Early Access reviews offer our preliminary verdicts on in-development games. We may follow up this unscored review with a final, scored review in the future.
Version reviewed: May 30 update
Recommended: Intel Core 2 Duo at 2.2 GHz/AMD Athlon 64 2.2Ghz, 3 GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460/AMD Radeon HD 6850
Publisher/Developer: Double Fine Productions
Link: Steam store page
Hack 'n' Slash looks like a Zelda game, but it's a deconstruction, not a tribute. Rather than asking you to figure out how to match your growing inventory of tools to new enemies, dungeons, and bosses, it pokes holes in game design itself, exposing the basic programming that makes the game world and enemies inside it function.
An enemy moves to the left, steps down, rests, and fires because it was programmed to. In Zelda, I observe these patterns and react accordingly. As the hero of Hack 'n' Slash, I hit the enemy with my USB sword and reprogram him for my own purposes. Through a menu, I can easily direct him to walk in the opposite direction, stand still, or better yet, fight on my behalf.
Every aspect of Hack 'n' Slash is a variation on that theme, and so far it feels like a novel enough idea to carry a small game.
Early on, encounters are similar to the above example, and are kind of tedious because it would take far less time to kill an enemy with a traditional sword than it would to reprogram him. But things get wonderfully weird soon enough. One of my favorite moments was when I had to get across a pond. There was a nest of turtle eggs nearby. Every few seconds a turtle would hatch and start to swim across. I could stand on its shell as he swam, which was clearly the way to the other side, but he dove into the water after a few tiles, leaving me to drown.
Not one for subtlety or efficiency, my solution was to reprogram the nest to spew out an unholy amount of turtles, basically filling out every inch of the pond with turtle shells. It worked in the sense that I was able to walk from shell to shell across the lake, but I filled the level with so many turtles that they blocked the exit I was trying to reach. I basically broke the game (my PC even began to chug under the stress of so many turtles), but it was hilarious, and felt completely sound with the logic of the world.
Hack 'n' Slash also very easily lets you jump back and reset to any part of the game, so you can experiment wildly without worrying about losing progress.
Eventually, I realized that it would be far easier to reprogram a single turtle to swim across the pond without pausing to dive. Finding the solution gave me that satisfying “no duh” feeling that's a part of any great puzzle game, and I learned the lesson through my own unique experience.
Learning is what Hack 'n' Slash is really about. Not in the sense that it'll teach you programming, but in the sense that what I did most of the time and what was most entertaining was learning about all the different operations that make the game go, and how to manipulate them to my benefit.
Hack 'n' Slash was a brilliant, almost too precious idea on paper, and here, even in its Early Access phase, it succeeds in practice. In terms of gameplay, Double Fine needs to keep refining, build out an introduction that eases you into these concepts more gently perhaps, and add an ending too, which doesn't exist in this version.
The game's presentation on the other hand, still looks unfinished. It's clearly referencing Zelda, but at the moment lacks its charm. Some characters look like they were picked from a generic clip art folder and some assets look muddy. It seems like a lot of placeholder art, honestly, or at least I sincerely hope that it is. All of Double Fine's previous games have been so beautiful and visually daring. If and when Hack 'n' Slash gets the same treatment, it will be at a very good place.
I had a good time with Hack 'n' Slash at its current state, but I'd rather wait for the full, polished release to experience its puzzles and presentation at their best.
Good. Double Fine is making a very special game that appeals to my love of all games and curiosity about what makes them tick. It just needs to nail the right look, fine tune some puzzles, and build a beginning and end.
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