Hack 'N' Slash
Beginning as an elf with a sword in a cave prison, ‘Hack ‘n’ Slash’ could easily be forgiven for being mistaken for an old-school Zelda clone. Though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, the whole game bleeds a classic adventure vibe right down to the green tunic and loudmouthed fairy companion – that is, until you swing your sword and it splinters into a USB stick. Plugging your USBlade into the cell door reveals a single option of ‘GateDoor open = false’. Pop that sucker to ‘true’ and the door clangs open, and thus the crux of the game reveals itself.
For all its Zelda trappings, Hack ‘n’ Slash is actually a puzzle game underneath. Anything with a USB port (and some things without) can be hacked in a similar fashion. Your options quickly swing wide into a dizzying array of options: rather than kill an enemy, you can instead hack its damage output so you receive health instead or set it to explode on contact to clear your path. Why not reduce their movement speed to 0 or nullify their field of vision? Blocks, enemies and obstacles: the foundation of the game is in fiddling with all their values to overcome the many puzzles you will face. It’s a bold concept, which comes as no surprise from the innovators at Double Fine, and anyone who has worked with coding in their past will rejoice at all the code on display
It’s unfortunate then that this intriguing concept quickly becomes utterly impenetrable for the rest of us. A game expecting outside the box thinking is one thing, but once you acquire the ability to dive into the code itself and start messing with actual programming values, anyone who doesn’t have experience in computer science will run into a steep wall of difficulty. The sheer breadth of choice offered before also means that there is never any clear answer. If you get stuck (and most people will get stuck), then the game becomes a frustrating process of fiddling with values until something works.
Once you get your head around each puzzle, that moment of “I AM THE ULTRA-GENIUS” floods in as reliably as ever, but therein lies the rub: the game can simply be too hard. The aforementioned programming rooms are given perhaps 10 seconds of explanation before you are thrown in and expected to start telling your ports from your values flawlessly. Other small issues mar the experience as well: dodgy collision detection, extremely narrow paths and resetting rooms shine the brightest of these bruises. When a game demands broad solutions like this one, it’s also necessary to make that solutions easy to implement, and much time is lost hurrying back and forth to put in the answer that you hope this time is right.
But this is a Double Fine joint: where a game like this might be saved is in the story. Other earlier titles like Costume Quest and Psychonauts boasted amazing atmosphere, balancing their unique gameplay aspects with simple, endearing characters and off-the-wall worlds and stories. Even Brutal Legend, for all its flaws, offered a melancholy tale of wish-fulfilment amongst its strange mix of strategy and action. Here, the characters simply lack character. Your elf and fairy, Alice and Bob, are as bland as their names; the evil wizard you battle against is shockingly nondescript for a main antagonist. While an old-school Zelda could get away with this, the stream of average jokes and non-conversations you are instead given simply aren’t up to par with the kind of world Double Fine usually crafts. Fatally, you don’t want to proceed, so a particularly stubborn puzzle will make it that much easier to give up on the game completely.
- Unique concept
- Challenging, varied puzzles
- Flat characters and story
- Sharp difficulty curve
Overall, Hack ‘n’ Slash is a perfect example of ‘your mileage may vary’. It’s a game where the title pun was made first and the puzzles second, with everything else tying for a distant third. Though competent in execution and very rewarding when you do beat those persistent puzzles, the rest of the package is missing that Double Fine character which sets their games apart. Offset your money to a programming course instead.