A few hours in
Hey, I’m back! I hacked a bunch of stuff. I ran all through the forest, hacking rocks and ravens and ravens on rocks. Some sprites gave me a time machine, which was nice. Then, I ran into a swamp, which was corrupted with evil hacking, and I hacked it all the way back to a nice swamp.
That angered the wizard, though, who hacked himself over to hack me into his castle’s jail. So can you guess what I did then?
Using the Hat of Polygons and Variable Names, I made my way to a computer lab in the woods, where a local scientist — and her cat — taught me to hack algorithms. She gave me a monocle to hack to stuff that I’m supposed to hack, and bombs to hack the stuff I’m not supposed to.
Yeah, that didn’t make sense to me at the time either.
Using the monocle and the bombs — and some other artifacts — I made my way to the wizard’s castle. There, I dodged his traps, pillaged his codes, beat his attacks, and saved a princess I didn’t know I was supposed to be saving.
And… that was the end, kinda! Spoilers, I guess. Hack ‘n’ Slash is not a particularly long game, depending on your general programming affinity. Very strictly depending on it, matter-of-fact: I’m guessing it will take infinity hours if you have zero programming skill to begin with. Some of the puzzles are not kind.
But yeah, I played through all of Hack ‘n’ Slash in a short while. Two, two-and-a-half sittings, I think.
I wouldn’t know what to write about it if you paid me.
Literally, that is: I wouldn’t know what to write about Hack ‘n’ Slash if I received monetary compensation to do so. I don’t know if I could say anything of substance that feels like it would be worth hard dollar bills! Luckily, I’m not getting paid: as such, I can ramble my dubious-quality nonsense all over this website without any moral qualms.
My principle impression of Hack ‘n’ Slash is that it feels unfinished.
Some background may be in order, here. When I first bought Hack ‘n’ Slash, a couple of weeks ago, it had only just come out of Steam Early Access. That’s what brought it to my attention, honestly. And Early Access being what it is, and my thought on that being what they are — possibly fertile future podcast material — it’s entirely likely that I played this game with a biased, over-critical eye. I’m definitely not saying Hack ‘n’ Slash is unfinished. I am saying, however, that to me, it feels like it is.
Couple of contributing factors, here. The weird in-medias-res opening doesn’t help. While it’s a valid style figure, the way it’s employed in Hack ‘n’ Slash gives less of an impression of ‘it’s important to start the story here, for reasons’ and more of an impression of ‘we already wrote this part of the story, we’ll add Act 1 later’. And while many in-medias-res media have the decency to at some point provide you with the ‘opening’ act, Hack ‘n’ Slash does not roll this way: at no point in the game is Act 1 ever shown or played. The story does eventually explain some of the broad lines of what happened before Act 2’s start, but it still leaves many details entirely un-answered.
Why did Alice fall in the pit to begin with? Where did she get the sword from? Who did she steal it from? And why? What was Alice’s life like right before the start of the game? What were her motivations, what was she trying to achieve? And why does she never bring any of that stuff up throughout the game?
Hack ‘n’ Slash’s lack of clear narrative direction hurts the game often. I jokes about not knowing where to go and what to do and why to do it, on the previous page, but this is a feeling that pops up throughout the game. For every section where the game is clear on your aims — i.e. ‘navigate the Infinite Woods and find the prize at the end’ — there is one section that is everything bút — ‘okay, you got the bombs! I’m not telling you what to do now’.
Lack of narrative guidance can be a design decision, of course, and I’ve played quite some games where it’s used to good effect. Dark Souls, drink, and Risen 1, both have stories and structures where player exploration and discovery is a key element. But… in Hack ‘n’ Slash, it doesn’t feel like this is the intention. It feels like guidance should be there. But that it’s simply missing.
For instance: some controls are explained. Some aren’t. You’re told how to hack, and how to use items, which are assigned to number keys. But after you pick up more than four items, you are never — as far as I could tell — explicitly told how to switch which items you have equipped. Turns out there’s a whole inventory screen! It’s important, and necessary to complete the game, and I just kind of stumbled over it.
So Hack ‘n’ Slash feels unguided in narrative, and unguided in player control. Adding to that is a sense of being unguided in mechanical goals: this game feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. As mentioned, it starts out feeling very Zelda-esque: top-down, cardinal-direction movement, item-based puzzles, a sword, a sprite, a boomerang. And for a while, it manages to be that quite interestingly. But then, about halfway through, most of the previously built-up elements are dropped in favour of directly hacking the world and the game code, and solving puzzles which resolve around that.
And, to its credit: if nothing else, Hack ‘n’ Slash is a very interesting game design experiment from this mechanical standpoint. A game where you change (representations of) the actual game code? It’s daring. Weirdly, enchantingly, unstably daring. ‘What if we let the player just… do whatever’ daring.
In what may be the most stretched analogy I’ve made all year, the world-hacking part of Hack ‘n’ Slash reminds me a little of Morrowind. In that, both games are entirely content to sit back, fold their arms, and let you cock shit up, if you’re so inclined. Morrowind scoffed at plot armor and ‘essential’ NPCs, throwing up a perfunctory ‘you messed up the main quest, yo’ notice every now and again. And Hack ‘n’ Slash is happy to let you create code that, when executed, crashes the universe. And then it lets you execute said code. And then you crash the universe.
Of course, in both games, this laissez-faire is ultimately an act. In Morrowind, there are always save files to load, and new games to begin. And in Hack ‘n’ Slash, you don’t actually change the underlying game code. You simply tell the game to behave as-is, and, if you stay within a certain set of parameters, the game obliges. Sure, it says. You have ultimate power over me. You are lord and master of all you survey, and so on, et cetera, und so weiter.
Still, the coding-related puzzles are probably the most interesting parts of Hack ‘n’ Slash. It’s interesting to see how they’re roughly divided into two sets, too. On the one hand, there are puzzles with one simple, clearly correct solution. One puzzle involves the fact that your bombs are too heavy, so you hack them, and hey: bombs have an ‘IsHeavy’ bool value that you can change. Convenient. And one showdown against the aforementioned Wizard involves hacking him with your sword, in order to set his ‘IsDefeated’ flag to true. Which, honestly, raises a mess of questions. Why does he have that flag, in the first place? What does it even mean to arbitrarily tell the universe that this man ‘is defeated’? He’s clearly not dead, afterwards. Why doesn’t he hack himself back to unconquered status?
On the other end of the spectrum, there are puzzles that require you to dive head-first into some really complicated code. And instead of the precise ‘change this item’-nature of the previous puzzles, these ones tend to feel more like changing variables left and right and just gumming up the works to achieve result.
Probably my favourite puzzle in all of Hack ‘n’ Slash is one of the wizard’s trap rooms. Upon entering, the triggering trap removes eight floor tiles in a certain pattern, rendering the room uncrossable. Using the room code book that you found in his library — yes, you programmers, this is exactly the joke you’re thinking of — you can change the variable settings of this trap. And assuming you’re not an idiot, like me, and you don’t create an infinite loop that legit causes the game to crash, you’ll probably figure out some way to alter the numbers involved so that the trap removes zero tiles instead of eight.
…at which point you’ll trigger a backup piece of comparison code, put there by the wizard, which crashes the universe.
Also note that you can re-do almost all of the dialogue in this game.
Anyway, the point I was trying to build towards is this: the Zelda-esque gameplay is pretty fun, and the coding puzzles are pretty fun, but they don’t match. The game just kinda flips a switch, halfway in, and goes ‘sure, this is your life now’. But then it does leave almost all of the previous Zelda trappings — stuff like health, damaging enemies, and directional combat — intact. The result is a totally inconsistent game: fun in parts, good at what it specifically wants to do every time it specifically wants to do something, but not really a coherent whole.
Or, to bring this whole section around: not really feeling finished.
My principle impression of Hack ‘n’ Slash was that it felt unfinished. My secondary impression, after giving it a little more thought, is that it feels like a programmer’s game.
I mean, obviously, yes, it’s a game about programming. Sure. But more than that, it also feels like a game by programmers, for programmers, about programmers. Like it spawned from a really neat mechanical idea, and some half-formed in-joked about ‘programming ruling the world’.
“What if we had a game like 2D Zelda games, but you ‘hack’ enemies with your USB sword?” “Yeah, cool, we can make that. What would the story be, though?” “I dunno, I’m not a writer. The evil wizard has kidnapped the princess and it’s up to the brave hero and wacky sidekick to save the day?” “Sure, works for me.”
“Dude, I had the greatest idea. What if we let players change the actual game code?” “Man, that is an excellent idea. Should we re-do the whole game for that? Nah, keep what we have so far. But change the oracle in the forest maze to a computer lab.”
“Hey, why don’t we work this ‘hacking reality’ angle into our story as well?” “You mean, like, the wizard isn’t a wizard? He just hacks stuff, and everyone thinks it’s magic? Hollywood-style?” “Yeah! And instead of a magical library of spells, he can have a code library!” “Man, this game is shaping up!”
Mean joking aside, Hack ‘n’ Slash is genuinely an interesting little experiment. I had… decent fun with it. Unfinished feel aside, it has its charm, and its moments of brain-teasing cleverness. It’s brimming with more potential than it can actually realize, but the couple hours I spent in it definitely did not feel wasted.
It is twenty dollars right now, though. And that price is steep. For a game of this size, with these many issues? I don’t know if I can recommend buying it to anyone. If coding’s really your thing, if your curiosity is insatiable, or if you just want to support Double Fine financially, it’s still by no means expensive. But for anyone else… it’s not a sentence I enjoy typing, but for Hack ‘n’ Slash, I’d probably tell you to wait for a bundle.