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[Review] Have a Nice Death

Posted on April 1, 2023 by in Reviews, Switch

Have a Nice Death review

System: Switch
Release Date: March 22, 2023
Developer: Magic Design Studios
Publisher: Gearbox

Typically, when I’m craving some side-scrolling action, roguelike games aren’t my go-to. Simple procedurally generated levels, frustrating or unrewarding progression loops, and by-the-numbers combat have plagued my experiences in the genre, so I’m perhaps a bit more skeptical than others of run-based titles. Fortunately, Have a Nice Death is not only an exception to this trend, but also one of the tightest, most creative, and most satisfying roguelikes I’ve ever played. It’s an example of what a talented team with a strong vision can accomplish, and its fine-tuned concoction of charm and challenge resulted in constant fun.

In Have a Nice Death, the afterlife is managed by the relentless corporate bureaucracy of Death Incorporated, an organization run by Death himself that harvests and processes the souls of the deceased. The company is in shambles, though – Death has been stuck filling out paperwork behind a desk for too long, while the company’s top executives have essentially gone rouge, causing havoc both up on Earth and in the bowels of the offices. And so, of course, it’s up to the player to help Death take matters into his own hands by fighting through the various departments of Death Inc. and taking down each of the bosses – or Sorrows, as they’re called in-game – that are making a mess of everything.

Have a Nice Death review

While plenty of other games have played around with the theme of workplaces being literal warzones (another roguelike, Going Under, comes to mind), Have a Nice Death has the best overall execution of this type of narrative conceit that I’ve seen. While the story itself isn’t particularly deep, it’s the characters that inhabit the world – from the receptionist at the front desk, to the coffee-fueled hype-man, to the unique caricatured bosses – that really sell the premise. The dialogue is hilarious in an understated sort of way, and feels like it was written by people who definitely have worked office jobs before and can see the unintended comedy that arises out of everyday situations. Combine that with the cynically charming death-focused premise, where players will explore places like the “Industrial Pollution Department” and meet characters with clever names like “health and safety inspector Mr. O’Shah,” and it’s clear why I was smiling throughout my playthrough.

Then, of course, there’s the sense of style that permeates every inch of Have a Nice Death. The game looks incredible, mostly thanks to its extraordinary animation. Some of the developers at Magic Design Studios previously worked on UbiArt Framework games like Rayman and Valiant Hearts, and their talent is clearly visible here. Characters are expressive, even those with simpler designs, and every action players perform in game feels silky smooth to execute. Seeing the game in motion often felt like I was watching a playable cartoon – it’s that good. Then there’s the art itself – I can’t quite tell if it’s hand-drawn or not, but it expertly balances the quirky and creepy aesthetics that Have a Nice Death pursues. It’s striking, unique, and I doubt any of it could be mistaken as being from any other game. This is all amplified by a soundtrack that managed to constantly surprise me, frequently switching genres but maintaining a consistent Tim Burton-esque vibe that amplifies the game’s energetic pace.

Have a Nice Death review

Mechanically, Have a Nice Death nails all the fundamentals of a good side-scroller. Death glides over the environment like a ghost, and jumping is predictable and responsive. A dash that can be used both on the surface and in-the air adds considerable speed to the game, enhancing traversal not only by providing a precise way to cross large gaps, but also acting as a dodge in combat. While there’s definitely a little platforming in Have a Nice Death, make no mistake that this is a very combat-focused experience above all else, and the moveset feels tuned for the quick, precise assaults that Death will need to execute.

To reach the end of Have a Nice Death, players will have to fight through the eight departments of Death Incorporated, and take out each of their bosses, without dying. Each department is subsequently split into floors, with something like six or seven floors making up a department. Getting through this gauntlet is no easy task, and taking too much damage means going right back to the start. Typically, this is why I don’t like roguelikes very much – a game has got to do a lot of things right to avoid making this inherent repetition feel boring or unrewarding. Have a Nice Death, though, is designed to mitigate this pitfall in a few crucial ways.

Have a Nice Death review

First, there are a ridiculous number of methods to dispatch foes, with new tools being added to the player’s toolbox after what feels like every run. There are over 70 different types of weapons in the game – of course, Death wields his classic scythe by default, but there are also ranged weapons like bows, spells that use mana to cast magic abilities, and more. Each weapon not only has a range of directional attacks, but also a unique Frenzy attack that, after being charged up, can deal massive damage that sometimes fills the whole screen. With Death being able to wield up to three weapons at any moment, and each weapon having its own dedicated button, it’s easy to experiment with different combos, and each run has plenty of opportunities to seek out and swap out equipment. Experimenting with playstyles is a huge part of the fun in Have a Nice Death, and surprisingly, there wasn’t a single weapon I encountered that wasn’t satisfying to use.

On top of that, a mechanic called Curses adds an extra layer of depth to powering up Death’s abilities over time. Curses are additional improvements to Death’s skillset and can do anything from adding elemental damage to attacks, to increasing the amount of currency that is doled out. But some curses include penalties to take into consideration too, so tradeoffs may have to be made sometimes. There’s always at least one opportunity to get a new Curse, and these can have a significant impact on how runs play out, so developing a workable strategy over time is crucial.

Then there’s the strategic elements of the Departments themselves. At the end of each floor, Death will enter an elevator, and the player will need to choose which of a randomly selected slate of floors they want to visit next. There are about 20 different types of floors that can appear as potential options, and choosing which one to visit next can dramatically change what resources are available to the player during a run. For example, if I’m low on health, I might choose to visit the Anima floor to see if I can pick up some healing items to save my bacon. On the other hand, if I don’t like my weapon loadout, maybe I’ll elect to go to a floor that can help me with that. There are also floors that host optional mini-boss fights or objective based challenges for players who want to increase the difficulty of a run and potentially reap some big rewards.

All these mechanics interplay so elegantly that the randomness inherent with the game’s roguelike structure didn’t really bother me. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I’ll always prefer exploring handcrafted stages over the procedural reshuffling of level elements that’s present in Have a Nice Death. While environments are packed with thematic details and clearly were built with love, the actual process of exploring them is perhaps the least interesting part of the game. It only took me a few hours of play before I began noticing some of the limitations of the procedural level generation. Again, it’s really the combat that drives the action in Have a Nice Death, and with new enemies being constantly introduced, there’s always a new challenge to encounter. Even bosses get mixed up a bit here and there – I was pleasantly surprised when, for example, I reencountered early-game boss Brad on a later run and experienced what felt like a totally different fight.

In between runs, there’s an opportunity to spend gold ingots – the persistent currency in Have a Nice Death­ – to unlock weapons and healing items that have a chance to appear in future runs. These can be bought outright at full price, or, if in-game challenges are completed, they can be bought later for a deeply discounted price. There’s also a practice area where players can experiment with different equipment combos. Difficulty can also be adjusted, to make it easier (but not by much) or, eventually, by unlocking 15 HARDER difficulty levels that add different types of debuffs. I’m not masochistic enough to be able to enjoy something like that, but the option’s there for those who want it.

The Verdict

Have a Nice Death may be set in a literally hellish workplace, but it never feels like work to play, successfully making repeated attempts feel rewarding to play through. Layers of randomized combat options provide a ton of variety, and selecting a path through the various types of floors adds a satisfying layer of strategy. The incredible visuals and music contribute to an atmosphere that feels unique in its macabre charm, and the writing had me grinning from ear to ear. If you, like me, are hesitant to dive into most roguelikes, this might be the one that changes your mind.

Have a Nice Death copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.

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