There’s a colloquialism amongst some fans of the kinds of games that Michael Brough, creator of 868-HACK, releases: Brough-like. It’s playful but perhaps a little disingenuous. While it can be a matter of pride to have your games classified under their own unique umbrella, that simplification does disservice to the spectrum of genres through which Michael Brough works. There’s great variety and it’s impossible to summarize the whole oeuvre into one genre but, and with a big underlined but, if we were to use this label at least once in our lives we’d use it here because 868-HACK is probably the most Brough-like game yet and it’s spectacular.
Last year’s Zaga-33, created by Brough as part of the Seven-Day Rogue-like competition just like 868-HACK (then known as 86856527), was one of my favourites of 2012. It simplified the essence of a rogue-like into a concise, focused package that ended up playing more like a puzzle game than a dungeon crawler. Its rules were clear, the enemies predictable, and each level fit on a single screen obscuring nothing. Apart from your randomized items there were no surprises. No unexpected death traps. While certain randomly generated levels could set you up for inevitable failure the streamlining of the design meant that you never felt cheated. It was your fault you failed, even in cases where it maybe wasn’t.
868-HACK is more merciful and even more reductionist. There is nothing present on its last stage that isn’t there on the first, except for more enemies. There are just 8 stages of small 6×6 grids. Each stage is randomly populated by some 5 to 10 tiles with various items. There are 4 types of enemies and 2 resources. Your character can take a total of 3 hits and each stage has 2 siphon items that you can pick up. By the numbers there isn’t a lot here, but it is a game of permutations and decisions, every one relevant.
The core of these revolve around the siphon. All squares on the map have a value in credits and energy, and a siphon siphons them all from adjacent squares giving you resources to power your special skills. These range from a simple rogue-like “wait” command to enemy-specific and localized attacks to global effects. There’s even a very tempting one that directly increases your score. You start with one or two, but you can get more abilities by siphoning them from the chip-like tiles on the board but there’s a catch: each tile has a rating and the higher it is the more enemies it will summon when siphoned. Getting the ability to attack at double power is nice (all enemies take a minimum of two hits to kill), but are you safe enough to deal with the swarm of eight enemies it will summon? Do you have resources enough — or positioning — to survive that or would it be safer to just grab that ‘reset’ over there for four, heal your frowning face, and take your chances on the next stage with full health?
It’s easy to get swarmed if you’re not careful, even on the very first level, but this is almost always the result of excess greed. If you get cocky it can punish you, but with caution 868-HACK is very much beatable. This is its greatest strength. All you need to do is to play it safe and measure your risks. However, unlike Zaga-33 and others of its ilk, your final score is decoupled from progress: it’s possible to finish all eight levels with a score of zero. While you definitely could do that and be done with it, the impulse to better your rating motivates here. It is why there are Game Center powered leader boards in 868-HACK and not Zaga-33; they make sense here.
Points can be accumulated from the aforementioned score ability or from score specific tiles. Much like all other tiles, the more points you siphon the more enemies will be alerted but the difference here is that, instead of a nice new power to make things easier on yourself, points is all you get. There is a measurable amount of bragging rights that comes from placement on the leader boards but ultimately the score is your difficulty modifier. It’s a “choose your own difficulty” adventure. The more you play for points the more challenging you make it on yourself giving this little package of a game great longevity. It’s a wonderfully planned system of risks and rewards.
If maximizing a single run isn’t motivating enough, 868-HACK does provide a secondary score board that rewards long term survival. Each successful completion starts a streak and all consecutive runs are tallied together into a single score, irrespective of survival (on the individual board, scores from successful runs are always ranked above failures.) It’s a subtle addition but one that does benefit differing play styles.
Roguelikes do tend to have scoring but it has never been as front and centre as it is here. It is the focus of the design. With this emphasis, 868-HACK almost feels like the infinite runner of roguelikes. It’s short and accessible (as much as can be said for a game with Brough’s design sensibilities), suited for a device you carry with you during rush hour commutes, with the leader board compulsiveness to keep you playing over and over again yet with the consequences and strategizing of its rogue roots. It’s a perfectly balanced fusion of genres that plays like nothing else out there and feels at home on the iPad to boot. In this age when many iPad games condescend their players with fluff and sparkle over a shallow core, Michael Brough’s complex yet accessible designs stand out. I just wish more developers of mobile games would be more Brough-like.
The game was played on a first generation iPad for this review.