I thought it’d be impossible to feel short-changed on a game that cost £3. Three quid won’t even get you a bus ticket these days; it is a small enough quantity that I effectively parse it as “no money”. No money. Hack Slash Loot cost me almost no money, and I’m still slightly annoyed I bought it.
Good lord, where to begin? Hack Slash Loot has so many bad design elements packed into such a small space that they start blurring into one another, and it’s hard to tease out just one to start with, but, in a nutshell: Hack Slash Loot is the bite-size roguelike mechanic of Desktop Dungeons stretched out over a game that could take three or four hours for one playthrough. It is a roguelike with all the interesting bits stripped out; no inventory management, no potions, no magic, just picking up equippable items and clicking on bad guys. Click, click, click on the bad guys and nothing else. Desktop Dungeons gets away with this by being a) half-puzzler and b) about ten minutes long. Hack Slash Loot has no such excuses. It’s just irredeemably bad.
“32 characters to be unlocked!” proclaims the Steam description. There may or may not be 32 characters in the game. I don’t know. What I do know is that you start with a selection of just three: Fighter, Archer, and Mage, except Mage is functionally identical to an Archer with really bad armour so really there’s only two. If you are the Fighter, you walk up to the baddies and click on them. If you are an Archer or a Mage you get to start the clicking as soon as you see them, but either way you’re going to be looking at a lot of “Miss” results. Miss. Miss. Miss. Miss. Miss. And then a hit, which (if it’s on the baddie) will often one-shot it, or, if it’s on you, will hack away anywhere from a quarter to one third of your health. It’s a tremendously unsatisfying combat mechanism since it relies almost entirely on a random number generator to determine the result. You might kill that Deep Dwarf in two hits, or you might whiff five times in a row and get murdered horribly. Both outcomes are possible, and this isn’t a massive departure from how regular roguelikes do it, but by stripping out the inventory Hack Slash Loots strips out the player’s ability to manage their luck and mitigate bad combat results. The only method of healing yourself is to search chests and barrels and treasure piles and hope a consumable healing item pops out. Whether or not this happens is dependent on the RNG. If you’re very lucky you’ll pick up an item with the “Regeneration” attribute which will heal one health point every few turns; this too is dependent on the RNG. If you fight a monster with a poisoned weapon they have a chance to poison you every time they hit you, which is dependent on the RNG. If you are poisoned you will gradually lose health until you die no matter how much health you have, and you cannot stop this until you find a healing item, which is dependent on the RNG. You can find items which protect you from poison, but your chances of doing so are dependent on the RNG. And even if you do have one, baddies have attacks which can destroy items which – you’ve guessed it – is dependent on the RNG.
Whether you survive the first level of Hack Slash Loot will therefore be an almost entirely random affair. Because the combat is so shallow there’s very little that the player can actually do to affect the outcome besides fighting in a chokepoint; you have to cross your fingers and hope you live long enough to get good enchantments from consumables and items that will protect you from the worst of the bullshit. This is more than a little bit unlikely, though, since more often than not on starting a game your character will spawn in a room right next to two heavily armoured bad guys. I have died a total of fifteen times. I have died in the starting room three times. I have made it off of the first level exactly once. The three characters you’re given to start the game are tremendously awful; the Mage has no armour and dies pretty much instantly, while the Saracen does have armour but has to get up close to fight baddies which guarantees an early death. The only one that is remotely viable is the Archer, and even he will be dead within five minutes without an obscenely large dollop of luck to help him along. The worst thing about this, though, is that this is intentional.
I’m not exactly a roguelike neophyte. I enjoy “modern” roguelikes like Dungeons of Dredmor, and I’ve done more than my fair share of time in Zangband (used to occupy the number one spot on the State high score table, in fact). I know how they’re done and I know how to play them, which is why I was a little puzzled as to why Hack Slash Loot appeared to have almost no depth to it whatsoever. Was there something I was missing? There’s bugger all documentation, so I went along to the forum to see if there were any hints as to what I should be doing on there. There weren’t. What there was were a few people having a prolonged argument with the developer over the 32 unlockable characters, since he has taken the rather bewildering decision to not link character unlocks to achievements or high scores or any of the usual success metrics that are usually rewarded with new content. Instead, new characters are mainly unlocked by dying a certain number of times. New characters are unlocked by failing, repeatedly. My futile struggles against the RNG were what the developer wanted to happen; those starting characters are supposed to be so bad I have little chance of even making it off the first level. His rationale for this is that “good” players – as if it is possible to be “good” at a game as random and as shallow as Hack Slash Loot – will succeed with the worst characters, while bad players will die lots and lots and unlock better characters that make the game easier.
This is a shitty idea for a number of reasons – it unnecessarily locks away the majority of the game content and the variety that makes roguelikes so compelling, it effectively means the game starts on the hardest difficulty setting and can’t be shifted down, it turns the game into nothing more than a huge grindfest – but the one that really gets me is that he has assumed he has made a game good enough that I will want to keep smashing my head against this brick wall he’s put in between me and whatever fun there is to be had here. The base game experience of dying inevitably and repeatedly is no fun at all. Roguelikes are supposed to be hard, but they’re also supposed to be (broadly) fair. That’s why people keep playing them. If you know what you’re doing you can easily and consistently beat a roguelike; the difficulty stems from the genre punishing you mercilessly for even the slightest hint of overconfidence. That’s not Hack Slash Loot’s approach, though; Hack Slash Loot has gotten completely the wrong idea and assumed that it’s the random element of roguelikes that makes them so appealing. Every single thing in the game is random bar picking a quest and a character class, and even those are stacked against you by giving you what are, by the developer’s own admission, only the three worst classes to start with. The last thing Hack Slash Loot wants the people who play it to do is have any fun, and this time I mean that quite literally. Don’t buy it.