I played the original prototype of Hack ‘n’ Slash way back in 2012 for Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight. Back then, lead designer Brandon Dillon’s concept was unique and intriguing – take a Zelda-style fantasy game and replace typical combat and puzzles with code manipulation. Now that the game is in Early Access, some cracks have started to appear in its foundations. The concept is still sound, discovering new ways to manipulate enemies and objects to throw off the balance of traditional gameplay mechanics rarely gets tiresome, but with this comes the inevitable issue of designing levels and puzzles that are consistently fun and challenging without feeling like a chore. Let’s remember that programming, whilst a hobby for many, is also a job, one that can be rather strenuous at times.
Things start off fairly simply as Hack ‘n’ Slash eases you into its programming language and gameplay quirks. Armed with a USB tipped sword, our protagonist can plug into select objects and enemies in order to change the way they behave. Want a bush to dispense ten lives for you? Want an enemy to heal you every time it attacks you? Simple, just revert its damage value to a negative number. Want an enemy guard to zoom off at lightning speed and spear another guard? Simply change his allegiance to good and alter the distance and speed at which he moves. These parts of the game are really ingenious; they open up creative new avenues of play, and they turn what would otherwise be a paint-by-numbers action-puzzler into a fresh and exciting take on a classic genre. Unfortunately, giving the player this much leverage over the game’s code becomes something of a double-edged sword.
The ability to reduce enemies to a state of complete ineptitude is fun at first, but eventually it leaves enemy encounters with a low level of challenge. The developers seem to have realized this, because just after this realization comes a huge difficulty spike where puzzles are concerned. Some of these puzzles are dizzying practices in trial and error, some of them are easy to solve but difficult to escape (like a rather frustrating room full of harmful laser beams), some contain programming language and techniques that are simply too difficult for a layman like me to understand, and others were marred by the game’s archaic tile-based movement which led to clipping and collision errors.
At this point, Hack ‘n’ Slash is somewhat damaged by the very quirks that make it unique. Its puzzles are pretty impenetrable at times, because they play off of one’s ability to think laterally about how code affects the way the game works, rather than most puzzle games which play off of one’s ability to think “logically” about how tangible objects relate to and affect each other. In Hack ‘n’ Slash, you’re effectively solving puzzles that don’t exist in any kind of real space, which makes them incredibly difficult for those without the capacity to “see through the code”. On the flip side of the coin, “dumbing down” the puzzles would basically mean selling out on the entire unique premise of the game, making it just another puzzle game.
In terms of aesthetics, Hack ‘n’ Slash doesn’t pop with the colour and charm of previous Double Fine games like Costume Quest and The Cave. The juxtaposition of cyberpunk style hacking interfaces overlaid on top of classic fantasy backdrops is certainly striking, but at times it can be a little ugly to look at. Even Double Fine’s famous penchant for humour seems like it’s missing in Hack ‘n’ Slash. Sure the game is irreverent and makes cute meta jokes, but most of these gags don’t reach the heights of Stacking’s physical comedy or Broken Age‘s goofy sci-fi dialogue.
Of course, if you’re a programmer or someone with a brain that deals well with numbers (alas I am neither of these), then I’d sincerely recommend giving Hack ‘n’ Slash a look in. I’m not above admitting when a game bamboozles me, and that’s exactly what Hack ‘n’ Slash did. Its puzzles are basically a programmer’s wet dream, which is unfortunately what will put so many people off it. Hack ‘n’ Slash is certainly very clever, but it might just be too clever.