Have a Nice Death is the latest 2D roguelite vying for your attention in a genre that is becoming rather crowded. Any game looking to throw its digital hat into the roguelite ring needs to do something special or risk being dragged down into the depths of obscurity. Have a Nice Death hits hard with a couple of killer scythe strikes: a gorgeous art style and satisfying combat. So grab your best black cloak and let’s head to the afterlife, shall we?
You play as Death. And I don’t mean it metaphorically, or rhetorically, or poetically, or theoretically, or any other fancy way. You play as Death, straight up. Unable to keep up with the sheer volume of humans needing to be reaped, Death has the bright idea of creating the Sorrows who can help by traversing the world and claiming the souls of the deceased, ready for them to be processed and led into the afterlife. With his workload lightened, Death steps into the role of CEO of Death Inc. only to find that his life now consists almost entirely of stamping paperwork, the never-ending stacks of pages eventually leading to burnout. Death hits his breaking point and realises that in his apathy the Sorrows have begun to slack in their work, leading to countless problems. Once again donning his robe and armed with his trusty scythe, Death sets out to reprimand the Sorrows by giving them a thorough arse-kicking. All that stands in his way is a series of elevators that can conveniently account for the loading times between levels.
There’s more than a hint of the outrageously good Hades in Have a Nice Death. As you venture out again and again through the procedurally generated levels, new snippets of the story appear and the game will frequently reference your past attempts to scythe through the Sorrows. All the while, you’ll be investing resources to increase your chances of success in subsequent runs. Most of this fits with the standard roguelike template, but the attempts to work the story into the loops, the God-like leading character and the fast-paced combat do make me think of Super Giant’s masterpiece.
- Available On; PC, Switch
- Reviewed on: Switch
- Published by: Magic Design Studios
- Developed by: Gearbox
Review code provided by the publisher.
It doesn’t deliver the same compelling story and cast of characters, mind you. After a few runs through there are hints of a deeper plot, of a mystery figure in the background pulling the strings and stopping Death from getting his ultimate prize: a fucking vacation, man! Don’t go getting the wrong impression, though: most roguelites barely have a story at all, and while Have a Nice Death’s plot is nothing special, it still does a decent job of giving you an extra reason to chase the ending.
The most striking part of Have a Nice Death is the gorgeous art style. Death’s domain is draped in black, white and grey with splashes of muted colour breaking up the bleakness. The backgrounds are richly detailed, too, regardless of whether you’re in Toxic Food Processing or fighting through the Modern Warfare department. Enemy designs are equally awesome to look at, most of them mirroring the cause of their death, whether it was running with scissors or choking on gum. I’d love to see the team flex their muscle with more bespoke levels instead of designing repeatable backgrounds that can be cobbled together, sure, but there is not even a shred of doubt that Have a Nice Death looks stupendous.
I shouldn’t be surprised, though – Magic Design Studios’ previous work was Unruly Heroes which was just as drop-dead gorgeous and used a lot more colour. Like, all the colours.. These folk have a serious knack for producing eye candy.
It’s not just the visuals, either – the backing music is excellent. It’s not worth buying the soundtrack but the varied tracks suit the action perfectly, whether it’s a more creepy vibe or a heavier guitar riff as you fight a boss. The little welcoming jingle whenever respawn in the office is excellent, the elevator music between every level is a great touch and the sounds of your weapons and spells are crisp.
In a game like this you want to controls to be lively and precise, and Have a Nice Death absolutely nails it, sitting up there with the likes of Hollow Knight and Dead Cells. Death moves and attacks beautifully, the crisp animations and responsive controls creating a smooth, fluid feel. A generous dash that lets you pass through foes, fast attacks and aerial moves make the combat quick and punchy. That speed is encouraged by the basic minions found scattered through the levels: they can be easily stunned by your first assault, so the best tactic is to dash straight in and hammer the attack button. Once you get the hang of it, you can dash in, stun an enemy, launch into a vertical attack to the next, then dash in mid-air to reach a third foe before executing a downward slam attack to hit the fourth, all in the space of a second or two.
There are two downsides to this, though: first, it does make the combat a little repetitive because the default approach is to be aggressive. The second is that the basic minions pose little threat outside of the highest difficult settings because they can be stunned so easily. I rarely fell victim to them, even during the brief arena sections where you get locked into a small area with maybe a dozen of them at a time.
That’s where the big boss fights come in, though, as well as the smaller, optional battles against Thanagers. The Sorrows follow the standard template of unleashing set attacks, and the key to beating them into the ground is learning how they work, how to move and when to hit back. It’s a classic dance executed confidently.
It’s not just the scythe you have for dishing out damage, though, as Death can pick up myriad secondary cloak abilities and spells. These come in a variety of delightful flavours like ghostly spears, boulders falling from the sky and even hurling an anvil at whatever poor bastard happens to be in front of you. Just two can be equipped, though, so sometimes there’s a tricky decision about what to take.
That’s where the Curses come into the mix. Although they might sound bad, Curses are how you acquire powerful passive buffs like infusing your attacks with ice, unleashing a small wave of blood whenever you kill an enemy, increasing mana and many more. The most powerful of these Curses typically come with a warning label, indicating that if you pick it you’ll also have to choose one of two penalties. Sometimes the decision is stupidly easy: so what if normal enemies in this level get a heap of extra health when you’re practically at the elevator? But other decisions are not so easy, like picking between Sorrows getting a damage boost or the Control Room (where you can buy some big upgrades for your scythe and abilities) being closed off.
Roguelites can sometimes struggle to find the right balance between skill and luck, often favouring luck more. Have a Nice Death feels like it strikes a near-perfect balance because raw ability can take you through every level and fight. The tight controls mean a great player can push through almost any run, while the rest of us mere mortals might have to rely a little more on getting the right mixture of Curses and abilities to finally conquer one of the Sorrows. While I do consider myself a pretty good gamer, I still found Have a Nice Death to be challenging, so I relied more on managing to piece together the perfect patchwork quilt of Curses and abilities.
Another factor in each run is the elevators that await Death at the end of every level. Whenever you step into one you’ll be given the chance to choose the next floor to visit which determines what rewards you; dropping by the HR department is a guaranteed curse, Anima Storage is where you can pick up some healing or maybe a handy break room will appear so you can grab a coffee and rest your weary foot bones.
As a roguelite, the expectation is that you’ll die fairly frequently, and doing just that is a core part of the gameplay. Of course, death isn’t a problem for Death who simply reappears in his office, ready to head out on another run. This gives you a chance to invest the Gold Ingots you’ve acquired on new gear. Well, kind of. What actually happens is that every purchased ability, weapon or food item can now appear in the world, perhaps at a shop or as an award for completing an arena. In a way, then, you’re actually diluting the pool of equipment, lessening your chances of getting the best upgrades or the ones that fit you’re preferred playstyle.
The only upgrades that actually stick with you from run to run come via a cute little tree in your office. On each run you’ll acquire experience that will help the tree slowly grow, each new level unlocking a permanent bonus. That might mean starting every run with a gold Anima, which provides healing, or it could even be a special elevator that takes you straight to a Sorrow. These bonuses are certainly nice and useful, but they are a grind to acquire. And…well, they just aren’t very exciting. That leaves Have a Nice Death with a far weaker progression system than some of its peers. A really good run brought short by a mistake can feel more frustrating because you can’t invest in something tangible that will help in future runs.
I do have a few bones to pick with the performance on the Switch. When you first load into an area it takes a good 5 seconds for the stuttering to stop. That’s not a big issue since you’re never thrown directly into combat. but I did find that stuttering would occasionally follow me into fights It can be a problem during the unforgiving boss battles where a split second makes the difference between dodging an attack and getting most of your health bar demolished. It wasn’t frequent enough to ruin the experience but I did notice it seemed to get worse if the game was left on for prolonged periods. I also noticed it seemed to be more pronounced when playing in docked mode which is very peculiar – typically, performance is better when the Switch is chilling in its cradle.
A couple of bugs and glitches demonstrated that the afterlife isn’t as polished as you’d probably think. Over the 25 or so hours I put into the game I ran into four crashes that required a full restart, although thankfully Have a Nice Death saves at the start of every level, unlike Returnal when it launched. I also fell through the floor once, got trapped outside of an arena, and had a few instances of the jump button not working after. To put it simply, some updates are needed to smoothen out the performance and tidy up a few other problems so that we can reap souls in confidence.
Have a Nice Death is a hugely entertaining and fun adventure into an afterlife filled with paperwork and pain. Although it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of some of its genre-mates, Have a Nice Death is an excellent roguelite. There are a few rough patches here and there, but overall the loop of dying and coming back stronger than ever is satisfying and heaps of fun, especially due to the ultra-responsive controls and the challenging boss fights.
It turns out, death actually was rather nice.