Like the green printed circuit boards that its level art evokes, Michael Brough’s 868-HACK is a work of precision engineering. Its clean cut lines and rigid structures are all visually and mechanically coherent, but there’s a baffling amount of complexity underpinning its design.
Outwardly, it’s a fairly simple game, playing like a mash up of Pac-Man and chess, with movement and combat taking place on 6 x 6 grid-based mazes. And it requires nothing more than a directional touchscreen swipe to control. But beneath this layer of accessibility pulses a fiendishly compelling, well-balanced set of algorithms – the addictive, mathematical heart of any good rougelike.
Permadeath, randomisation and a punishing difficulty all conspire to sour your grinning avatar’s expression, but as hard as 868-HACK can be, it’s rarely unfair.
Levels are structured around path blocking data nodes. Each of these can be hacked using collectable siphon tokens for power ups and points, but there’s a risk that comes with extracting these rewards. The orange number displayed on the front of every node indicates how many enemies will spawn upon activation, and more valuable nodes bring about more dangerous situations. This proportional balance turns each hack into an exciting, conflicting gamble – do you go for the powerful .D_Bom power up and chance unleashing four aggressive Viruses?
Every one of the programming themed foes has a distinct, charmingly appropriate behavioural pattern – Viruses move two squares a turn, Cryptogs are invisible outside a direct line of sight and Glitches can pass through nodes. They’re all predictable, and that’s exactly the point. Learn their abilities and the pause in action after every move becomes an exercise in forecasting the possible outcomes of your next move, then striving to orchestrate the most advantageous one for yourself, which is where the aforementioned comparison to chess really becomes appropriate.
Given the orderly assembly of its systems, there’s rarely a sticky situation to be found unjustly, but the machinations of its glowing, computational playgrounds are too abstract to be immediately understandable. There’s a short tutorial that covers the basic premise and rules, but strategies that are practically essential for long term success can only be deduced through experimentation and failure. Featuring on its competitive leaderboards, for instance, isn’t achieved by progressing quickly through the eight, increasingly difficult data modules, but rather the number of points that you extract from nodes along the way. And whilst you’re told how to get these points, their importance isn’t ever explicitly explained.
Such opacity is present in much of Brough’s previous work. As a designer, he’s known for games with coarse exteriors, containing polished, ingenious mechanics. 868-HACK is no different, but it’s perhaps the most appropriate matching of his low-res visual style with that substance yet.
Its rough, 8-bit era graphics construct the electronic intestine of computer hardware wonderfully – all blocky and precise. And there’s something appropriately uncomfortable about the rumbling static hum that constantly plays in the background behind the fuzzy, reverberating sound effects. Everything is engineered to create the unsettling tension of being somewhere that you shouldn’t be, which is fitting for a game about hacking.
It’s not flashy, but 868-HACK’s distinctive style makes a good match for its ambitions. And whilst those ambitions might be limited to an apparently simple 36 squares, Brough’s deftly balanced cocktail of variables multiplies that number to something exponentially more interesting.