Version tested: PC
At the gnarled and gore-encrusted heart of Hammerwatch is a combo system of pleasing simplicity. To trigger it, you must kill a bunch of enemies very quickly, and then once it's in motion, you can upgrade it in a number of straightforward ways - to deal 360-degree damage, say, or to heal. You can build it, too, by killing more enemies. It's action game design at its most basic, and it works.
In order to feed the combos, Hammerwatch needs to ensure that you have plenty of enemies to massacre at all times - and this is a favour it's very happy to grant. Grubs, skeletons, wandering eyeballs: these standard fantasy baddies wait for you in packs around every corner, spawning from pits or rotten tree trunks or mysterious fountains. Along with a standard attack, each character has a special that can generally be counted on to do a lot of damage at once, and so, as you move from combo to combo, a pleasant rhythm settles in. Throw yourself into the fray to power yourself up. Get into trouble so you can get out of trouble again.
Around this central relationship is a game of equal simplicity, a straight-up dungeon-crawl in the spirit of Gauntlet. There's a handful of familiar character classes (the paladin's a melee tank with a deadly dash, for example, while the wizard's low on health but just look at the flames he can conjure); there's the lightest trace of a backstory (the bridge has collapsed behind you, so why not keep going, eh?); and the bulk of the game consists of working your way up through a series of stacked dungeons, eviscerating baddies, standing on rune-splattered pressure plates to unlock secret areas or open the path to the boss, grabbing all the gold you can find, and then using your spoils to make you incrementally better at eviscerating baddies.
Like Gauntlet, the whole thing's designed around multiplayer, of course, and you should know in advance that if you're soloing Hammerwatch, it's a bit of a slog. Levels are longer than you might expect and the odds are stacked heavily against you from the off. The perks you buy at vendors scattered about the maps take a little too long to get entertaining, and the bosses present roadblocks that will eat through your remaining lives with astonishing speed. On top of that, Hammerwatch goes against the current trend of procedural generation, so you're going to trudge across identical early levels over and over as you get better.
With friends, of course, none of this matters: you bundle around the corridors and arenas in a bait-ball of chaos, letting rip with melee, ranged and specials at anything that presents itself. You'll stop only to glug a potion or to check the map, and in the midst of the carnage, you'll start to realise that Hammerwatch's simple pieces are surprisingly effective at generating moments of proper panic.
This is the kiting-est game ever made, for example. Most enemy behaviour is tailored to give chase, so foes quickly form huge pursuing crowds - and this might explain why the best levels on offer turn out to be mazes. Dead ends and blind corners present glorious risks when you can't shoot backwards over your shoulder, and they tend to bring out the best in you as a result - they transform you into the frantic, cornered hero, determined to blast a way out of trouble no matter what. At times, Hammerwatch almost feels like a racing game (at least it does if you're using a pad rather than the surprisingly wretched keyboard controls) as you steer through wandering fiends at speed, gathering a pack of nasties in your wake.
Beyond all that? There are wave-based and survival modes and a rather daunting editor, and there's the delightfully grubby pixel art to take in throughout, which offers just the same kind of mead-splattered ambience as the game that so obviously inspired it. There's precious little depth lurking in Hammerwatch, then, but if you've got a few friends handy or are willing to wait around online for the worryingly small community to make itself known, this is genuine old-fashioned skeleton-bashing with a gloriously tidal approach to chucking in the enemies.
7 / 10