Hammerwatch II – PS5 Review

Hammerwatch II is a top-down RPG hack and slasher from Swedish studio, CrackShell.  It follows on directly from the 2013 original Hammerwatch, pretty much ignoring their 2018 rogue-like Heroes of Hammerwatch, a game that had its flaws but one that we liked enough to put in hundreds of hours with.  Even now we’ll occasionally tweet our admiration for that game’s best features.

The plot, which comes and goes via static screens full of text, explains that you’ve just killed the dragon that tormented everyone in the first game but that there’s no time to rest as there are more dragons out there to kill.  We’re kind of skimming over it but so does the game and with the way the story is presented, you’ll likely just ignore it and crack on with the quests as and when they appear.

Starting the game throws you into a quick and simple character creator where you can pick from one of five classes – Paladin, Rogue, Ranger, Warlock and Wizard – and customise their look a little with hairstyles and garment colours.  You’re then thrown into the castle basement where the first game ends where you need to fight your way out and get out into the large open worlds that this new game is comprised of.

Once out it’s pretty standard stuff, you’ll speak to people, get quests, hand in completed ones and visit various shops in an effort to upgrade your inventory and, ultimately, your survivability in what is a pretty tricky game.  That’s down to the combat which is as tough as ever in a series that doesn’t shy away from making your life miserable at times.  But thankfully your character starts with several abilities with scope to upgrade them and learn new ones.

While the game was clearly developed for the PC first, as evidenced by it using the right stick to control a mouse-style cursor (yuck!), CrackShell have done what they can to cram in all these skills into the joypad layout and the game uses the same sort of control system as the previous two games with your attacks and skills all being mapped to various shoulder buttons and triggers.  Figuring out what each one does it part of the initial challenge as, much like the previous games, Hammerwatch II doesn’t look out for new players at all.  It bothered us on Heroes of Hammerwatch, with my co-op partner and I regularly checking Google for key information, and it’s still annoying here.  It even happens with a little strategy mini-game that shows up.  They just throw you in with no rules.  It’s madness!  Everything has to be figured out by the player and that’d be fine if it wasn’t for one thing, Hammerwatch II‘s god-awful interface.

Something as simple as starting a game in co-op is as tricky as any quest in the game.  You can’t just invite someone.  Nope, you have to set up a lobby, leave it open, hope that your partner(s) find your lobby before anyone else jumps in and then make it private (unless you’re looking to play with randoms of course) and this matters because, as with the other games, you’ll want to do this game in co-op.  As a single-player experience it’s more of a chore than it is fun but that was true of Heroes and that ended up keeping us compelled for ages in co-op, so that’s not a huge criticism.

In game, things get worse.  Weapons and items have stats but these are represented by icons that don’t tell you what they mean.  Binding attacks, skills and items to new controls involves using the most convoluted, slippery radial wheel interface we’ve ever used.  An in-game map gives you the least information possible and doesn’t even let you track quests.  So, if for example, a bland looking pixel art character asks you to find something and then, an hour later, you retrieve it, you’ll need to remember who they were, what they wanted and where they are if you want to hand in the quest.  Not that the quests ever seem to elevate beyond that sort of thing anyway.  Find this, kill that.  Lazy fetch questing from a decade or two ago.  The in-play mini-map is marginally better though, even if it will get you killed as it overlays your screen.

That said, after a fairly miserable start and a lot of getting lost (and confused), Hammerwatch II does start to find its feet a bit.  The combat can be engaging (once you figure out the controls and your build) and getting better loot and levelling up always feels good.  But it’s all very dated.  This feels like Hammerwatch in so many ways and the dated UI, presentation and RPG systems have since been surpassed even by other cheap and cheerful indie games.  There’s depth here but that just makes things all the more unintuitive at times.

But that’s not the worst of it.  Normally when a game is ported from PC to PSN at this kind of price bracket, we’re used to seeing bugs at release that are mentioned on the game’s Steam discussion page months or even years ago and Hammerwatch/Heroes of Hammerwatch were full of issues especially when it came to netcode that never got fixed.  So when my co-op partner was disconnected from my game, he said ‘ah yes, that’s the Hammerwatch I remember.’  And we’re not convinced it’ll ever get ironed out.  We can usually forgive bugs at release during reviews because they usually get fixed but we’re not hopeful on this one.

So he gets kicked out and then he couldn’t rejoin.  Meaning I had to restart the whole game, deal with that nonsense lobby and get him back in.  And that also highlighted another weird Hammerwatch quirk that just never needed to exist.  Only the host has a save.  The other players don’t even generate one.  So all the progress my co-op partner made only exists in my save.  He can’t take that back into his own game.  No quest progression, no inventory, no stats.  Isn’t that just the weirdest thing given that it’s 2024 next week?

And somehow, even worse than that the host also gets issues.  When a player falls in combat, they leave a grave marker behind and other players can revive them.  But what happened to me is that I, as the host, just disappeared in my own game.  I didn’t die, I just stopped existing.  It behaved like I died, giving me a ‘spectate’ prompt that you see when killed usually, but my partner couldn’t revive me.  Oh well.  Another restart.

This all reminds us of a cooking competition.  If you’re going to make sausages and mash, you better nail every element.  There’s nowhere to hide when you keep it simple.  Hammerwatch II gives us a simple top-down RPG hack and slasher but all the elements have flaws.  Even the visuals.  Sure the pixel art style is very dated now but the game does have some pretty scenes.  Unfortunately, it also has horrible washed-out lighting whenever you are indoors and it uses a ‘fog of war’ thing that leads to clunky, plasmic areas of dark grey and black that look rubbish.  The game gives you the usual inventory system but hides the information you really need from it and uses a clumsy control system that often gets in the way.  Even the sound design is ruined by some tunes that loop a little too quickly and become irritating and by the very limited voice acting which really just comes down to samples of your player saying ‘I need stamina’, ‘more stamina’, ‘I’m out of stamina’ more often than you’ll likely be willing to hear.

Hammerwatch II shows a series that hasn’t really progressed in ten years since the original game and, if we’re being honest, we’d rather this had been a sequel to Heroes than just the first game but in a bigger, harder to navigate world.  There’s stuff in there that can be compelling, at a basic RPG kind of level, but really it feels like it is fighting you literally all of the time.

Hammerwatch II
4 Overall
+ A big RPG with lots to do
+ Plenty of loot and levelling up opportunities
- Netcode is broken
- Barely explains anything
- Awful interface
- Storytelling and quest design is dated and uninteresting
- Rough controls
- Visuals vary from nice to pretty bad
For everything Hammerwatch II does well, there's a downside. In a series that is now a decade old, this is the worst game in it and it suffers from issues that the studio should have resolved long ago. Maybe it just isn't a good fit for consoles or maybe the developers technical skill doesn't match their ambition but whatever it is, we feel pretty let down by this one.

About Richie

Rich is the editor of PlayStation Country. He likes his games lemony and low-budget with a lot of charm. This isn't his photo. That'll be Rik Mayall.

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