EXAPunks from Zachtronics is a complex dystopian puzzler where you play as an ex-hacker who has contracted a deadly virus simply known as The Phage. An antidote exists, but with the disease spreading like wildfire, inoculations are slim and prices per dose are only getting higher. Which means, unless you can get some cash, you’ll be out of luck and probably six feet under in no time flat. That is until you’re contacted by a mysterious AI with a proposition - write a few programs, let them loose on the world, and get the medicine you need.
To do that you’ll have to brush up on your hacking skills by reading through the TRASH WORLD NEWS zine, hack some banks, a library, and maybe even a satellite or two. However, you won’t be pressing a few buttons and crossing your fingers, you’ll actually be writing the code and puzzling out the logic you’ll need to complete each objective without leaving a trace.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with logic puzzles. On one hand I love the idea of sitting down and working out the proper steps to solve them, which always feels super rewarding especially when they’re particularly elaborate. It makes you feel smart and that’s a nice feeling. However, on the other hand, they’re also the type of puzzle that can have the complete opposite effect. Miss one step, or overlook a clue, or simply not understand the pattern the puzzle creator was looking for, and you can spend a solid couple of hours going in circles! Not a good feeling at all!
So, with that in mind, I was kind of hesitant to try out EXAPunks. For one, it would actually require some learning to familiarize myself with the game's scripting syntax, since you’ll ACTUALLY be writing code to solve its puzzles. A novel idea for sure, but not something I typically think of as a compelling game mechanic. That said, my curiosity got the best of me and with the game being wrapped up in a tidy visual package and with an interesting backstory, I was excited to see if it would stick. Plus, cracking the code per se, while writing code truly can be gratifying, so I dove in blind with the hopes that my mind would be blown.
One of the things I like the most about EXAPunks is how clean and pleasing the graphics are. I love how they’re cleverly used to represent the various objects you’ll be interacting with and manipulating when writing your code. The EXAs (EXecution Agents) are your actual programs and it's fun seeing them following your commands and jumping around the playfield manipulating data, communicating with each other, and even replicating themselves to divide and conquer. It’s also the little visual details that really make the game charming, like including a security camera window that lets you see the real world effects of your hacking actions. For example, hacking an ATM to spit out hundreds of $1 bills and seeing a crowd of people congregating around it to collect the loot!
Even with such pleasing visuals it's the game’s core mechanic that’ll either draw you in, or push you away. I say that because what you’ll be doing 95% of the time is writing code to solve some sort of problem (a puzzle). There are a few story sequences here and there but for the most part you’ll be acting as a code monkey. If that sounds intimidating, I don’t blame you because when looking at it from afar it can certainly appear formidable. Nevertheless, Zachtronics did an excellent job of stepping you through how everything works and easing you into what’s expected of you when it comes to figuring out how to solve the puzzles. Meaning, even if you have never written a line of code in your life, they give you everything you need to figure it out. Though I will say, solving the problems, even as an experienced programmer, can take some real brain power. So expect to get stumped at least a few times!
The good news is you’re given a series of digital magazines (zines) that’ll walk you through familiarizing yourself with how to use and write the code you’ll need to solve whichever problem is thrown your way. This includes tutorials, an index of functions and how they’re used, as well as breakdowns of how the various systems you’ll have to hack, work. Giving you clues to help you write the eventual code you’ll use to complete your tasks. What truly makes the game unique though, is that a lot of the solutions are up to you, and the game is open-ended enough that there’s really no wrong way to solve each puzzle. You can brute force it or create a super elegant series of commands, and as long as you complete your objective within the given parameters, that’s all that matters!
Also, if you need a break from raking your brain against mind bending puzzles there are a few mini games that you can unlock including a unique spin on Solitaire, and even a match 3 puzzler named Hack Match. Both were great distractions and gave me the respite I needed after solving a particularly difficult task. One of the coolest additions however was the Redshift, an in-game console similar to the Game Boy that you could actually code games for! I didn’t spend too much time with it, but the fact that it was even in there was impressive. Plus, if you happen to make a game for the Redshift you can share it with your friends using the Redshift Player, which is currently free on Steam!
Although I was hesitant to give EXAPunks a try in the beginning, I’m really glad I took the plunge. The game may be complex, but it’s deceptively easy to learn, and I love the fact that there’s no one solution for each of its puzzles. I also like that if you’re the type of person that likes to optimize solutions for things like size or cycles, and you like to compete on leaderboards then it gives you that as well. But it’s nice that the game allows you to hide that stuff too if you’d prefer not to be bothered by it. My biggest take away from it though, is that there was a lot of thought, love, and care put into making it and you can see that in every aspect. It kind of reminds me of playing a game of Sudoku while sipping on a hot cup of coffee, which is pleasant, even when my brain is melting from overwork.
EXAPunks has you solving brain busting puzzles by hacking banks, radio stations, and even your body using a cleverly designed scripting language! It may feel convoluted at times, but it’s also surprisingly easy to learn, and wholly satisfying once you get the hang of it! Two EXAThumbs UP from us!!
I've always loved this kind of game. Use your brain and solve the puzzles. And it has a good story too. Thanks for sharing it with us, man. It's gonna be on my list.
Yeah, it was a really unique game, and a ton of fun to play. It was cool learning how to script using their in-game programming language, and then utilizing that to solve the puzzles!
And thanks so much, always greatly appreciate it!
Zachtronic games are amazing, they're so well-designed, and you learn a thing or two from them.
100% agree! This is actually my first Zachtronics game, and you can bet I'll be back to play more of them. Last Call BBS seems pretty dang cool, and it might be the next one I try. :D
thx for sharing!