by Murray Lewis
reviewed on PC
Game hacks are a well-established scene in gaming – whether you want to play as a horse in Grand Theft Auto, slap Nicholas Cage’s face all over Majora’s Mask, or see Mega Man fighting in the Mushroom Kingdom. These weird, wonderful, and sometimes awe-inspiring, manipulations are like gleaming treasures, waiting to be discovered in the cobwebbed depths of a game’s code; those who seek them are the intrepid adventurers. To most, what they do might as well be sorcery, but Double Fine’s Hack ‘n’ Slash attempts to lift the veil – if only momentarily – and allow everyone the chance to make a little magic.
A GAME OF TWO HALVES
The game starts off with a familiar, approachable style – something like The Legend of Zelda, but with a modern, friendly sheen that’s unmistakeably Double Fine. The music is bouncy and fun, and the visuals are like a love letter to Cartoon Network. Coming into it fresh, you would be forgiven for assuming that the game would be nothing more than a well put together top-down adventure, but to say that Hack ‘n’ Slash has hidden depths is something like saying the bottom of the Guatemala City sinkhole was ‘a bit of a long way down.’
In fact, once the game hits its stride – perhaps an hour or so in – the whole adventure façade takes something of a back seat, and you realise you are actually playing a cunningly disguised puzzle game.
At the start of the game, your character – a pigtailed redhead who bears more than a passing resemblance to Link – gets hold of a magical sword. Rather than it being host to a boring power like a flaming blade (yawn) or unerring accuracy (ho hum), it’s revealed to contain a giant USB stick. By using the sword, you can hack into any object in the game with a visible USB slot; be it a stone block, a locked door, or even an enemy.
Once you have access to whatever you jam your USB-sword into, you can get to work fiddling about with things to solve problems and generally move ahead in the game. A locked door? Set it to ‘OPEN.’ Enemy attacking you? Just set their health to zero! It doesn’t take long before you try things that are a bit more clever. Got a stone block in your way, but no room to push it away? Change how far it moves to a negative number, and it moves towards you when you push it!
You soon realise that this is a game that will let you do almost anything, in the truest sense. You aren’t just manipulating rules laid down by the designer – you are quite literally editing the Lua script files that the game runs on. From that perspective, the game could be thought of as little more than an afterthought; a playable GUI that gives the scripts visual context, then lays them bare for you to toy with. It’s almost scary.
As the game progresses, you gain access to increasingly powerful tools of subversion. After a couple of hours, you’ve earned so much access to the game’s innards that the whole ‘running around and fighting enemies’ thing is nothing more than an annoyance between puzzles. Hack ‘n’ Slash very quickly gives the player the tools to transform the game completely, but it never quite relinquishes that Zelda disguise; you’ll still find yourself having to run from place to place and, despite the short length of the game, there’s a lot of tedious backtracking to be done.
By far the biggest problem is the lack of thought that went into how the gameplay feels. It’s easy to get swept up in the thrill of cheating your way around a puzzle entirely, or the bemused humility when you hack something so badly that the game actually crashes (yes, this is possible), but the bits that make up the ‘game’ part of the game fall flat dishearteningly often. From the poorly designed inventory system to the complete lack of a map, it often feels like the QA team spent so long making the hacking watertight that they didn’t have time to check how it all actually plays as a whole.
Initially, all text in the game’s built-in ‘debug mode’ (accessed by wearing a comically oversized wizards hat) is written in runes. A puzzle at some point is supposed to permanently decipher these. I managed to complete this puzzle without triggering the effect, which I didn’t realise until I looked up a walkthrough, while very confused, a full hour of gameplay later. The problem? I’d wandered off without examining the puzzle once I finished it. A cursory glance at the official forums shows this isn’t an uncommon problem, and it’s baffling that it got through testing, since it makes the rest of the game near-impossible to play and can only be solved by reverting to an earlier save.
It’s also worth noting that, while the game is full of little references which might elicit a chuckle from anyone with programming experience – such as the default character names of Alice and Bob – the way the variables are visualised in-game uses a very odd system of coloured gems. It may make things easier to understand for the uninitiated, but anyone comfortable with code will likely find it a hindrance.
Hack ‘n’ Slash is a game that’s at odds with its own schizophrenic nature. It wants to be a fun game, but it lets you tear its coding apart at the seams, subverting or circumventing every challenge it can throw at you. At the same time, it wants to be a unique puzzler, but it constantly tries to squeeze that into the context of being a game – often overbearingly so.
When it works – and it does work most of the time – it’s brilliant fun, and you can finally get a taste of that elusive magic. The team at Double Fine have succeeded in creating a truly unique game, and I can guarantee you haven’t played anything like this before, but it’s tempered by the ever-present sense that it could’ve done with just a little more time in the oven.
Ingenious concept. Gorgeous visual style. Unprecedented freedom.
Doesn’t feel thoroughly tested. Let down by the adventure gameplay. Short in length.