Hack 'N' Slash hands-on: now I want a USB sword

Haven't you always wanted to change a game's programming to let you win? That's the premise behind Double Fine's Hack 'n Slash —the entire game is designed so you can hack your way through it. Obstacle in your way? Change its properties so you can push it to the side. Low on health? Change a bush's "on_fire" property to on and tell it to give you hearts. The only trick is you have to figure out what each setting will do, which is where much of the fun comes from.

My first thought when I start the game demo at PAX East sit that the concept is just too bold. How can you build a game where players can change its properties to win? It sounds so abstract in theory, but Double Fine's execution is both intuitive and delightful. I take control of Alice, an elf armed with a USB sword that, when shoved into a door, block, or anything with the correct slot, brings us a debugging interface. You can alter how many spaces a block will move by changing its variable, or even switch a pushing block to a pulling block by giving it a negative number. Not every item in the game can be manipulated, but plenty can.

It seems like a cute gimmick, but there's more going on. These are actual debugging variables for the game elements, according to Double Fine. I'm playing with the same switches that the designers use when crafting the game's areas and puzzles. That's pretty cool.

Hack 'n Slash is also a Double Fine game, which means it's pretty funny. Alice's dialogue references The Legend of Zelda with a wink and a nudge, and her sprite-like companion is a clear riff on the dreaded Navi from Ocarina of Time. The art is bright and colorful, and the debugging windows have a Final Fantasy NES feel to them.

As I navigate a puzzle by hacking various blocks, I wonder how hard it is to design puzzles that require the player to break the game to fix. The game will be completely "hackable," as its code is basically in plain text files and all of its art are in simple .png images. Double Fine tells me that with so much access to the variables in the game's code, it expects players will crash the game a lot. The developer is putting warnings in place, and backing up save games on a pretty frequent basis.

Hack 'n Slash's first three acts (out of four) should be out on Steam Early Access in the next two weeks. I'm looking forward to seeing just how breakable the game is, and if it keeps me chuckling as much as the demo did.