The hack and slash video games have a long and varied history, with its roots going into the early days of Dungeons & Dragons. Back in the day, the term was a name for a player attitude interested only in, putting it gently, the tactical side of the game, not any kind of shared story or roleplaying.

Times had changed, however, and somewhere around the 1980s the originally derogatory term turned out to be a perfect name for an emergent genre of video games.

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Bringing a sword to a fist fight

Hack’n’slash games are a divergent branch of the good ol’ beat’em up genre. It traditionally involved a character moving across a side-scrolling environment and dealing with the oncoming hordes of enemies through the strength of fisticuffs alone, maybe with an occasional, convenient pipe power-up to make things a bit more varied.

But it’s hardly a “beat’em up” anymore if the characters never have to rely on their knuckles to carry them through life, is it? For such instances, the hack’n’slash name was adopted into video gaming, and it has been with us ever since, growing strong and beautiful.

Humble beginnings

Before the world was amazed by the games now most often associated with the genre, there were titles such as the classic Golden Axe, Rastan, or even the first steps of the Ninja Gaiden series, which has since evolved into a spectacular 3D h’n’s.

They weren’t too different from beat’em ups. Just like their ancestor, they featured simple backgrounds and character representations, but the presence of weapons, no matter how repetitive their use, ignited the fantasies of many, and this thematic shift was a sign of things yet to come.

Split legacy

At some point, the genre has split into two main branches it continues along to this day. They are very different, but united for the common cause: they are all about disposing of enemy hordes with blade and spell alike.

Mash to the rhythm

One veered further towards action, eventually giving rise to genre legends like Devil May Cry, original God of War, Dynasty Warriors, or Bayonetta. Focused of skill-driven combos with an array of weapons, this kind of hack’n’slash is quite skill-driven, with the only limitation being the endurance of the controller and the player’s ability. Sometimes this type of hack’n’slash games is referred to as Character Action.

Stats and stones might break my foes

The other branch is closer to the original tabletop RPG roots. It still is full of adrenaline-filled action, but rather than being fueled by nothing but sheer player skill, it’s governed by math. True, it doesn’t sound exciting, but a boring concept hides huge potential. These hack-and-slashes give you the ability to tailor your character to your design— decide which attributes to increase, which abilities to focus on, and which gear to equip.

It’s this type of h’n’s we’re all gathered here to ponder, because the king is back: Diablo IV launches on June 6th — the newest installment of the genre-defining series.

Hail the Lord of Destruction

It’s not an overstatement to describe Diablo as the most influential hack’n’slash of this branch. In fact, for a long time games similar to it have been called “Diablo clones” before settling on a more applicable “Action RPG” label. But everybody’s always known the truth.

The original Diablo was released in 1997 and made quite a splash, but the works on the legendary sequel began almost right away, and in 2000 the world has met the gold standard for the genre: Diablo II. Several unique classes, randomly generated dungeons progressing through linear story path, tonnes of loot, cool dark fantasy aesthetic, and a general heavy metal vibe. What’s not to love?

Diablo II took the world by storm, and for some, it remains the ruling king of hack’n’slash games, with only Diablo IV having an honest chance of replacing the gracefully aged (and recently Remastered) Diablo II.

Not the only devil

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there have been no impressive competitors launching between Diablo II and Diablo IV. Diablo III is an obvious pick, although the community has always been divided whether it’s a worthy follow-up to D2, due to a shifted aesthetic and different gameplay dynamics. Both camps make good points, so it’s better to decide on your own if it’s the right game for you.

Another contender was Sacred, released in 2004, featuring huge continuous map, interesting mechanics, and several cool classes with fancy abilities. The game lived on to get an ambitious, fully 3D prequel, Sacred 2, and an isometric brawler, Sacred 3, for good measure. However, the original’s charm was inimitable.

A much more direct contestant by vibe alone, is Path of Exile, an ongoing free-to-play MMO set in a gloomy world. PoE’s greatest draw is the incredible progression tree – a nuanced web of passive bonuses supplemented by active abilities slotted into gear. Despite this seeming complexity, Path of Exile is fairly accessible while offering all the build potential you might ever need.

If you’d rather something less multiplayer-oriented, Grim Dawn is a good option, with a mid-apocalyptic dark fantasy world, several classes with unique talents, and even solid non-combat systems, like factions and crafting.

These are just a few shout-outs, but there has been no shortage of hack-and-slash games since year 2000, including some made by Diablo’s developers after they left Blizzard, like Torchlight or now defunct Marvel Heroes.

What comes next?

Should Diablo IV find the success it hopes for, there is good chance for another Renaissance of the genre’s popularity. Nothing quite reignites the competition, like the return of the once-reining champion from an over a decade-long retirement (if we don’t count the Diablo II expansions).

Who knows, perhaps we’ll even get a new Sacred game, after all there’s been one mainline release of the series for each post-D2 Diablo. Path of Exile keeps steadily trucking on, growing in power and momentum, too. Perhaps somebody will look at Diablo IV mechanics and make a game which challenges their assumptions, always a great thing when it happens in game design.

There’s also a recently announced Dragon’s Dogma 2, which might end up perfectly on the border between a Character-Action hack-and-slash and Action-RPG h’n’s with a flair that hasn’t been seen since Darksiders 2.

Slice your path to glory

Decades of evolution have allowed the hack’n’slash genre to now be at its peak, with variations and tweaks to suit different playstyles and tone preferences. Grim-faced Diablo IV and God of War-s, cheeky Devil May Cry 5 and Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, and plenty in-between. Singleplayer, multiplayer, and co-op fodder, with different degrees of grinding for gold and farming the perfect items.

The wealth of options is amazing, but exploring the depths of this wonderful niche in search of the perfect pearl could be expensive. Could, but doesn’t need to be, because you could rely on places like G2A.COM to score an off-season discount without having to spend your hard-ground gold on improving your quality of fun.