Deus hex machina
The Hex is Daniel Mullins’ follow-up to the critically acclaimed Pony Island, a twisted meta tale about ponies, arcade games, and the soul. His first game played on expectations in a way that was genuinely surprising and creative. It was the sort of thing that’s difficult to explain to others without fully ruining the magic.
The same can easily be said for The Hex, but I’ll do my damnedest to keep the juicy bits under wraps.
The Hex (Mac, Windows [reviewed])
Developer: Daniel Mullins Games
Publisher: Daniel Mullins Games
Released: October 16, 2018
The story opens with six strangers meeting up at a dilapidated bar out in the middle of nowhere during a huge thunderstorm. Once they’re all gathered together, the bartender immediately receives a phone call stating that a murder will be taking place there that night. Somebody there was going to die, and somebody there was going to kill them.
There’s only one thing that these folks have in common right off the bat. They’re all based on standard video game character archetypes. There’s The Space Marine, The Sorceress, The Platformer, The Fighter, The Apocalypse Survivor, and The First Person Perspective. You’ll play through each genre’s sequence and learn about their sordid pasts in the process.
The big kicker here is that the gameplay changes completely between each story too. For example, as The Platformer, you’ll be jumping up and down in a knockoff 2D Mario-style world as what looks like some sort of low-rent lovechild between Sonic and Tails. The Space Marine sports a top-down shooter aesthetic, and The Fighter plays off the tropes of mainstays like Street Fighter, albeit with a severely pared-down control scheme.
The most impressive aspect is that, despite the constant swapping of genres, you will only ever use the WASD keys and left mouse clicks to control actions. It’s about what you’d expect in that regard and mechanically rather shallow, however, each play style was genuinely fun. By the time the novelty wore off, every section was either finished or close to it, and there were plenty of insanely creative twists that kept things feeling fresh. Still, this is very much a narrative-driven experience and expecting anything more is bound to leave you a tad let down.
You won’t ever be stuck wracking your brain over any puzzle solutions either. Mullins keeps thing rather simple and linear for this outing. Pony Island had a tendency to rely on much more cryptic solutions. With The Hex, there are similar situations, but it never resulted in those “Ah ha!” moments, and it holds your hand a little too much for my liking. There’s literally a segment where the solution for a major puzzle is told to you outright just before you reach a critical juncture. It’s the sort of thing that would have been better, and not that difficult, to figure out on your own.
As I’m sure most folks are aware, especially if you’ve played Pony Island, there is something more going on here than is immediately evident. Without giving too much away, my biggest complaint is that, by the end, it feels slightly forced. It technically works, and it’s absolutely worth the investment from returning fans, but it also somewhat failed to hit a dramatically resonant emotional chord with me.
There’s a very real dissonance in the flow of events, and it’s clearly intentional, but it also doesn’t always work. In particular, the big reveal left me deflated. For a game that threatens to break your expectations at every turn, it played things surprisingly straight during the closing moments. Maybe this was all part of the design to “break expectations” by breaking my expectations that it would “break my expectations,” but goddamn it felt like a letdown. If the narrative was up to the task, this could have worked wonderfully, but it ultimately failed to make me care about these characters and the world they live in.
The Hex is a really solid game that does a lot of very creative things. It’s definitely worth the asking price. However, it certainly won’t set your loins on fire and leave you dry humping the air for more. It’s an enjoyable jaunt with some cool ideas. Nothing more, nothing less.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]