“Hack and slash” has got to take the prize for the most straightforward descriptor ever. Give the player something sharp, let her spam the hell out of the attack key, profit. Hack-and-slash. Feel like mixing it up? Throw in a hammer or two. Maybe some magic? The world is your oyster; beat it to a pulp!
What we’re saying is, there are a lot, lot, lot of games that could reasonably fall under this category. Fortunately for you, we’ve taken on the difficult task of naming six of the best among them. This is not definitive by any means – feel free to tell us where we got it wrong down in the comments – but if you’re in the mood for a little mindless violence, you can’t go wrong with the games listed here.
Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends
No list of awesome hack and slash video games would be complete without the Dynasty Warriors franchise (and its sister series, Samurai Warrior). Those craving that unparalleled rush of taking down swaths of enemy soldiers in a single strike need to look no further; swaths of enemy soldiers are what Dynasty Warriors does best, and it’s been king of the roost for decades now.
Dynasty Warriors 8 is the most Dynasty Warriors of them all. Cheesy dialogue? Check. Over-the-top cutscenes and deliciously hammy voice acting? Definitely. Massive battles involving hundreds of AI-controlled units marching like lemmings to their dooms? Absolutely! This is a hack and slash in its purest form, a game that pits you against entire armies and gives you the power and total freedom to smash and destroy with abandon.
That’s not to say that Dynasty Warriors 8 adds nothing new to this winning formula. Outside of the ill-received Dynasty Warriors 9 – which many argued probably changed too much – number 8 can proudly say it built upon the greatness of its predecessors without sacrificing the core Dynasty Warriors experience. It has new characters (totalling over 70!) and adds depth and diversity to its lineup by adding more unique moves and special hero skills. Each character also has an affinity for certain weapons which affects not only their damage output but also lets them unleash a special EX attack. The new affinity system introduces a rock, paper, scissors-like element to combat, which encourages experimentation with different weapon combinations and forces you to learn new move combos.
Dynasty Warriors games get a lot of flack for being what many might consider brain-dead, button spammers – which is valid to an extent, this isn’t a thinking man’s game – but it makes up for its simplicity with its endlessly satisfying combat. There’s no greater feeling than swinging around a halberd three times your own height and knocking dozens of cookie-cutter soldiers onto their asses to a soundtrack inspired by late-80’s speed metal.
Bayonetta is a hack and slash elevated. Even now, 10 years after its release, it remains the golden standard of hack and slash titles, the genre at its best, and we’re not sure how it can be topped.
It was developed by Platinum Games, which is comprised of team members who were influential in defining hack and slash in the third-dimension. To say it’s a game of impressive pedigree would be underselling it, Bayonetta is the child of a studio founded by Shinji Mikami, Atsushi Inaba, and Hideki Kamiya, the Three Godfathers of hack and slash. You name a Japanese hack and slash from the past two decades, chances are one of these guys had a hand in it.
The game is presented with a delightfully tongue-in-cheek tone, including all the silly cutscenes and a blatant and intentional disregard for basic logic. Just an example, the main character’s hair is not only used to navigate through the dark gothic fantasy stages, but it’s also a weapon for grabbing and tossing enemies in battle, and – get this – her primary piece of clothing.
The combat is about as perfect as you’ll find in a hack and slash game. Each fight is a whirlwind of free-flowing kicks and punches, sequences of light strikes that seamlessly transition into lethal combinations. It’s also not afraid to incorporate all dimensions of movement, with a varied bestiary of creatures and demons that requires you to quickly learn to execute and best utilize Bayonetta’s impressive moveset. And let’s not forget the cherry on top of this meat sandwich: the oh-so-wonderful Witch Time.
Witch Time brings the time down to a crawl, everything and everyone except Bayonetta herself. It’s an essential mechanic for traversing inaccessible terrain, and you’re occasionally prompted to activate it at crucial moments during boss battles to trigger some ridiculously excessive finishing move. Its real value lies in depth it adds to regular combat. Once you’ve mastered when to best use Witch Time, something clicks and that’s when the real game becomes unleashed. You start to anticipate the next confrontation, eager to test your reflexes against another group of monsters and smash them to bits.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is the rare Tolkien-based game that actually adds to existing lore instead of retelling it. You play as Talion, a ranger whose wife and son was brutally murdered by the Hand of Sauron, a sinister big baddy clad in an eccentric armour made up of sharp angles and sticky bits that looks like it would be a nightmare to put on or take off. Don’t let our flippant description deter you, though, it tells a genuinely great story, exploring the history of Sauron and the forging of the Rings of Power. But the combat is where the game truly comes to life.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an interesting mix of elements from several games, and it somehow manages to pull almost each of them off perfectly. It has bits of Assassin’s Creed’s stealth gameplay in there, the Arkham games’ counter-heavy combat system, and the visceral brutality of God of War.
There’s a lot of freedom in how you can take down your targets. You could stick to the shadows, silently making your way through orc camps and fortresses to slip a dagger into their skull. Maybe you want to swiftly kill them from range, trusting your magical arrows will find their mark. You could also jump in, sword brandished and force your way through hundreds of orcs. However, you do it, all of the different mechanics come together beautifully, ensuring a satisfying experience regardless of your approach.
Combat is heavy and hard-hitting, attacks have a weight to them, and the excellent counter system lets you take on dozens of orcs at once. As Talion grows in power, he unlocks special abilities that add depth to his moveset, such as combinations that can stun his opponent, or the ability to control the minds of enemy soldiers. The more familiar you become with the mechanics of combat, the more the game opens up to you, with combat settling into a satisfying rhythm of attack and counterattack that is immensely gratifying.
God of War III
The latest God of War is an excellent game with excellent combat and an even better story, but you can’t deny it lost some of the insane, button-mashy joy that was so key to the success of the first three games. And of the first three games – products of a different era, really – God of War III stands out as the clear best.
Of course, the animations are as brutal as they ever were in a God of War game, it’s a series that sells itself on gore and violence beyond that of other games. Kratos and his foes alike dodge and twist and leap with surprising grace and almost ballet-like finesse that belies the murderous intent that drives it.
Kratos’ iconic Blades of Chaos are insanely well-designed, serving as tools for navigation on top of their original function to kill. The blades are tied to Kratos’ wrists by chains, wild, swinging extensions of his fury, and he swings in a circle around him, cutting and slicing like a mad vengeance blender with no regard for whose finger gets caught in the blade. Kill a bad guy, and he is torn to pieces, or decapitated, or is reduced to a puddle of goop. This applies to the occasional NPC as well.
None of it would work, though, if the animations weren’t so spot-on, the controls are so tight, the combat so responsive. It’s a great hack and slash game despite its relative simplicity because every action has a proper and satisfying reaction. Every bit of this game serves the combat, from the super-buff, superhuman proportions of its characters to the pounding soundtrack.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Lords of Shadow is a Castlevania game in name only. Sure the Belmont family is involved – as they always are – and you’ll face off against hordes of creepy creatures and horrific monstrosities, but not much else bears a resemblance to games of that series.
There’s no denying Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was inspired by the God of War series. This Belmont’s primary tools of destruction are his “Combat Cross”, a snaking contraption that functions much like Kratos’ Blades of Chaos. You’ll often find yourself trapped in makeshift arenas, your progress blocked until you defeat a few waves of Halloween beasties. The game also relies quite a bit on the quick-time events that God of War made popular, often using them to trigger impossible and ridiculous set-piece events that are both spectacular and a bit silly.
Taking out minions is a real joy. The Combat Cross is responsive and cuts through foes with a satisfying heaviness. It’s also upgradeable – as you play, you come across all types of chains and hook attachments that can completely change how you use the weapon in different combat situations. Additionally, the numerous secondary weapons, throwing knives, and magic add a little zest to the action, allowing players to take out monsters with a stylishness that almost reaches Devil May Cry levels of panache.
Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening
Devil May Cry 3 has to be the greatest hack and slash of the Playstation 2 generation. It basically single-handedly defined the tone and tempo of Japanese hack and slash games for the next decade and a half, and critical members behind this game would go on to form Platinum Games, the de facto king of Japanese hack and slash.
For all his swagger and arrogance, the main character Dante is surprisingly fragile. No pussyfooting around it, this is a hard game, and reviewers back in its day were clear to make not of this. In fact, there’s very little hand-holding at all in this game, and the intricacies of its combat are underserved by a lack of proper explanation. You can go through a fair chunk of the game without ever touching the different ways you can chain strikes together, juggle your foes with your twin pistols, or swap between fighting styles. As a straight-up button masher, it’s a passable experience, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice by playing it that way.
Devil May Cry 3’s longevity lies in the hidden complexities of its combat system. The aforementioned weapon swapping and style switching, of course, but there were also all the tiny mechanics, little inputs that transformed how the game was played entirely. Things like ‘cancelling’, the ability to cancel out of a move or attack and into another one, often used to dodge strikes or chain combos into other combos. Guarding and parrying are easily executed but insanely hard to master, requiring quick reflexes and smart timing.
There’s no end to the possible list of great hack and slash games available for you to try out. We’ve only touched on a few of our favourites. What games do you think should be on this list and why?