels. Encompassing much more than just this year’s hottest look for dungeon keepers everywhere, each area in Heroes of Hammerwatch has its own idiosyncrasies and perils that are a joy and a terror to discover for the first time. In the prison area for example, there are special hidden switches which will open up the prison chambers and allow you to scoop up all the loot within. While in the armory area, each level contains three statues which must be destroyed in order for you to proceed on, should you fail to do so in good time however, expect to be flooded with ghostly folk who have a bit of a thing for murder.
So clearly Heroes of Hammerwatch has a great deal of depth where little was expected, but it goes so much further than that. The whole venturing into dungeons and smacking bad dudes until they die thing doesn’t exist in design vacuum, but rather is just one part of much larger and surprisingly progressive design superstructure which dovetails with Hammerwatch’s roguelike sensibilities.
Heroes of Hammerwatch follows the basic roguelike design bedrock; you collect gold, gear, loot and then you die and lose it all, but keep your experience points allowing you to gain more skills via successive playthroughs. So far, so Roguelike 101. One of the ways that Heroes of Hammerwatch differs from the status quo is through taxation – yep, you can’t even escape it here I’m afraid to say.
Each level that you tackle has a high chance to feature a lift which allows you to shuttle up your hard won gold and ore (more on that in a bit) to the surface, allowing you to effectively ‘bank’ it without having to worry about dying and losing it all. The kicker though, is that each time you do this an increasingly weighty tax levy is applied to the gold totals that you send away to your savings account, resulting in fewer gold being sent saved with each use – though ore is not affected.
In this sense, Heroes of Hammerwatch begins to neatly craft a risk/reward dynamic that preys on your paranoia. Do you spend longer in an especially dangerous dungeon, battering nasty and evil things to pieces while you scoop up loot like a Dyson Loot Hoover 5000(tm) in hope of a bigger, but more risky haul which you could lose at any time? Or, do you bank your loot at every opportunity you get, resulting in a progressively smaller yield for your hard won fat stacks?
And this is the thing, even when you lose (die) in Hammerwatch, you still win. Gain in Hammerwatch isn’t just measured in tangibles – such as loot, gear, trinkets or accrued skills. Instead, learning patterns of enemies is a loot all of its own and not only adds to your level of understanding but also helps you to improve for future playthroughs.
Sitting atop this is another layer of roguelike complexity that the developer wields with a practiced hand. As well as being able to level up your character, Heroes of Hammerwatch encourages players to pour their hard earned gold and ore into improving their mercenary camp hub area. Much more than just a cosmetic construct for your hero to indulge in some downtime, your mercenary camp is absolutely instrumental in the advancement of your character and progression through the game.
By upgrading your town hall, you’re able to construct other buildings such as a blacksmith, trainer and more that all provide your character with permanent skill buffs, additional abilities and more besides. Elsewhere, an in-game achievements system provides accomplishments for fulfilling certain pre-requisites such as killing a certain number of enemies, collecting a specific amount of loot and so on. Rather than existing in a vacuum, these accomplishments are actually used to level up your mercenary guild, with each new level providing substantial loot and rewards to our plucky hero in the process.
In Heroes of Hammerwatch then, there’s always something to do, something to work towards and something to achieve. It’s a toweringly clever offering that like other dungeon crawlers works best when played with others. There’s a neat trick with how co-op is handled too. If your fellow adventurer decided to drop dead from death, you can resurrect them by linking your souls together. What this actually means however is that not only is your health and mana immediately halved upon the resurrection of your friend, but if either of you die, you both die now too. Fun!
As pleasant a surprise as Heroes of Hammerwatch is however, there are a couple of sizable flaws that do sadly tarnish the overall experience. Sure enough co-op is in the game as I’ve just said, but it’s bafflingly restricted to online multiplayer only, rather than allowing folks to play together in the sort of local setting that has provided dungeon crawlers with such a fervent fanbase on PlayStation.
Further afield while the visual style is a charming throwback, the humble budget and resulting lack of any kind of spectacle or other such flourishes make Heroes of Hammerwatch feel a touch shy, clinical even, in its embrace of your retinas. Heroes of Hammerwatch’s technical limitations are glimpsed elsewhere too. When new buildings are constructed, the game has a little black loading screen to load in the new assets, rather than showing you the building being constructed in real-time.
It might seem churlish to criticise what is otherwise an excellent title in this way, but Heroes of Hammerwatch’s technical presentation might well prove initially jarring to those who are used to more opulence in their dungeon crawling diet. Away from the visuals though, Heroes of Hammerwatch has an absolutely infectious ear worm of a soundtrack that deftly marries up foot tapping, retro chiptune beats with much more grand orchestral style music in its later levels. In short, the soundtrack for Heroes of Hammerwatch does a commendable job of stroking your earholes.
And then, finally, there’s the size of the thing. That ‘ultimate edition’ suffix isn’t just for kicks, as the PlayStation debut of Heroes of Hammerwatch includes absolutely all of the post release, new game plus and expansion content that was unleashed after the game first arrived on PC back in 2018 which basically feels like 3,000 years ago now.
With everything that went on at the end of last year, it’s easy to see why Heroes of Hammerwatch didn’t garner the attention that it so richly deserves. A sterling dungeon crawler that stands out as easily among the most clever and ingenious of the genre, much as I was able to correct my own failings by not playing this great little game when it first came out, now you should too.
Heroes of Hammerwatch: Ultimate Edition is out now on PlayStation 4.
Review code kindly provided by publisher.