I don’t usually have a lot of time for gaming, but when I saw a link to an early access version of Hack ‘n’ Slash by Double Fine Productions on Steam, I impulse-bought it.

At a glance, it looks a lot like a SNES-era Legend of Zelda game. Green-tuniced, sword-wielding adventurer wandering around and fighting wizards and etc. The similarities are big enough that it has to be an intentional tribute — boomerangs and bombs, a little flying companion who gives you advice, and lost woods. That’s fine, I don’t mind a tribute to Zelda.

But what really makes the game interesting is the twist added to it. Instead of a good old-fashioned sharp-edged sword, you have a hacking sword that looks rather like a USB thumb drive that you can use to alter the internal variables of creatures and objects in the world. You can change an enemy to be friendly or to move in a different pattern when idle. You can unlock a door, or change how far a rock will move when you push it.

Programming and adventure game combined–count me interested!

Later in the game you get more items that allow greater alterations. You can change global variables. You can change values in functions (procedures) that operate doors or bridges, and so on. And, according to the developers, the game doesn’t just make it seem like you’re altering the internal code. The code of the game is actually decompiled (changed from machine-readable code to human readable code) and shown to you, you can make alterations, and then that code is compiled again. That does come with the complication that, well, your alterations aren’t guaranteed to actually be compilable. The game handles this pretty well–if the compilation fails, you get a message that “The Universe Collapsed” and it gives you the compile error message.

Early Access?

So what’s this “early access” thing. Well, as far as I can tell, it means that you’re paying $20 to play a beta. No, that’s too charitable. You’re paying $20 to pay a completely untested and incomplete alpha version. It’s pitched at you as if this is an amazing privilege, as if you’re not paying them to do their work.

And it’s clear that they really didn’t put forth even a minor testing effort before putting it on the market. I would expect that by the time you’re expecting people to pay money for your product you’ve put some effort into working the larger and more obvious bugs out of the system…such as the removal of the idle behavior list for any creature, or massive Macintosh incompatibility.

They did say that there were bugs, and that the final act hadn’t been finished. But I really expected that the bugs would be minor corner cases.

I realize much of this is probably due to Steam’s marketing, rather than Double Fine productions itself. But I could still do without the “early access” labelling. Putting sprinkles on a turd doesn’t make it a pastry.

Rating

Okay, so what did I think, overall?

Concept/Originality: A+
Great idea.

Visuals: A+
The game has a great look, that looks like an homage to Zelda but with its own look as well.

Playability: A-
Generally no issues here. When you get to the part where you are able to alter procedures, I think it would be difficult for non-programmers to pick up. But I expect that more help will be added in for the final version.

Difficulty: B-
The game overall was too easy. The difficulty isn’t really meant to be the action aspect, but only one or two puzzles held me up for very long, and both of those were near the middle of the game, rather than ramping up toward the end. Of course, Act 5 hasn’t been written yet. And they’ve said that they’re going to add more difficult optional sidequests for the geekier geeks, so that will be an improvement, but I also hope they intend to add more puzzles and more difficult puzzles.

Playtime: C
I played through the game as released in about 3-4 hours. Especially considering the short playtime, that’s way too short for a $20 price tag. Act 5 will be added later, but unless the act is triple the length of the rest of the game, it’ll still be too short for the price. And, really, it’s such a cool concept that there needs to be more of it.

Overall Value: D

Final Verdict

If you think this game sounds like a great concept, it makes a lot of sense to kick in some money to help them finish their development. At the very least, I’d say it’s a game worth watching to see how the project advances.

But, if you’re simply looking for a game that is worth the money you pay for it, I don’t recommend buying it in its current state because it’s too much money for too short a game, and one that hadn’t been given more than a token testing effort before productizing it. You have no guarantee that they won’t abandon the project tomorrow and leave you with $20 less for a short and buggy (albeit fun) game.

I hope that the value eventually meets the price point–preferably by them adding much length and compelling puzzles so that it’s worth $20.

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