Have a Nice Death is a punishing roguelike with a dark sense of humor
We’ve got a while to wait until Hades 2, and if you’re in need of a roguelike to fill the hole Hades left behind, then Have A Nice Death should do nicely. I had the opportunity to try the game first at GDC and then again now that it’s out on PC and Nintendo Switch, and I was immediately smitten with its dark humor and easy-to-pick-up (but difficult-to-master) combat.
You play as Death, the CEO of Death Incorporated, who has outsourced the job of reaping souls to their trusted underlings who, after untold millennia of processing mortals, decide to go rogue and gunk up the well-oiled machine of death and dying. As their boss, it’s your job to traverse the bowels of the Death Inc campus, defeating these so-called “thanagers” (which is an extremely good pun name). Along the way, you earn perks, skills, and weapons that make your job of bringing your wayward employees to heel.
The opening cinematic for Have A Nice Death is extremely gruesome. First, you reap a peasant farmer, sticking around just long enough to see his wife collapse in tears over her husband’s body. Next, you take a woman dying in a hospital bed as her grieving family clings to her in her last painful moments. After that, you take a guy who was in a car crash, their lifeless body riddled with shards of glass and hanging out of the windshield. From there, it’s a montage of all the people Death takes, transforming from individual stories that we spend a second or two with into a blur of reaping after reaping, flattening out the dying into a constant stream of faces without name or personality.
I don’t think the developers intended this since the rest of the game pokes quite a bit at death and all the dumb ways humans can die, but it was a neat, if unsettling, metaphor for how we’ve become inured to the everyday tragedy of life.
Death starts each run with their signature scythe weapon. As they work their way through the halls of Death Inc, defeating the underlings of the underlings who have gone rogue, they can pick up magic and secondary weapons that pack an extra punch when executing combos. Combat, therefore, gets extremely varied. I enjoyed mixing and matching weapons and spells that, when combined with curses that function pretty much the same as the godly boons from Hades, can result in some pretty unique configurations.
The problem is, however, I die too quickly before I can really get a sense of what works for me. This is likely a “get good” situation, but enemies hit like a friggin’ truck, and my general strategy of tolerating a few shots to the face is not serving me very well. Furthermore, HAND does that cheeky thing where, after a few deaths, it asks, “Would you like to switch to easy mode?” I know it’s not taunting me intentionally, and easy modes are a good thing for folks who want to try something outside their comfort zone or the beleaguered video game reviewer, but it feels like taunting and makes me wanna throw my Switch across the room. How dare you, inanimate collection of code and art, how very damn dare you.
It also feels like the game is extremely stingy with how it doles out healing items. You start with one potion and can earn up to two more, but they don’t seem to heal you for much (and there’s an annoying health mechanic by which taking damage can reduce your total HP overall that normal potions will not restore), and earning them is a very rare treat.
This seemingly punishing difficulty is offset by the fact that different floors of Death Inc, while intricately designed with multiple levels to zip up or down to, feel a bit too empty. Enemies don’t come at you in waves; you have to find them behind breakable barriers and just off-screen platforms. Not a deal breaker — it just feels a bit sparse.
If I can surmount my growing pains with the game, I think Have A Nice Death is a perfect little “pick up and put down” game. It’s not anything that feels like it must be completed or even played in marathon sessions, but a little appointment game in which you can chip away at progress for a little bit, then put down and pick up again when the mood strikes. And I like those kinds of games that don’t make significant demands on my time, especially as The Legend of Zelda looms very large in the distance.
Have A Nice Death is available now for PC and Nintendo Switch.