We flog foes and amass artifacts in City of Brass, and take on a challenge to improve Outlook (the city, not the widely scorned email client) in Heroes of Hammerwatch.
City of Brass, Uppercut Games (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One) $19.99
The influence of Indiana Jones permeates gaming, from the whip-based action of the Castlevania series to the exploration of exotic places in the Tomb Raider and Uncharted franchises. That said, the release of City of Brass is the closest developers have come to nailing the excitement and pervasive danger depicted in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Rendered in a first-person perspective, the game feels delight immersive.
Journey through the game’s succinct tutorial, and you won’t find much in the way of storyline. Instead, you’ll grasp the basics of navigation, loot-gathering, and combat. The former is conducted through movement of the analog sticks as well as jump button that lets you leap over gaps and traps, or mantle over edges. The whip you carry in your left hand can be attached to overhead objects, vaulting you across even larger distances. Similarly, it can be used to gather the ample amount of treasure spread across Brass’ twelve-stage trek. When you’re looking at an object of value, an icon appears, and a press of the left trigger instantly reels the value in, and you gain the worth of the artifact. As such, you’ll probably be flogging helpless barrels and vases, hoping to find a bit of extra coin.
Conveniently, your whip can also stun enemies, or even remove lethal objects from their hands. Initially, you’ll encounter lurching skeletons, and a bit of flogging will stop them in their tracks, permitting players to exterminate them with whatever is in your right hand. From swords, lanterns, combustible jars, to torches, there’s a nice variety of things to throw at adversaries. Lure them near an explosive vessel or onto a spike trap, and you can damage multiple foes at once, which feels especially satisfying.
But when all this is going on, you’ll have to pay attention to the environmental traps, which endow each area with a continuous feeling of threat. Unlike the wide-open expanses of the Uncharted or Tomb Raider games, the procedurally generated zones in City of Brass are deliberately sized, frequently funneling players through choke points, and through more open spaces with a high density of ensnarements. Naturally, there are a lot of visual signals for each type of trap, and your visual acuity will increase with each subsequently play through.
While the title might have struggled to offer a compelling twelve-hour campaign, Rogue-like mechanics ensure that brief playthroughs are enjoyable. A journey through the game’s four milieus is rather linear, with players moving from one discrete area to the next. While this might seem like a downside, it actually works to Brass’ benefit, removing the feeling of being lost or backtracking. As such, play feels focused, without the downtime exhibited by other action-adventures. The design also encourages players to gather every last valuable from an area, with stationed genies offering helpful abilities in return for some of your bank roll. There’s even one of the insurance agents out there, and remarkably, his policy is quite useful.
Potentially, a point of contention will be found with City of Brass’ use of timers. Instead of an instant ‘game over’ message when a clock has expired, the title uses a slightly more compassionate incentive, spawning deadly dervishes that can’t be killed into the level. It’s easy to see the rationale behind the decision. Uppercut Games wanted to amp up the level of tension and they’re certainly succeeded in that pursuit. But there’s going to be some that won’t like the inclusion, with the temptation for leisurely treasure collecting too high.
What’s won’t be argued is how gorgeous City of Brass looks. The Middle East is rather underutilized in gaming, and here the beauty of the context is demonstrated. With drawing on the fantastical elements of One Thousand and One Nights, the game captures the exquisiteness of architecture, with an abundance of minarets, cupolas, and domes as well as intricate lace and brickwork. Musically, the title employs a brilliantly understated score that permits players to listen for the aural signals of imminent danger.
Recommended for: players yearning for three-dimensional Spelunky.
Heroes of Hammerwatch, Craskshell (PC) $11.99
Crackshell’s 2013 release of Hammerwatch fulfilled several passions, extending an engaging, charmingly pixelated dungeon crawl. Reminiscent of Gauntlet, players selected from one of five classes (Knight, Ranger, Thief, Warlock, or Wizard), who each had their own distinctive abilities. With the ability to host local/online/LAN-based expeditions for up to four cooperative partners, Hammerwatch was also a stimulating test of the synergy of your adventuring party, or a consummate test if you ventured solo. If you stuck with it, you’d eventually conquer each area, as you memorized the level design.
With Heroes of Hammerwatch, that strategy is now obsolete. Using procedurally-generated levels, the sequel feels like an action-driven rogue-like, which offers a number of upsides. The most substantial benefit is the sense of motivation spurred by a system of persistent progression. The beginning of the game drops players in a near-abandoned mining town named Outlook, where you’ll assist ten of the surviving citizens build up the city back up. Fortunately, your motivation isn’t entirely altruistic. In turn, the folk vend opportunities for growth, creating a compelling gameplay cycle. Whether it’s the exploratory essentials sold by Darren the Supplier or forging a fountain that can invoke positive effects, there’s an ample number of projects to be pursued.
Unsurprisingly, the only way to finance these efforts in by risking your life gathering materials in the local mine. Collection involves two perilous hazards, Hammerwatch’s roving assortment of creatures and environmental traps like jutting floor spikes and walls that emit a nonstop succession of darts. The first require an array of strategies to deal with, since each types of foe behaves differently. The later tend to safeguard abundant amounts of coins, ore, and gemstones, but pleasingly, levels permit prudent players to circumvent these dangers.
Each level in the mine offers another intriguing risk/reward situation. Make your way to a mineral elevator and you can hoist all of your collected goods back to town for safekeeping, albeit at an excessive tax rate. Venture downward with materials in store and you might be able to secure a better deal, but you risk dying and losing everything. Pleasingly, the game’s low-fi visuals permit Heroes of Hammerwatch to run on even modest rigs. So, if you enjoy action-based Rogue-likes, the game’s twelve-dollar purchase price is quite fair.
Recommended for: gamers who can appreciate a cooperative tough-as-nails dungeon crawl.