Hack, Slash, Loot review

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Hack, Slash, Loot makes me feel bad to be a hero.

Let me explain. You know that happy feeling you get when you save the world from an all-conquering evil? You could stand on mountaintops and shout your greatness, but instead, you return to your town of origin and talk with the people who needed a change and believed you could facilitate it. Congratulations, no more innocent men, women, and children have to die or be sacrificed to an insufferable god.

Hack, Slash, Loot doesn’t do that, and I can’t help but feel like it’s turning me into an indecent person — or halfling, or dwarf, or whatever one of the 32 unlockable character classes I pick for a particular quest. It isn’t the friendliest roguelike, either. You’re given no tutorial (although the game’s creator uploaded a meager video introduction and started a chatroom where players can share advice) and no arsenal other than your computer mouse and whatever in-game weapon you might be holding: be it either sword, bow, or staff. You're immediately pushed into hostile territory, and sometimes you’ll die before you can exit the first room.

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The game has its problems (more on those in a minute), but it is inherently addicting: not because it’s fun, but because it makes you want to teach it a cruel, cruel lesson about who’s boss. It rarely shows mercy, instead taunting you with the overbearing death count you inevitably accrue.

As it turns out, you will get lucky and win, but those victories are sparse. You’ll also shed a lot of blood on your way to conquering whatever evil lurks within the game’s dungeons, and it’s not all from the many demons, ghosts, vampires, wolves, orcs, etc. that block your path. Sometimes it’s from innocents: people and dogs and maidens, whom you liberate from iron chains.

The AI in Hack, Slash, Loot is ruinously bad. Since combat is turn-based, everyone has to shuffle around each other to navigate the cramped hallways and rooms — and anytime you rescue anything, he or she or it follows you around like a lost duckling. When you’re tailed by more than two (a frequent occurrence in many of the quest maps), you’ll only end up putting them to slaughter. They’re so willing to return the heroic favor and squeeze themselves in between you and the enemy that they leave you no choice but to stand and wait for them to die.

The silly part is that when you ascend or descend a ladder or rope to the next floor, your band of misfits comes with you — and they all travel at once. So when you move to the next level and you’re suddenly ambushed by an evil horde, guess how many of your new friends will survive before you can even move to help them? About zilch.

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In one quest, “Battle for Stormrise,” it's probably easier to just let everyone die or to kill them yourself before they become a problem. It’s awkward to work around them, like in real life when you and another person can’t decide which way to turn to maneuver around each other. Now imagine that social situation hampered by bloodthirsty undead out for your life, and you can understand why manners need to be put aside. But there’s a more important reason to cut your losses. In that particular quest, whenever an ally dies, he turns into a demon. So while you’re watching him bravely take on a foe in your place, you’re silently wishing he hadn’t. He’s only going to die and give you one more demon to murder. That’s one more demon to chip away at your precious little health.

Health in Hack, Slash, Loot is a single number that starts out at a given amount depending on the character class. Exploring dungeons and finding new equipment, scrolls, or drinkable magical concoctions will raise your health along with weapon and defense stats. Whatever you manage to loot can either help you or cripple you, particularly as you gain resistances and vulnerabilities. And if you’re poisoned (what happens when you lose or can’t acquire that precious resistance), you’ll have to make your moves even more prudently.

The game partly comes down to strategy — whether you approach situations recklessly or with a bit of cunning — but it largely relies on luck. The average player isn’t going to plot out the huge dungeons (they usually have five floors, with the maps decreasing in size as you progress) or know ahead of time what effect potions or scrolls will have before using them. I’m not sure you could predict the next onslaught of enemies or what lies beneath each tomb, waiting to be desecrated, even if you wanted to. Gameplay is very much based on risk versus reward, but when you reach the fifth floor, only the grace of god can save you; the difficulty spikes more there than anywhere else.

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Sometimes you’ll spend a good amount of time searching for items to even out combat, but you’ll die in the process. Success also seems to rest heavily on what character you’re using. I couldn’t, for example, get much fight out of the beginner wizard, whose shots were pitifully weak. After so many times dying, you’ll unlock another character or quest, but you’ll accomplish this task a lot faster if you win. Only winning isn’t easy, and you’ll dump anywhere from 1-3 hours into a given quest just to fail.

Hack, Slash, Loot doesn’t teach the player much more than the following mantra: to win, you have to be smarter than the game — not necessarily the enemies within it. You have to roll the dice better, as simple as that. So much of the experience feels randomized. While you will learn a few tricks, it’s hard to credit the game with any sort of brilliance other than what’s on paper: its retro visual style and the scrolling text that appears unobtrusively in the background, documenting every move.

The game does house an impressive number of different enemy types, but it’s not excessive in the way that you can’t identify more challenging foes when you kick open a new door. (You can, and believe me: Running is futile. Good luck, or game over.) Each quest is slightly distinct, and the sudden presence of music lets you know that a nasty swarm is headed your way.

It might be tedious and exasperating, but if you persevere, you can conquer the game little by little. Although considering how many family men and gentle animals lose their lives while you toil away, I’m not sure the final scale is tipped toward the forces of good.

Follow @wita on Twitter for tales of superheroes, plumbers in overalls, and literary adventures.

Below Average

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Stephanie Carmichael Twitter: @wita
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