Hack ‘N’ Slash is currently available on Steam as an Early Access game. This means that the game is unfinished and that community feedback will have an impact on the final product. This review will be updated after the final version of the game is released.
Hack ‘N’ Slash gets a lot of things right. Alice, a young elf, embarks upon a Zelda-esque dungeon crawler to take down an evil wizard with help from a silly pixie named Bob. What makes the game special is that instead of using violence, the main character wields a “USB sword” and literally hacks into the game’s inner workings. Not only does this create a non-violent environment for kids to get through puzzles and outsmart bad guys, it also teaches them coding.
…Or, that’s the idea, anyway. Whether because it was Early Access, or because the creators took a big design misstep, the game has issues.
My favorite part of Hack ‘N’ Slash is the sassy dialogue. Alice is a rough-and-tumble adventurer with oodles of confidence and intelligence. The side characters are equally entertaining, specifically Bob the pixie. And the entire game is delightfully meta, which I always love. The characters hint that they are aware that they exist inside of a computer. It works well here, especially because the code you’re hacking is the game’s actual code. That idea is just the best.
You can do all kinds of things with your USB sword. When you swing it at a bush, you can adjust the ON FIRE field to read TRUE, and then instruct the (now burning) bush to drop 400 hearts. If a bird is attacking you, just change its faction to GOOD, or instruct it to stop attacking. When a castle guard attacks, you can hack him so his attacks heal you instead of cause damage. Or you can go into a guard’s programmed movements and have him turn in circles forever. If there are multiple bad guys, you can make some GOOD and some BAD, and sit back and watch while they fight with each other.
It’s satisfying, clever, manipulative, and I love it. Plus, if you mess something up or miss a line of dialogue, you can go back in time and replay any level.
Partway through the game, Alice is gifted with a magic hat that lets her see the same debugging screen seen by the actual game developers. It reveals how far bad guys can see, what certain items are called, and—occasionally—hidden platforms essential to beating the game. I loved this feature. I felt as if I had power over my environment and I was learning about how everything came together and worked. While I still don’t know how to write code, I at least picked up a bit about how it worked in a big-picture kind of way.
Then I got to the cave, and very suddenly the difficulty increased exponentially.
In the cave, Alice gains the ability to hack even deeper into the code, using an assembly line of machines to tweak alphanumerical equations. These tweaks allow her to do things like make doors respond to passwords or change the lengths and positions of bridges. While I had no trouble playing through the game up until this point, once I got here I very abruptly felt my head slip underwater.
I am not a programmer. Most of the “hacking” I know comes from LiveJournal circa 2003. But up until this point, I had been doing well. I love puzzle games, and I love the Hack ‘N’ Slash world and characters. Yet very suddenly I found that I no idea what I was doing.
I’m really hoping that this changes before the final release, because every other part of the game tells me that it would be awesome for getting kids excited about coding. The Steam community page for Hack ‘N’ Slash says, “The critical path of the game is designed to be achievable by anyone who’s clever and likes solving puzzles, whether they’re technical or not.” But if I couldn’t get through these puzzles as an adult (at least, not without help), how could Hack ‘N’ Slash designers expect most 10-year-olds to do anything other than quit in frustration?
The game is in Early Access, so there’s still a lot that could change. Difficulty levels, extra puzzles designed to ease the player into the hard stuff, or even just clearer explanations of what the player is supposed to do at each of the final stages would have made my experience way better. Often, the solution is very simple, but there are so many options and ways to interact with the interface that I would just start experimenting. And that’s when everything would go wrong. Even using the in-game time machine to undo my mistakes, I managed to get trapped in an almost-comic loop of game crashes.
You see, since I was editing the actual game’s actual code, my in-game hacking actually had consequences. Hack ‘N’ Slash uses the time-machine function so that if players “collapse the universe,” as they call it, no harm will be done, and they can experiment to their heart’s content. If this works in the final version, it will be awesome. However, I somehow managed to break my game to the point that even starting a new save file caused the collapse of the universe almost immediately.
I’m not too concerned about this technical issue. Glitches are par for the course in Early Access. It is, however, a good indication that you should wait for the final release before picking this one up for your family.
Hack ‘N’ Slash might become something extremely awesome. Right now, it has too many problems to be really enjoyable for anyone other than a code-literate hardcore gamer. I cannot wait to see it in a few months when Double Fine has done their research, but they have a lot of work to do.