The title Hack ‘n’ Slash seems to refer to the videogame genre where the player uses weapons like swords and axes to hack and slash through enemies, but this game doesn’t belong to or comment on this genre. Hack ‘n’ Slash is a parody of The Legend of Zelda, and the only “hacking” in the game has to do with computer code.
Hacking has inspired a lot of discussion from game critics and players in 2014. The hyped Watch Dogs starred a vigilante hacker, and real-life hackers recently stole personal information from developers like Zoe Quinn and Phil Fish. By emphasizing hacking as a feature and not as an activity that raises moral and practical concerns, Hack ‘n’ Slash announces itself as escapism.
Having said that, the in-depth hacking of the game favors those who are already seasoned programmers. For everyone else, the game requires patience and a willingness to learn its language. Hack ‘n’ Slash isn’t intimidating at first; for example, the initial hacking includes binary coding like “true/false” that determines whether a gate will open. But after a couple of chapters, the hacking becomes complex as you gain more abilities and face less straightforward problems. As opposed to BioShock or Arkham Asylum, Hack ‘n’ Slash shows great respect for the work involved in programming and hacking. The catch is that the game isn’t a straightforward teacher, so its escapism can translate to frustration, especially if the game crashes on your computer as much as it did on mine.
Placing aside differences in player programming skill, Hack ‘n’ Slash still has nagging issues. Its intention to be a Zelda parody suffers from a lack of focus. Although hacking a spawn site to make the screen overflow with turtles might be funny, it doesn’t say anything about Zelda or adventure games broadly. The banter between the protagonist Alice and her red sprite might be cute, but the duo largely seems like another gaming cliché (with the exception of when the sprite becomes a major hindrance). Since the real fun of Hack ‘n’ Slash comes from messing with its own established enemy patterns, character attributes, etc., why should one care about the game’s innocuous winking at Zelda?
The Zelda-inspired game design is particularly annoying. In classic 2-D Zelda fashion, you can fall off a ledge into an abyss, only to reappear on the ledge. Unlike in Zelda, you don’t take damage when you fall in Hack ‘n’ Slash. This leniency might sound friendly, but the ledges are a constant concern, and sometimes the game makes you reappear in such a slippery position that you fall into the abyss again and again.
Another significant Zelda-inspired annoyance is the game’s (over)emphasis on item management. Items in Hack ‘n’ Slash determine how much you can understand the game’s code and how deep you can hack into it, so you have to make sure you equip the items you need during the different hacking puzzles. Items can be set to one of five buttons. You use some items, like the sword and bombs, to interact with objects in the environment, while you have to set other items to a percentage between 0 and 100 for passive effects. Given that hacking already requires a good deal of menu reading and tinkering, Hack ‘n’ Slash should have featured a more streamlined way of manipulating its content instead of checking off another “it has something in common with Zelda!” box.
Although one can’t dismiss the joy of being encouraged to break a game’s rules, Hack ‘n’ Slash often feels like another ode to customization, which shouldn’t be confused with sophistication. The game’s awkward, selective form of escapism seems limiting compared to the more reliable absurdity of Jazzpunk. Between its fulfilling moments of discovery and freedom, Hack ‘n’ Slash is a tedious joke.
Hack ‘N’ Slash was developed and published by Double Fine Productions. It is available for Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux.
Jed Pressgrove is a game critic who regularly writes at his blog, Game Bias.