It goes to show that premise alone can’t carry an experience, because on paper Hack ’n’ Slash is one hell of an interesting game.
Here’s the pitch: Hack ’n’ Slash is a bird’s eye view adventure game —exactly like a 2D The Legend of Zelda— with the ingenious hook that the world around you can be manipulated by ‘hacking’ the game, letting the player change variables and solve puzzles by altering the world to suit their very needs. It’s brilliant — on paper.
When you start fiddling around with settings, and the game behaves exactly like you want, or expect it to, things feel like magic. Jerry Rigging a turtle to be a personal bodyguard, or using your own creativity to make yourself indestructible is really satisfying. In an abstract way, just playing with Hack ’n’ Slash is its own reward— unfortunately, the game’s progression is underwhelming.
For me, there’s an inescapable comparison to be made between Hack ’n’ Slash and the first Scribblenauts (2009). The incredibly ambitious DS game, Scribblenauts, had you solving puzzles by typing almost any noun you could think of into a text box that would warp the object onto the screen. One of the many problems with the first game (by the way developer 5th Cell finally got it right after a few iterations) was that solving a puzzle by riding a flying hippopotamus is really exciting the first time you do it, and uninteresting by the end of the game. Hack ’n’ Slash has a similar problem: its open-ended mechanics aren’t especially interesting to use when so many of the game’s puzzles have A to B solutions. Both of these are games that have incredibly creative engines, that don’t actually let the player be all that creative. It’s the kind of videogame paradox that The Stanley Parable (2013) teases: if there’s a solution by design, experimentation is more or less irrelevant.
This is an incredibly cynical point of view and I hate seeing it exposed so blatantly — and I kinda blame Hack ’n’ Slash’s design.
In The Legend of Zelda you’re given a wide array of tools to interact with, there are people to talk to, a whole world of possibilities — there’s doubt. There’s the chance you might not have what you need to solve a puzzle, even if it’s more than likely that you do. As a linear game the original Portal has momentum, switches, and the companion cube working as different input methods to keep you guessing. Hack ’n’ Slash has all sorts of different tools for puzzle solving (for example, a hat that reveals invisible platforms or enemy vision cones) but these don’t add to the game’s core mechanics, they more or less replace it. You’re scarcely using your array of abilities in tandem to solve puzzles. Mostly, you’re just using different skills one after another. I’m not sure if this is because the game’s premise is too vast to be packed into a 5 hour experience, or if it’s because Double fine isn’t confident in the game’s core mechanics to be fun for any length of time, but it does make the whole game feel scattershot.
In some instances the game will wow you with a clever use of its premise, and then the next moment it will pretend that concealing UI elements only to reveal them later is puzzle solving. All this is to say nothing of the game’s fourth act when it very suddenly asks you to have a basic understanding of how coding works —however mundane it may be— with zero explanation for those who don’t. Yes, this moment is as jarring as it sounds.
It’s not to say that the story isn’t cute, or that game isn’t visually appealing — it’s both of those things (in fact, the characters made me smile on more than one occasion). It just isn’t a fleshed out experience. There’s no progression, no adventure. Through its presentation you’re meant to believe there’s a whole world out there, but you’re never given a chance to explore it. Early on you’re given an item that lets you to see each of the zones you’ve passed through in a complete flowchart; like the rest of the game, this is something that’s really interesting in concept, but highlights just how surprisingly restrictive the game is for the player.
- A lot of the humour is pitch-perfect delivery of smug looks (or emoticons) — it’s great.
- I wish so much that Hack ‘n’ Slash were an open world game. My first run through Act II I kept thinking I would go backwards, but there’s not really a reason to revisit areas.
- The flowchart map system is so cool, but it’s only real purpose is to reset the game if you break the game by being a shitty hacker.
- There are only two bosses. I wish there were more bosses.
- This is the first Double Fine game I’ve played that haven’t spent time thinking about after I finished it.
- It’s still a fabulous idea. I think if it had been given some more love it could have been something truly great. On the other hand, it feels like they may have had to slap a ‘finished’ sticker on the game because there’s still a lot of work left if the plan was to elevate it to something great.