Gotta hack ’em all!

For an adventure game with such impressive development talent behind it – that’ll be Red Entertainment (Sakura WarsGalaxy Fraulein Yuna) and Creatures Inc. (Mother 3, manymanymanymany very good Pokémon spin-offs) – Japanese DS exclusive Project Hacker: Kakusei failed to do much more on release than exist in as unremarkably and inoffensively a manner as possible, quietly coming and going without much fuss or interest from anyone.

And that’s a real shame because Satoru and Rina’s investigative adventures in a Japan filled with hi-tech sabotage, beginning with the accidental acquisition of a CD-R containing a computer virus used to wreak havoc on a corporate rival and eventually leading to their recruitment by G.I.S. – the Genius Intelligence Society, an IT-focussed criminal investigation organisation – are a heck of a lot of fun.

This thrilling world of computer-based criminality may over the course of its five “Programs” (that’s hacker-speak for “Chapters”) deal with everything from hijacked planes to mysterious rivals with cool English-language nicknames (“Blitz”, in this case) but it tends to take a more light-hearted approach to its storytelling: The sunglass-wearing men in black who pursue and even go so far as to tie Satoru to a chair in a back room and beat him up during the prologue argue amongst themselves to the point of comical distraction, and at the climax of one mystery the secret counterfeit money presses spew out bank notes with a goofy photo taken earlier replacing the intended image. Recurring cast members are written with a similar gently humorous touch that makes every one of them a pleasure to be around – co-star Rina is an unstoppable force of nature, someone who acts first and thinks… eventually. Supporting genius Kei is a real Fox Mulder-type, cheerily obsessed with grey-skinned aliens and poring over blurry photos of potential UFO sightings. And the silver-haired Inspector Ookouchi has a fantastic selection of over-the-top reaction portraits that make him look like a man who had facial expressions described to him once.
In a letter.
Addressed to someone else.
And written by one of Kei’s aliens.

Crucially this easy-going attitude never prevents Project Hacker from treating its more dangerous twists and turns with the emotional weight and respect they deserve; so when a young and admittedly not especially likeable young boy gets kidnapped the game doesn’t make the mistake of presenting this as anything other than a distraught event that needs resolving quickly, and you do feel a real chill down your spine when Satoru receives a personal message from the person he’s just hacked – while Satoru’s in their home, directly hacking into their computer after sneaking in.

Much of this adventuring is handled in the usual manner – search static locations for clues and objects and then either talk about the current situation with a small group of relevant people or show someone a key item you just found to unlock a new area or event and continue until complete. It’s a comfortable and familiar setup that has always suited the DS well, a solid foundation Project Hacker eagerly builds upon with some fantastic tech-related twists. Important information is often found online – thankfully reduced here to one link-filled site briefly accessed via an internet café before Satoru and Rina get upgraded to G.I.S-branded PDAs – and in a slightly terrifying twist there are times when Project Hacker doesn’t say “Hey, well done for spotting the right thing, player!” but instead expects you to actually look for clues and then jot them down on a virtual memo pad yourself, in your own handwriting, testing out your own theories and encouraging “real” (albeit simplified) detective work. This can feel slightly frustrating and inconsistent at first as there as still times when you’re expected to adventure-game notice something online and sometimes real-world notice something online, but it eventually becomes clear Project Hacker expects Satoru to look up addresses to go to (unlocking a new location option) and you to look up anything that might serve as a password (a birthday, a significant word). If you can get over those initial wobbles and learn to trust the game this problem-solving becomes an enthralling experience – there’s real personal pride in opening an electronic lock using nothing more than some information you found for yourself, and when a character says with all seriousness “Have you heard of [company]?” you can honestly pick the “Yes, I’ve heard of them” response because you genuinely did come across the official company website “online” while searching for something else and organically retained some relevant information without even meaning to. The game’s email system offers another opportunity to embroil yourself in Project Hacker’s world, characters on hand and ready to receive and respond to your often optional pre-filled messages on a limited selection of relevant topics. All of this thematically appropriate behaviour is simple enough to be interactive without drowning you in useless time-wasting novelty websites while still being convincing enough while playing to be believable – there’s even a note in the manual rather sweetly pointing out that although the game goes “online” a lot your DS isn’t actually downloading anything or connecting to the internet.

Coming as no surprise to anyone who’s remembered the title of this game there always comes a point in each “program” where some hacking must be done to proceed and this is predictably presented as a pleasantly broad range of minigames, often represented by cascading walls of fake techy-text and abstract shapes with the most important tasks of all preceded by dramatic underlit images of Satoru at a keyboard with a determined look on his face. These games are simple – avoid the barriers, hit the lights, press the only button on the screen when the gauge is over 80% –  and allow for mistakes (a complete failure on one of the important plot-critical hack events will result in a game over though, kicking you back to the title screen – luckily you can save almost whenever you like), so the switch to “action” doesn’t feel jarring and doesn’t upset the story-first difficulty whether you’re rushing through a digital tunnel trying to trace a signal or carefully using scanning software to pinpoint infected files within a hospital’s computer system. I actually ended up looking forward to these “gimmicky” segments: they’re so “hacking, but hacking as seen in movies” – complete with the sound of clattering plastic keys – it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment and really feel the tension in the room yourself.

So why did Project Hacker end up receiving such a resounding shrug from gaming at large when it’s so well made? Maybe it was a case of bad timing, or a poor PR campaign. Maybe it’s simply a very good adventure game on a format already groaning under the weight of its many excellent alternatives. Whatever the case Project Hacker is a game that makes the most of its host hardware and its chosen theme, another entertaining and affordable entry in one of the DS’ strongest formats.

[This post literally wouldn’t exist without the help I get from Ko-fi supporters – thank you!]

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