Hack 'n' Slash Early Access Review

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GameSpot's early access reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available for purchase by the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote money, time, and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review's publication.

There is no graceful way to close Hack 'n' Slash. No exit option in the menu. No menu, at that. The only way to turn the game off is to alt + tab away from it and force-close it from outside the program. As an early access game with emphasis on the "early," Double Fine's yet-unfinished puzzle game is up to its neck in idiosyncrasies of that sort. They're nostalgic problems for a nostalgic game--a send-up of The Legend of Zelda, harking back to a time when troubleshooting started and ended with blowing on the cartridge to clear away the dust.

You're dropped into a cavernous dungeon, possessionless except for an unusual sword. Hack 'n' Slash starts with a premise common enough to the Zelda series, but it takes a hard left when you try to swing your sword against the bars of your prison door and it breaks to reveal an underlying USB drive. Try that swing a second time, and now you're greeted with a prompt: GateDoor: Open (False). Change the value of the Boolean, and the door opens, no questions asked.

The combination of fantasy tropes and computer code style is clever, but a bit hard to parse.

So, here's a world where elaborate Tolkienesque fantasy terms are rendered in the scrunched shorthand of computer code, all superfluous underscores and appended numerals. A world where the classic iconography of action adventure games can be opened up, their entrails of code sifted and rearranged toward more immediately useful applications. Where in The Legend of Zelda, you might mow through foliage with your sword to reveal a few hidden items, in Hack 'n' Slash, it's but a matter of programming the bush to spontaneously combust and leave behind a desired reward.

Over time, more elegant and clever uses reveal themselves to enterprising minds. Take, say, the obnoxiously aggressive birds that pursue you, pecking away, and change their damage value to something negative. Suddenly you've got a cranky little satellite that heals you at regular intervals. The scope of your hacking ability is usually limited to a few baked-in applications, but even those prescriptive limits can be stretched to a breaking point. After one early character confers a gift of additional health, you might decide to rig the gamestate to say the gift was never received, and treat yourself to a second helping. And a third, and a fourth...on and on until you become functionally immortal.

Here's a world where elaborate Tolkienesque fantasy terms are rendered in the scrunched shorthand of computer code, all superfluous underscores and appended numerals.

That might seem to spoil some of the challenge, but the double entendre of "Hack 'n' Slash" trades more on its second meaning than its first. In this land, the keyboard is mightier than the sword: battles here aren't won with combat prowess, but on the strength of your ability to see through to the code, to bend it to your will. Algorithms are arcana in Hack 'n' Slash, and those who wield them are wizards. Speaking as someone who views programming skill with the intermingled mistrust and awe normally reserved for the dark arts, it's not all that much of a stretch.

The trouble is that Hack 'n' Slash soon loses its patience for us muggles. Flipping the switch on an enemy to change its attitude from "angsty" to "docile" is one thing, but when the game starts to really amp up the hacking in Act 4, it sheds its innocent fantasy charm and becomes something stark and standoffish. Instead of leafy woods, you're back in dank caves that look suspiciously like the ones you started in. Instead of clever amalgams of programming and puzzles, you get doors to unlock and programming pictographs. Imagine having to read a long strand of computer code by physically running from one side to the other, learning each function by staring at it until the values make sense.

"Here's a fun fact about the modulo operator," says your fairy companion as you amble back and forth, fiddling with dials. "You can easily test whether a number is even or odd by computing the number modulo 2!" But no amount of edutainment dialogue can help you to parse coding language when it's laid on so thick. And even though the most byzantine of these puzzles belie a relatively simple solution--usually just a change to one or two of the variables--it's small comfort to a layman. They might as well be written in elvish. Sometimes they are.

Hack 'n' Slash tries to lampshade its early access instability, but it doesn't help much.

It's one thing to grapple with the challenges the game poses on purpose. It's quite another to juggle them alongside Hack 'n' Slash's temperamental stability. Set a variable to equal another variable, and the game crashes. Change a letter variable to a number, and the game crashes. Touch a particular object, and the game crashes. Switch between keyboard and controller while entering a variable, and the game crashes.

In one moment that quite unintentionally recalled 2013's The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, I went through a door at a slightly off-kilter angle and found myself adhered to the wall. I scampered around off the critical path, weaving among the wall sconces and pilasters, and soon found I was still able to move between rooms. As I merrily sidestepped puzzles and obstacles meant to impede my progress, I pondered the various ways that Hack 'n' Slash adroitly lampshades its own glitchiness. You are explicitly instructed to poke at the weak points in the game's code, so wouldn't a few unscripted solutions be in keeping with that spirit? But soon the wall ended, and I was unable to extricate myself.

Worse still, the puzzles I'd bypassed unlocked tools I'd need later, so I had no choice but to quit the game and load an earlier save. There's no fast-travel option in Hack 'n' Slash, so errors of both human and computer origin alike can cost you a great deal of time and patience.

It will likely fall to Double Fine's trademarked sense of humor to shepherd you past the jargon and the instability, to make this simple story about an unsung hero toppling an evil wizard pop and fizz. It certainly has the pedigree for the job. And even in this unfinished state, Hack 'n' Slash does feel like a good venue for the developer's brand of punny, irreverent humor. It's got all the ingredients of a quintessentially postmodern game: classical video game references, subversive deconstruction, and vibrant, cartoonish color.

Hack 'n' Slash tries to lampshade its early access instability, but it doesn't help much.

There is one area where Hack 'n' Slash might have been better served with a little modernist order, though. In the original Legend of Zelda games, an underlying grid governed the placement of objects like doors, trees, and chickens. Hack 'n' Slash carries itself as though it works in a similar fashion. Reprogram an enemy, for example, and you find a prompt for how many "tiles" you'd like it to move. But the grid is otherwise inscrutable, and movement suffers for it. Movable puzzles become exercises of trial and error. Diagonal motion on your part is often necessary, but frequently punished, and the location of characters seems to have little to do with where they take or give damage. Clipping issues abound. With a more modular, Cartesian appearance, the mathematical undercurrents running beneath Hack 'n' Slash could be better handled when they bubble to the game's surface.

But now I'm advocating for more math, and that's troubling territory for an artsy-fartsy critic. Perhaps with a little more development time, Hack 'n' Slash can make those STEM fields palatable for a mind full of fairies and magic swords like mine. But right now, it needs someone to blow the dust off its cartridge.

What's There?

A clever but glitchy and incomplete adventure wherein you reprogram your way across four acts of exponentially increasing difficulty. It takes a couple of hours to complete, give or take some time based on your ability to suss out meaning from code.

What's To Come?

A fifth and final act to resolve the story, as well as additional puzzles, modding support, and adjustments and fixes based on player feedback.

What Does it Cost?

$19.99 on Steam.

When Will it Be Finished?

Unknown.

What's the Verdict?

Hack 'n' Slash's endgame is ambitious--a fantasy world without a fourth wall, open to the caprice of anyone who can string together a few lines of code. But frustrating glitches, inscrutable puzzles, and jury-rigged art make for an inauspicious start to its hero's journey.

Discussion

32 comments
Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@Vodoo @jariullah 

You can make your arguments, but there's no changing the fact that these are unfinished products which are already asking for money - specifically asking for money in return for the opportunity to play-test them (which would have been unseemly years ago).

You - especially you, Vodoo - can say that people should cut these nascent game-makers slack and give them a chance, but there are so many of them now - so, so many "little guys" and "underdogs". This is especially so nowadays that the likes of Valve, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have opened up to the concept of the funding model which allows for this in the first place. Not everyone has the money to support every "little guy" around - he/she is going to have to pick which to support, and these "Early Access Reviews" would help him/her gather information before making a decision.

Also, I would remind you that there will always be people who question this funding model, as well as the intentions of those who are asking for such funding and their capacity to deliver, especially when they do not come with guarantees. Besides, such a funding model does not appear to have a lot of legal precedents which delineate the risks and compensations which contributors would get and the extent of the liabilities which these "little guys" have.

Perhaps you can paint such people as harsh cynics or overly skeptical blokes who are nipping good ideas in the bud, but tell that to the people who had been personally disappointed by such funding models.

spacecadet25
spacecadet25

Thanks for doing another early access review, these are great.  And yes they are necessary and fair for a several reasons: 

1.  These are games released to the public, for sale, and asking for decent money.

2. Consumers have the right to know what they are getting for their money, whether a product is technically in its final state or not. 

3. If one of these early release beta games are in a condition where it would be unfair to critique them for the public b/c they are still in a state of such low quality, then they shouldn't be selling their beta to the public until they polish it more.

4. How many of these early access games actually change dramatically from their beta to finished product?  Seriously?

5. How many people buy and play early access games thoroughly, and then go back and play them a bunch more when the product is "finished"?  The state the game is in now is probably the state most early access buyers will play it in.

majere613
majere613

To explain a little: When you use a modulo, you find the remainder of dividing one number by another. So any odd number, modulo 2, is 1, and any even number, modulo 2, is 0.


And knowing is half the battle!

noirtenshin
noirtenshin

Interesting, in the last few days, few of my comments were deleted even thou i didn't use any cursing, offensive language, or hate speech. Nether did i received a notification or a warning of posting something unappropriated.


As a user who is visiting gamespot for more then few years i find this kind of behavior unacceptable.


If you are gonna delete my comments, please state your reason behind it.
Otherwise, if you aren't gonna bother, nether will I.

warriors30
warriors30

I really can't wait to play this. If you wanna see more of this game I recommend watching the Giant Bomb Quick Look.

azizaam
azizaam

still got trust issues with early access...

DarkSaber2k
DarkSaber2k

So it needs more "Hold E to Hack"? Get fooked Gamespot.

Vodoo
Vodoo

GameSpot shouldn't be doing early access game reviews.

hystavito
hystavito

@noirtenshin There are some regular non-swearing words they have decided to restrict.  One of them is bl0w.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@DarkSaber2k 

I do wonder why you keep returning to GameSpot when you have so many issues with its articles.

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

@Vodoo Why is that? You can pay money for something; wouldn't you like to know if it's worth it? 

DoogyDonDoogy
DoogyDonDoogy

@Kevin-V @Vodoo Oh oh, it's a VanOrdster spotting everybody :D Yeaaaaahh VanOrdster in the building ya'll whoot whoot :p

jariullah
jariullah

@Kevin-V @Vodoo Well, there goes my "never post on internet forums rule" ... again.


Alright, so I'm gonna preface this: I absolutely adore Gamespot. Got here when I was looking for a Soul Reaver walkthrough and never left (though my loyalty took two hits over the years, once with Jeff's untimely departure and then with the cancellation of Feedbackula). I like the reviews, even the controversial ones. You're by far my favorite reviewer on this website.


Okay, so with the fluff out of the way, here is what I think is the problem with early access reviews: you're calling it a review. That's a little problematic, and if you keep reading I'll tell you why by way of a very close to home analogy. 


Imagine the following: EA shows a gameplay trailer for Mirror's Edge 2. I, having been a sucker for the first one, like what I see. Later that year you get to play a beta of ME2 at an expo (or through some other means) and then, being the wonderful video game journalist that we know you to be, you type up your thoughts on the "unfinished-but-on-its-way" game that you played and put it up on this website. Which of the following words will end up in the title of that article: Review or Impressions?


Therein lies the problem. When you title this article as an early access review instead of "Early Access Impressions", it comes off as a "final-verdict-whether-or-not-this-game-is-worth-your-hard-earned-cash-EVER!." I understand that the idea of these articles is supposed to be different but that notion doesn't seem to come through in these articles. Moreover, the verdict statement tends to be fairly problematic. More often than not I see slightly more in depth versions of the disclaimers made by the authors of the early access game as the verdict. In this review the verdict basically says: it's interesting, I think I like it, but it's so obviously unfinished. To that everyone thinks: WELL OF COURSE IT IS!


TL;DR These should probably be called early access "impressions" instead of "reviews" and anyone writing them should be responsible for periodically updating them as the game changes (that last part not found in the original post ... just in the summary ... cuz that's how I roll ... and it's late ... and I'm tired ... and I'm running out of ellipsi...).


P.S. Just realized I didn't address the money issue. To me, that doesn't play a factor. If I see something and believe that in a finished form it will be something I like, I'll spend the money. A review or impressions article is unlikely to sway my opinion (Steam reviews might though) and is useless to me if I've already spent the money. If I think it needs time before I invest, I'll keep my cash and not spend it until v1.0 and a proper review. Generally the same logic drives my pre-order habits.

Vodoo
Vodoo

@Kevin-V First off, because it's an unfinished product, you could be indirectly harming a potentially great game or up & coming developer.

Look at it from a step back, at the whole life cycle of the game. It could be the next Golden Eye, but because the early-access wasn't the best you trash it. Lots of gamers read your review and then completely write it off. Then because the game is unsuccessful, the developer gives up developing or their heart isn't in it any longer and the finished product isn't what it could've been.

Same situation, next Golden Eye game with a questionable early-access. You trash it in a review and it disheartens the developer. He/She doesn't even finish developing the game because it was already commercially panned. "Why bother?"

Your early-access reviews have serious potential to knock over dominoes and set things in motion to negatively impact these games that would've otherwise turned out great. Of course it could alter things in a positive way, but a good game without any interference can usually stand on its own without any help.

Early-access is a gamble and the community knows that. People know what they're getting themselves into. Let the process play out naturally without interfering. Then, when there's a finished product, pass judgment.

There are a few other reasons why reviewing unfinished work is a bad idea, but this holds the most weight imo.

DarkSaber2k
DarkSaber2k

@Kevin-V @Vodoo Yes, but Gamespot "reviewers" are ABSOLUTELY incapabable and/or incompetent when it comes to making that assesment.
 If it hasn't been paid for they don't even know where to START reviewing something, especially if it isn 't EVEN FINISHED.
 (And this is coming from someone who absolutely HATES Hack 'n' Slash)

Vodoo
Vodoo

I totally agree with that. It should be a PREview, not a REview. That was my issue... that a review puts finality to an unfinished product that could have negative effects on it. I wrote my little piece very late as well and off the top of my head.

I too would like to read previews on these.

jariullah
jariullah

@Gelugon_baat @jariullah Yes and no. The issue here is perception: both of the game and the review process. I wanna see articles about games that aren't finished. I wanna hear opinions from Gamespot folk and I wanna see those opinions evolve as the game does. I like the "early access review" articles even though I disagree with the title. Keep em coming, change the name, take a responsibility to update them as the game does. That is all.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@jariullah 

Oh good grief, yet another semantics argument.

If I were to summarize all your arguments, including your post-script, I get the impression that you are saying that reviews of unfinished games shouldn't be done at all.

Is that what you are saying?

Vodoo
Vodoo

No, there is no guarantee. But that's the risk of buying an unfinished product.

My point was that the cheese might not taste great alone, but when added to the other ingredients, it turns out great.

Like the guy below suggested, it would be better if these were called previews or impressions, rather than a review.

Vodoo
Vodoo

It was late dude. As long as I got the point across, I'm good.

nick_capozzoli
nick_capozzoli staff

@Vodoo Wouldn't going to a restaurant and being served a meal piecemeal be a far more apt analogy?

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@Vodoo 

If you are going to make that analogy, then I would say this: is there any guarantee that the meal is going to turn out great, especially when the cheese already looks like it has been done badly?

Tr2et
Tr2et

@Vodoo @Kevin-V Well, IMO early access review is a must, but it should talk more about the possibility of the game, what the game should have in the future and less critic about it's fault. Vodoo had good idea about the negative effect of EAR, and Gamespot can just change a bit and reduce it.

Vodoo
Vodoo

Just because you can pay money for something doesn't mean it requires a review.

Think of it like cooking a delicious dinner... like lasagna. I pay money for the cheese, but would you review the whole unfinished meal badly just because you paid money for the cheese and it wasn't that great? Giving the whole lasagna a bad rating? But once the pasta and sauce are added, the meal turns out wonderfully. Then you see how reviewing the cheese badly before it was mixed with the other ingredients was irresponsible and could've jeopardized the quality of the whole meal.

mrsutnak
mrsutnak

@DarkSaber2k reviews are just a guy is opinion anyway...i loved RE6 and the new FF even that they got a bad score