A bonkers love letter to gaming.
One of my all-time favourite indies is Pony Island, a game which took my expectations, laughed at them, threw them into a meat grinder and constructed an entirely bizarre Picasso-esque experience out of the results. Beginning as a basic, saccharine pony-jumping arcade game, the surreal 2-3 hour trip soon delved into the insane virtual mind of an artificial intelligence.
Next up from the one-man-band behind Pony Island, Daniel Mullins, is The Hex. An altogether longer and more ambitious project than his first flagship title, The Hex has a story spanning across multiple characters and even genres. As a result, it doesn’t have the pure consistency of the short but sweet Pony Island. But nonetheless, it’s a wild ride benefitting from Mullins’ wicked sense of humour, satire of the game industry and ability to play with your expectations.
“A space marine, weasel and fighter-cum-chef walk into a bar” sounds like a setup for a joke, but it’s, in fact, the premise central to The Hex’s story. Six characters from all walks of video game life check in to the Six Pint Inn and mingle at the bar. Things take a turn for the worse when the barkeep receives an ominous tip-off by phone, however: one of the residents is planning a murder that very night.
What proceeds is putting yourself in the shoes of each character, carrying out the occasional request from the barkeep and exploring the inn with the hope of uncovering its mysteries. Along the way you’ll have flashbacks of their backstories, their careers in video games, and the events which led to their stay at the Six Pint that evening.
This is where the uniqueness of The Hex lies. Every character is part of a different franchise (albeit some make cameos in others) and so you’ll play each of these game-within-a-games. The weasel is a platformer protagonist in Super Weasel Kid, a kind of weird hybrid of Mario and Sonic. A mage priestess is the main character in a classic RPG called Secrets of Legendaria. Tough-guy Bryce works his way through 2D fighting tournaments before taking a change of pace for Cooking Granny, a hilarious riff on Cooking Mama.
Through each of these vignettes, The Hex becomes both a tribute to, and a parody of, popular games. It distills their mechanics into simplified bitesize experiences poking fun at coin collecting in platformers, grinding in RPGs and character metagame in fighters. Going even broader, it touches on the media and communities surrounding gaming: tongue-in-cheek patch notes, user reviews, Twitch chats and news site headlines accompany the action at regular intervals.
It’s all very silly, but with the use of great dialogue and creative lampooning it’s an entertaining journey for anyone with a history of gaming. I wouldn’t want to spoil too much, but it places a bunch of funny references at every turn.
The problem is that The Hex doesn’t always avoid the main pitfall of parody games: subjecting the player to the very mechanics it’s trying to mock. Super Weasel Kid is an ode to simplistic platformers in which you have to play a simplistic platformer. This specific example doesn’t outstay its welcome for too long and scatters in enough quips, surprises and humour to keep it engaging. The RPG, on the other hand, is a fairly lengthy experience in which you fight a lot of grunts, carry out fetch quests and battle several bosses. Though it does slip in some crafty – and humourous – shortcuts, you’ll still have to wade through some of the dull dross it satirises.
Let’s face it: a game emulating an RPG, twin-stick shooter, platformer and fighting game all in one isn’t going to be as good as their influences in the respective genres, let alone any better than them. Sometimes The Hex gets bogged down in drawn-out sections. When the humour thins out in these areas, it can get particularly repetitive. But there are some real hits amongst the misses, like a post-apocalyptic turn-based strategy level called Waste World which makes use of an inventive cheat code mechanic and throws all sorts of wacky modded encounters and bosses at you.
The Hex is at its best when things get weird. The games frequently glitch out, get hacked or modded, spout cryptic messages or completely break down. Sometimes this’ll make your life harder. Often, however, these vulnerabilities can be creatively exploited to your advantage, letting you cheat your way through.
Appropriately, The Hex is an oddball in the visual sense too. Delving into various game worlds and genres, it adapts its aesthetic to each one. The primary style, however, used within The Six Pint Inn and elsewhere, has a real hand-drawn Jim’ll Paint It vibe. It’s a little crude, and the animation is janky, but that’s arguably part of the charm.
Though The Hex occasionally loses sight of what it does best and gets a little mired in knock-off gameplay, its moments of ingenuity, hilarity and downright eccentricity shine through. The closing chapters are brilliant, too, throwing in some real surprises and bringing all of the previous experiences together into a neatly tied-up conclusion. It may not be as coherent and concise a package as Pony Island, but The Hex is bigger, bolder and even more experimental. I can’t wait to see what Mullins comes up with next.