Disclaimer: I am a huge fan of Double Fine Productions. I've been with them since they were known as "the talent at LucasArts (well, the ones that didn't join Telltale instead)". I own five different versions of Psychonauts. I've backed both of their Kickstarters and bought their Humble Bundles. And yet I'm not afraid to criticise them when they do something silly. Hack 'N' Slash is their latest game, recently exiled from the lands of Amnesia Fortnight and Steam Early Access, and it pushed my love for them to the limits.
Hack 'N' Slash at first glance seems to be Double Fine doing a classic Legend of Zelda-alike, although I'd compare it more to the recent indie game Ittle Dew from Ludosity both in look and Zelda-parody feel. However in practice other than the exploration, the deliberately Zelda-style graphics and a villain who looks like an '80s cartoon version of Ganondorf (and yes, I know there already is one of those) Hack N Slash is a totally different type of game. The emphasis is on the 'Hack' part of the title. After your young female hero, Alice, is tossed into a jail cell via a hole in the ceiling someone drops a sword after her. It proves useless as a weapon as it breaks the second she hits something, but it turns out to be a giant USB key that Alice can use to plug in to anything with a socket. And then, yes, you can use it to hack things.
Hack a bird to save a talking rock! If only cute moments like this turned up more often
It really is quite a clever system in principle. If you "attack" a plug socket on an enemy or object a code box pops up with various attributes you can alter. If you hack a rock you might give yourself the ability to push it, change how many tiles it can slide, or add a time delay before it starts moving. Hacking a bush you can choose to make it give you loads of hearts and then cause it to burst into flames. Enemies are more interesting of course. You can choose to make them an ally, increase or decrease the power of their attacks, or just reduce their health to zero and watch them blink out of existence.
There's not that many enemies really, and basically this all means that instead of gameplay that's, well, hack 'n' slash, it's actually more about exploration and puzzle-solving. One simple early puzzle involves your vaguely annoying fairy friend, who I of course called Navi. You have to get across a lake and you should be able to do that by walking on the backs of turtles, but the stupid fairy won't stop singing like a screeching 56K modem and he scares the turtles off. What do you do? I'd like to say "punch him in the face", but instead you jam your USB sword in his mouth, hack the guy, and turn his volume down. Hey presto, Navi can sing as much as he likes but the turtles can't hear him. Hooray.
As you go through the game you get various new items which are used for solving trickier puzzles. An early "artifact" Alice finds can be used to trick a big fairy into giving you loads of heart containers for example, but the better ones come later. An invisible wizard in a prison gives you a magic hat that allows you to basically see the world like The Matrix, complete with hidden code that allow you to see the lines of sight of guards or secret moving platforms. Other items include a USB boomerang to hack at a distance, the ability to hack yourself to speed up your movement, bombs that let you hack anything, and a magic lamp.
Looks a lot to hack, but this is the easy bit
The big trouble with the gameplay though is that at some point towards the end of Act 4 (in fact I can pinpoint the exact moment this happens, in a room called "CaveStash") the difficulty skyrockets, and goes from "fun" to "what the f*** does this all mean?!". Up until here the puzzles stayed on the right side of challenging, as well as giving at least a little explanation on any obscure coding terms, but from this moment on it's like Double Fine only wanted programmers to be able to see the final act of their game. Hacking suddenly throws you a load of a code-gibberish with only unhelpful hints from your fairy, and worse expects you to remember it all. The game then stops being a quirky adventure and becomes uninstall-bait.
Still, as per usual with Double Fine we have to mention the writing as it's their trademark high standard. It's very fun, with the interplay between Alice and her mad fairy companion being a highlight although the cowardly invisible wizard and the spoiled-child-like villain Christo are also cool. There's no voice acting but that's fine as all the dialogue is done in a mock-Zelda chat-box style that usually ends up really funny. However it must be said that the story itself is pretty lacklustre, and Double Fine only seem vaguely interested in it. Most people expected to get the beginning with the final release, but nope, Act 1 is still missing so there's little introduction and either way you never get a handle on the world or are convinced by it.
Here's the precise point where my brain began to explode
Unfortunately it's that world that proves Hack 'N' Slash's biggest failure. It is, frankly, boring. It has little to no personality, there's very few things to find, only a few notable locations, and little sense of direction. Exploring either the overworld (or the few locations like the wizard's dungeons) is boring as hell, as poor layout, the lack of a map, simple unattractive looks and the constant need to retrace your steps flattens any charm the game had. It's even annoying to just walk around, as it's very easy to fall off ledges or into water and there are plenty of obstacles that simply get in your way rather than offer a challenge. Oh, and I don't believe the game's finished yet either, unless those signposts are meant to be blank.
HACK 'N' SLASH VERDICT
I’m sorry to do this to you Double Fine as I love you dearly, but Hack ‘N’ Slash is the worst game you’ve made. A wonderful idea, with lovely dialogue, a clever coding system, and some cute puzzles, but unfortunately it clearly couldn’t be given as much time as the idea deserved. The world is barren, boring and frustrating to get around, the story barely presents itself, and the code puzzles get far too obtuse and un-fun round about the middle of Act 4. Furthermore it also doesn’t feel like it’s changed much in the four months since the game went on Early Access (why did you bother?), and it’s only about five hours long, which in itself isn’t a problem but combined with everything else kind of is - especially as it’s the third most expensive Double Fine game on Steam. I’m sorry guys, but Hack ‘N’ Slash needs a bit more time in the programming oven.