The early access demo for Crackshell’s Hammerwatch II is everything I wanted from a hand-crafted Hammerwatch sequel and there’s a good chance it’ll bring back fans that disliked the inherently repetitive, procedurally-generated, rogue-lite structure of Heroes of Hammerwatch.
It fleshes out the story and lore; brings back the sprawling, secret-filled dungeons as interconnected regions like in the Temple of the Sun expansion; expands upon the character build and gear system from Heroes of Hammerwatch to bring it closer to that of a traditional RPG; and it enhances the visual style to support beautiful over-world areas, more varied interiors, and more distinctive character sprites.
There’s an actual story now
The first big change is immediately obvious when Hammerwatch II opens with a lengthy intro that retcons and reframes the events of its predecessor.
An alliance between King Roland’s brother and the evil necromancer, “Blight”, sees three dragons defeat his armies and sack the kingdom. The dragons were then sent to guard the borders of the kingdom while the king’s brother took control and the necromancer recovered their power. This allowed a few remaining loyalists to rescue the king and begin a rebellion.
Three squads of veteran adventurers were sent to defeat each dragon, hopefully leaving the necromancer vulnerable to destruction before their full power was restored. The group of adventurers you played in Hammerwatch was one such party and the sequel – which assumes you found all those damnable secret planks – picks up as they emerge from the crumbling castle on Hammer Island and prepare to set sail back to the mainland.
A bigger world, better combat, more complex systems
The retconned and expanded narrative elements, coupled with the new map structure, mean a lot more NPCs with dialogue and traditional RPG questing – including an actual journal and bugs-in-cellar starter quest! You adventure across a dense over-world connected to sprawling, multi-level dungeons no less intricate than those found in the first game and still filled with plenty of secrets and deadly traps.
In the Hammer Island region available in the demo, there’s a harbour town with plot-essential characters, several secondary quest-givers, and abundant NPCs that dole out a bit of flavour text. Storytelling is still not the focus, so you won’t find dialogue choices or the ability to turn down quests, but – just like the Temple of the Sun expansion – it makes the world feel a little more alive and reactive, though you’ll still be interacting with vendors and trainers primarily.
The quests that are doled out are traditional RPG fare and, as such, a mixed bag. Those significant to the plot will direct you to specific dungeons to rescue key NPCs or defeat a boss for a key item. The rest are a mix of engaging: think digging up items based on simple maps you need to correlate to the map; or formulaic: think killing or finding X-number of something.
The latter feel more like filler you can complete on the way to the main quest objectives, but I did notice drops or enemy spawns have a degree of randomness and it was frustrating to re-run a dungeon, with respawning enemies and destructible, to complete a few.
Of course, the core gameplay loop in the sequel remains unchanged – kill lots and lots and lots of mobs from an isometric perspective, ideally with friends, while getting better at it all the time.
In classic Gauntlet-style, you’re always going up against large mobs that can swamp you, so staying mobile, baiting stragglers, kiting enemies into kill zones, and investing in AoE skills – regardless of whether you’re a paladin, ranger, or wizard – remains essential if you don’t want every battle to involve 10 minutes of backpedalling. When it comes to the bosses, they’re once again escalating multi-phase battles against damage-sponges that force you to find a gap while dodging screen-filling attacks, environmental hazards, and sometimes minions.
Thankfully, movement and combat feel more satisfying than ever in Hammerwatch II, with the progression mechanics from Heroes of Hammerwatch expanded upon and refined. There are rarity-tiered gear drops and some light inventory management; abundant resources for trading, alchemy recipes, and crafting upgrades; and multi-tier, multi-level skill trees you invest points into by paying trainers and gaining levels from quest or combat XP.
I settled on the Ranger for most of my playtime and, from the get-go, I could be more aggressive and tactical with dual daggers, a chargeable bow shot, an AoE thorns spell, and a dodge-roll on a cooldown. It was still easy to see my health-bar shredded if I stumbled into a trap or got cornered, but the sequel uses the Diablo-style respawn system from Heroes of Hammerwatch, so I could just choose where to respawn with only a gold penalty. I don’t know if the balancing is representative of the final game, but it was a far cry from the slow start Hammerwatch suffered from.
Hand-crafted environments and CRT filters!
Hammerwatch’s grid-like pixel-art aesthetic was always divisive but it worked well with the puzzle, trap, and secret-filled level design; and I appreciated the trade-off between atmosphere and readability, ensuring you could always keep track of your hero no matter the size of the battle and visual chaos.
Hammerwatch II has stuck with that style but enhanced the visuals to provide more detailed and interactive environments, full of fine details and visually-diverse destructibles, paired with a time-of-day system and dynamic atmospheric effects like mist, wind, and rain. The visuals complement the dense, hand-crafted environments that still make full use of the map without feeling too artificial and grid-like. It feels a lot like the shift from 8-bit isometric RPGs to the 16-bit era.
Character sprites are still squat and chunky but easier to differentiate beyond a palette swap and include unique battle cries and distinct attack sounds. As with their prior games, the soundtrack is brilliant and often reworks classic tracks when you’re in or around the ruins of Castle Hammerwatch.
The trade-off is a much busier environment and a line-of-sight system, often making it hard to see some enemy types when there’s such a stark contrast between light and dark areas – especially if you’re using the CRT filter options I so love. It was still my preferred way to play but I walked into far more ambushes than I ever did in the prior games and some might prefer to disable or tone down the visual filters.
Retconned, refined, and RPG-ified!
As I played through before the demo went live, my only lingering concerns are the coop balance – can we expect more monsters, tankier monsters, and will we get local coop on consoles again – and whether the kill-X or collect-Y secondary quests will begin to feel like padding if they require rerunning dungeons and hoping for good RNG drops.
Regardless, I feel Hammerwatch II is set to be a fantastic follow-up for fans of the original, while still retaining a lot of the progression mechanics and combat enhancements some enjoyed in the Heroes of Hammerwatch spin-off. There’s more storytelling, satisfying combat from the start, much deeper RPG systems to build your character, and a beautiful hand-crafted world I can’t wait to explore more of.
Hammerwatch II was previewed on PC using a code provided to gameblur by the publisher. It will also be available on Xbox One/Series S|X, PS4/5, and Nintendo Switch.