In between penning the epic Saga of Urist Redbeard, I’ve managed to find a little time to continue my indie game stint. Having finished LIMBO and Bastion, the next game on my list was Hammerfight, a game by Konstantin Koshutin and KranX Productions.

I’d actually played a demo of Hammerfight several years ago, back when it was called Hammerfall. I presume the name was changed to avoid any confusion with Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls games, in which there is a province called Hammerfell. Anyway, I was impressed by the core mechanic in Hammerfight which is, as far as I know, completely original. A 2D side-view game, Hammerfight puts the player in control of a flying machine, which is moved around the screen by moving the mouse. Strapped to said machine is some manner of melee weapon: a flail, hammer, sword or similar. By flying the machine around with the mouse, the player must swing the weapon, gather momentum, and then strike enemies with it. It makes more sense in motion, and can be seen much more easily in a gameplay video like this one.

I finally got a copy of the full game as part of the Humble Indie Bundle 3 (sadly no longer available, but you can still buy Hammerfight on Steam) and played through it. Here’s what I think!

Overall, I’m very impressed. The core concept is brilliant, and the physics engine it relies on is tuned perfectly. The controls immediately feel natural, and yet the gameplay takes time to master. There’s also a great amount of depth in the combat systems, with various weapons handling differently and the strategic use of armor plating and thrown weapons lending some spice to battles. But what impresses me most is where all the action is set.

The world of Hammerfight is mostly sky. Human settlements cling to the sides of cliffs. Traders tame and breed the giant flying worms that can be found in the caves below, and use them as makeshift zeppelins. These flying caravans ferry goods between the cliffside cities and dwellings. The cave systems that the worms come from are known as the Abyss, a cursed place which collapsed long ago, burying the sins of the ancients. But some of the old machines can still be found in the caves, and the people have salvaged small flying vehicles which they use for all sorts of things. Including war.

There are several clans and Houses, each with their own ancestral cliffs, and they frequently vie for power and resources. Over the years, different clans developed preferred weapons and fighting styles, and the art of aerial combat became a grand tradition. The clans seem to be modeled after desert-dwelling nomadic cultures, which fits the harsh setting of the game. This is a world where merchants stave off dangerous flying worms and insects to ply their trades, and clan warriors fight across the skies for honor and glory.

It’s a fascinating setting, with many historical and cultural details in the background, hinted at and implied rather than overtly explained. Unfortunately, the translation from the original Russian is not particularly strong; it communicates the basics but seems to lose a lot of the nuance. Still, it makes the rather simple story of revenge far more interesting when it’s set in such an intriguing place. Learning more about the world is the real draw in the short campaign, which impressively offers several branching paths the player may choose. Hammerfight even tracks whether or not the player has shown mercy on enemies, disarming them or letting them retreat rather than killing them. The various characters in the story will respond differently based on how the player handled these encounters.

The game is quite pretty, too, with beautiful sprites and backdrops that really help portray the feel of the world and its people. And the backdrops aren’t merely for decoration — errant hammer strikes will knock bricks from walls, banners and ropes can be set ablaze, and sometimes there are even some casualties among the spectators in particularly chaotic arena battles. There’s a slew of impressive graphical effects too, and some great audio design. Light glints off of weapons. Smoke billows from the rudimentary firearms that some enemies use. The motors powering the flying machines putter and rumble, and sharp movements are accompanied with a bang and a cloud of black exhaust. Enemies explode in showers of coins, which can be collected to buy better weapons. Motion blur and particle effects create a jumbled mess on the screen when the player is stunned in battle, effectively translating the character’s confusion directly to the player.

In fact, early on it can be quite hard to figure out what’s happening in some of the fights, and this is not helped by a very steep difficulty curve. The game explains the basic mechanics well, and they feel quite natural, but the subtleties aren’t touched on until much later (if at all), leaving the player a bit at a loss when coming to terms with the difficult AI enemies. Understanding how to deal with being stunned, or that one can taunt and goad enemies into attacking by “wiggling” their craft quickly with the mouse, or that particularly solid strikes will induce a slow-motion “super mode” where one’s weapon becomes heavier and more powerful but also much harder to control — these things are left for the player to divine. Or alternatively, one can just look at some fan-made explanatory videos, like this one (PROFANITY WARNING, also one very minor plot spoiler), which helped me immensely.

But once you get the hang of it, Hammerfight really is a lot of fun. The gameplay itself is rather arcade-like, with each level a small (often single-screen) arena-style combat scenario, and the player is given fame and glory scores at the end. But these simple levels are interwoven into the story well, and provide a surprising amount of variety. There are escort missions, team battles against flying beasts, and even some non-combat sporting events like Hammerball. Throughout the story mode the player will unlock various bonus game modes, including a worm hunt that can be repeated at higher and higher difficulties and is great for earning money, and an arena mode where the player can try out fancy new weapons against AI challengers. These modes provide extra longevity for the game after the storyline is finished.

And I really should reiterate how good the combat is. Not only do all the weapons have a different weight and feel, but they promote different fighting styles as well. Swing a big, heavy mace around is quite different from fighting with a quick, slashing blade, which doesn’t need as much momentum to cut up an opponent. There’s even the option to link two weapons together, creating a double-bladed “staff” which offers completely different combat handling. Then there are a few firearms, which must be linked to another weapon and require the player to learn the art of precise aiming. Add in armor plates, thrown knives and javelins, and even some bombs, and there’s quite a lot of variety to the combat. Learning and mastering combat skills is incredibly satisfying.

I should note that I did have a few technical niggles with the game. First, there were issues getting it to display in fullscreen properly. The game runs at 800×600 which I had hoped to scale up, letterboxed. But this resulted in a strangely squashed image, unless I disabled “FX”. But I want my FX. So I had to mess around in the configuration files to manually set the resolution, which then displayed properly, but off-center for some reason (as you can see in the screenshots) [EDIT: I ended up cropping them for this post]. I was satisfied with that though. The other thing is that mouse sensitivity settings need some fiddling… the options menu should be any player’s first stop. The auto-detect doesn’t do a great job, so I suggest manually changing the DPI settings, preferably to a low value as this will increase the sensitivity. I ended up using the lowest possible setting, but I was pleased with the result.

I went through the campaign twice in order to try some of the other branching options, and I’ll probably keep coming back to the arena game mode whenever I need a fix of satisfying, hammer-smashing action. I hope to see a sequel some day, as I’d love to play through some more stories in the strange world of Hammerfight. But for now I can still beat up on some poor, hapless gladiators and try to complete my arsenal.

If you can handle a bit of technical fiddling and you don’t mind a steep difficulty curve, I definitely recommend taking a look at Hammerfight. For those undecided, there’s a free demo on Steam you can try, and who can argue with free?

I hope you find glory in the skies.

[EDIT: I’ve been forgetting to note down games that can be played with one hand. Hammerfight is controlled almost entirely with the mouse, the keyboard only employed for optional hotkeys, making it a great candidate for a one-handed game.]