Each year, indie studio Double Fine Productions holds an event they call ‘Amnesia Fortnight’. During this time, the staff of the studio put their current projects on hold and come up with prototypes for new games, the best of which are developed into full releases. Over the past few years, Double Fine have teamed up with the folks at Humble Bundle to involve the public and turn this into a charity event. They have each of their staff pitch an idea for a game and those members of the public who donate a small amount to charity get to vote on which ones they think are best. Prototypes are then created for these games and in some cases they make it all the way into becoming a full game. Hack ‘n’ Slash is one such title, winning the public vote in 2012, it has now been released as an in-development game onto Steam’s Early Access service.
The first thing to note about Hack ‘n’ Slash is that it is not in fact of the genre that it is named after. It is RPG-themed, but action-based combat is not what this is all about. Instead, the name refers to the fact that you progress through the game primarily by hacking it. You are joined in the game by a red sprite who is important to the game’s storyline and some tutorial tips. Upon entering the game you are trapped in a cell and your very first swing of your sword, in a futile effort to escape, will see you break the blade. This curiously leaves you with a USB connection for a weapon and your life as a hacker begins. It starts simple, with you plugging your sword into a handy USB port cell door, and setting the door to open.
After escaping, you are left to explore a landscape corrupted by an evil wizard. Throughout this it becomes apparent that various objects and enemies have their own USB ports and thus can be hacked. The hacking in this first part of the game will be familiar to anyone who has used one of those 16-bit cheat cartridges such as Datel’s Action Replay. It simply involves you change the values of certain properties for various objects in the game. You can’t directly do any harm to an enemy, but you can stop them doing harm to you by making them friendly, changing the damage they do, or how they move. By changing some characters to friendly and leaving others as enemies you can even pit them against each other.
As the game progresses, a variety of new objects are introduced which allow you to hack things in a variety of different ways and keep things interesting. The most notable of these are a magic hat and a loupe. The hat allows you to see hidden debug information about objects in the game, such as hidden platforms, the names of objects and enemy sight lines, the latter of which allows for some simple stealth-based gameplay. The loupe is introduced later and allows you to travel into a visual programming tool and actually modify functions behind selected objects in the game to change their behaviour. It’s important to note that this is a puzzle game and you don’t need to be a computer programmer to solve these - though having a logical mind will certainly help. You’ll mainly be following simple logic and changing the values used in simple mathematical functions.
It’s worth noting that Hack ‘n’ Slash is a difficult game. Not just because the puzzles are hard to solve, but more because you so frequently have little idea what to do next. You’re not given much direction in the game and are mostly left to figure things out for yourself. There is a variety of objects you collect along the way where it isn’t obvious what they do or where to use them. You will encounter puzzles where you’ll have no idea whether you’re stuck because you haven’t worked out how to solve them, or whether you don’t actually have the items or knowledge to solve them yet. The programming with the loupe is taught to you by presenting you with harder and harder problems for you to work out yourself rather than explaining how things work. This has the curious effect of making the first such puzzle take a lot more time than some of the more difficult ones which follow it. It’s not clear whether this lack of tutorial is by design or because the game is unfinished in its current preview state. Certainly it’s a perfectly legitimate game design, and many older games take this approach, but the game would benefit from an easy difficulty setting that provides more guidance for more casual players.
Presentation-wise, visually the game is very appealing, with a retro style but drawn in modern high definition rather than the blocky graphics most retro games tend towards. The simulated debug features add a nice hacker movie-style look to proceedings. The game is fairly stable, even in its preview state, but you are actually given such flexibility in hacking the game when using the loupe that you can easily ‘crash’ it by trying to do something illogical. This is intentional and the game catches this and allows you to go back in time using an item you pick up early in the game. In the preview version however, it’s unfortunately not as good at recovering from this as you’d hope it will be in the final version and leaving the game and reloading the last checkpoint is sometimes required. One potential worry is that the game appears to be fairly short with most of its playtime coming from the sheer amount of time spent unsure what you are doing - rather than from game content itself. There is a final section of the game still in development though, so hopefully this will add to the overall duration.
The game is an enjoyable and unique experience, and the satisfaction from solving some of the puzzles is very rewarding. Those who enjoy a challenging puzzler and are happy working out game mechanics themselves should have fun with this. At the moment, however, this isn’t a game that can be recommended for everybody. Puzzle fans looking for an easier ride than this sounds, should wait and see how the final release turns out. And action junkies, who were misled by the game’s title, probably want to pass on this game altogether.