My EXA, a digital bug-looking thing made of code, scurries out into rooms representing nodes in a factory's network. Following the program I painstakingly wrote for it, the EXA disrupts this network with precision before running the HALT command to self-destruct. There is no trace of the fact I have hacked this factory, except that the snack bars it produces no longer contain peanuts. It's the little victories.
What is it? A puzzle game about hacking that will break you.
Reviewed on: Windows 10, GeForce GTX 960, Intel Core i7, 8GB RAM
Release date: October 22
Multiplayer: 2 players, online
Later I hack a street sign so it reads WAKE UP SHEEPLE and want to punch the air in triumph. Exapunks is the latest from Zachtronics, creators of tricky puzzle games like Opus Magnum and Infinifactory that are all about moving things from one place to another, and hacking games like TIS-100 that are all about typing made-up but believable code into computers. Exapunks connects the two, providing space for code and a visualization of that code's effect, which is mostly moving things about.
In this alternate dystopian 1997 I've got the phage, a disease that slowly turns my skin into useless microchips like a crap cyborg. I can only afford medicine if I agree to perform arbitrary hacking jobs for a mysterious lady who doesn't understand human emotions and is totally not an AI. Sometimes that's making ATMs dispense cash for free, sometimes it's the peanut job.
Exapunks doesn't mess around. The tutorial throws you right in it, expecting you to learn by reading a manual that comes in the form of an in-universe zine you can print out or just alt-tab to in a pdf reader. This zine, Trash World News, is a lovely little artifact that, as well as teaching commands like LINK to switch hosts and GRAB to interact with files, implies a whole community of helpful cyberpunks. So do the conversations on Chatsubo in the corner of my screen between levels and the occasional visitors at the door.
That's more than just world-building, it's a hint about how to get the most out of this game. You shouldn't go alone. There's a real-world community on the Steam forums and the subreddit that's grown during its time in Early Access, and seeking them out for advice is essential. This is a game that requires a kind of programmer thinking you either have or you don't, and as someone who very much doesn't, I needed help.
My solutions are ugly and often involve multiple EXAs programmed with slight variations on the same code to deal with every possible eventuality. Cleverer players use commands like REPL to make replica EXAs containing cloned code that doesn't hurt their score. They're efficient in ways I not only don't think of, but never would.
The programming language is robust enough it can even be used to make games within the game. When I got hold of a GameBoy-looking cyberpunk handheld called the Redshift I could write my own arcade games onto it, and play ones made by other people for a break when solving puzzles started to feel like work. There are a couple of minigames to unlock as well including a Russian solitaire variant, and there's a competitive mode that tests your code against against another player's. Both these things give me headaches.
Exapunks shares with Zachtronics' previous game Opus Magnum the idea it's OK to brute-force a puzzle. You'll still unlock the next level and story snippet, but you won't make the leaderboards. To do that you need to try harder, tweaking commands to use fewer lines of code, create fewer EXAs, be more elegant.
Exapunks is a two-coffee game, one that requires focus and alertness. Even then, there's a hard limit on how good I'll ever be. I feel out of my depth, like a smart dog who graduated puppy school and has been put in a physics class. Infinifactory and Opus Magnum remain the Zachtronics games I'd recommend to people, but if you aced both of those and are ready to graduate, Exapunks is the next level.