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Most games try to cram as much content in as possible, but what of minimalist designs? Creating a tight, compact gaming experience that can rival extravagant productions is just as steep a challenge, if quite different in its execution. 868-HACK is deceptive at first glance, a puzzler playing out on one six-by-six grid at a time with only the arrow keys and spacebar to guide you. But it won’t take more than a few careless deaths to reveal the depth of the designs challenging your wits. It’s a score-attack roguelike with more under the hood than most, which is plenty to keep it haunting your dreams after bedding down from a session.
The store page summarizes it most succinctly: You are a computer hacker. You steal precious data while the world sleeps. The way that you accomplish this is by scooting a little smiley face around a grid of techy green squares. Some squares hold credits or energy, while the walls you face are packed with programs and victory points to claim. There is opposition, of course, in the form of digital daemons that close in on your perky mug to wipe that smile off your face. With some clever turn-based shuffling you can elude your pursuers and cart off enough data to make a name for yourself, and surviving eight levels of hacking gives you the chance to do it all again with new unlocks to play with.
Obviously this is a game about the mechanics, not the story, so let’s get into the cyberweeds here. You start in one corner, another corner contains the exit, and the last two corners hold Data Siphons to collect. Bright green squares can’t be passed, and contain either programs or points to claim by expending a Data Siphon to siphon off the goods. Siphons also suck up credits and points from surrounding walkable tiles, but beware claiming too much ground. Scoring programs or points also triggers a wave of enemies spawning in, dependent on how good your haul was. That means you have to weigh your tactical options against your looting instincts, and hope that reason prevails until you really start to grok the mechanics here.
The thing that made me see the genius in 868-HACK was the enemy lineup. You’re only going to face four enemies, but they’re the perfect compliments to each other. One passes through walls, one moves twice per turn, one has three hitpoints instead of two, and one is invisible. Enemies must be adjacent to you to strike and it only takes three such hits to end you, but your attack can be any distance along the cardinal directions. And that’s important, because you’re facing a team that you can never, ever, ever be fully safe from. The obvious technique of corralling them through choke points gets up-ended by the enemies that pass through walls, as well as the ones that move twice lining up right behind the foe you’re dispatching. Every randomized level is a brand new challenge, and no matter how prepared you are you’ll need to be ready to improvise.
Your programs will help you out of the worst fixes, once you unlock and test them all out. The ones you’ll first see let you bomb random enemies, lock down enemy types for a turn, scoot yourself without using a turn, heal, wait, and so on. It’s a risk to claim them and they need credits and/or energy to operate, but they’re the only things that’ll get you out of really bad situations. Once you start beating runs you’ll unlock more dramatic ones that really let you mess with the board and enemy positions, giving you fuller control over the levels provided you can survive the challenge of getting them set up.
The small scope of 868-HACK makes it far more suited to short sessions, but once you start feeling out the flow it’s the kind of game that can consume evenings. The presentation is that perfect low-key techno-weirdness that suits a game about zapping bugs in a neon grid world, both in terms of graphics and ambient sound design. This also makes it easier to really focus on and appreciate the brilliant design the game is built around. With only a scant few controls, four enemies, and simple maps, 868-HACK is able to wring out an incredible amount of tactical decision-making. You always need to be paying attention and planning ahead here, and there are no perfect solutions to every run. It’s a fantastic compact roguelike for those times you really want to exercise your brain, and that should earn it a place in just about anyone’s library.