Have a Nice Death has charm to die for
Bay Area News Group April 21, 2023
It's hard to stand out as a rogue-lite. The genre has grown in popularity in recent years because of the success of instant classics such as Spelunky and Hades. These games built a reputation on their difficulty and they balanced that out with their addictive and deep gameplay.
Similar to the original rogue-lites, these games force players to run through procedurally generated dungeons, but the catch is that players only have one life to reach the end. If they die, they have to start over. It's a brutal game design, but rogue-lites mitigate the challenge by letting players carry over at least one element from their run.
Have a Nice Death fits that bill. The new title from Magic Design Studios is a side-scrolling adventure, which puts players in the shoes of the Grim Reaper. He's been so successful at taking peoples' souls and helping them leave their mortal coil that he essentially built a global corporation around the process called Death Inc.
Like any good business, he couldn't do all the work himself, and he learned to delegate to entities called Sorrows. Everything was running well and souls were moving to the afterlife until his employees started slacking off at their jobs. Now, Death has to clean house and whip his workers back into shape.
Tools of the trade
To do that, players are armed with a scythe and a cloak that can add two additional weapons or spells. Players will also gain perks called Curses over the course of the campaign. They give Death bonuses such as additional damage-dealing attacks or more health. Also along the way, they'll grab different power-ups such as healing essences called anima and stat boosts.
Players will need every advantage they can grab because running through the campaign is tough, especially for newcomers. "Have a Nice Death" throws a lot at players in beginning and it will take several runs before they figure out the flow of the campaign, and the best way to run through each level.
Gold and other worldly possessions
It took a while to understand that one of the few things that carry over after every defeat is gold, but players can use that currency to purchase more weapons, spells and power-ups that appear randomly through each play-through. It essentially gives them more options, and the weapons and spells require different tactics as Death battles through each of the worlds.
There's plenty of depth as players have to come up with new strategies to defeat the ever-changing enemies in each world. Smart players will use Death's dash, which makes him invincible for short periods in order to dodge attacks. Getting hurt is rough because some attacks actually lower his health bar so that even regular recovery items don't heal him completely. It takes the hard-to-get golden anima or certain foods to restore that missing health. In short, players have to do everything they can to not get hit.
As for the level design, it's fairly simple and has a Metroid-ish feel. Death is surprisingly agile and can zip around stages, thanks to the dash and an ample jump. He can also attack upward to reach higher areas or slash down to dive bomb an enemy below. The responsive controls make Have a Nice Death fun to play despite the high difficulty level.
One of the bigger disappointments in the game is the weapon upgrades can't be carried over. It would have made the play-throughs more bearable while also giving players a sense of progress after collecting so much of the Soulary or Prismium currency to upgrade the main weapons. Dying is often discouraging after losing so many of the weapons, spells and power-ups that helped Death out.
The only other element players receive after defeat is experience points, which are tallied and added so that players reach higher levels. Reaching a new level doesn't bestow a stat boost, but rather, it gives players perks that make every run slightly easier. One leveling bonus could be an elevator straight to the first boss Brad and another could improve the chance of getting a better weapon.
A lot of the success in Have a Nice Death is based on luck. Some weapons and spells are more powerful than others, and getting the right combination can increase players' chances of finishing the game. The other factor in determining success is just repetition, learning from mistakes and establishing a strategy.
All that makes this rogue-lite similar to others in the genre, but ultimately, what sets it apart is its humor and visuals. Have a Nice Death is gorgeously animated and oozes style and creativity that it nudges you to keep playing despite the setbacks and defeats. At times, it feels like playing a cartoon.
Meanwhile, the writing has a workplace humor that's hit and miss, but taken all together, Have a Nice Death has enough charm that makes it a game to die for, and players will probably do that again and again.
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch