There’s been an abundance of roguelikes released in recent years, and finding unique ways to introduce them has grown pretty tiresome. Looking back, I feel like I should have held onto some of the more clever intros if only for the Magic Design Studios-developed Have a Nice Death. This outing fires off on all cylinders, as it boasts magnificent quality in every facet making it stand out amongst even the most prominent titles in the genre.
Have a Nice Death has players control the titular Death, who works as the boss of an afterlife company managing passing souls. Unfortunately, he’s recently become overworked, causing progress to diminish drastically. As a result, several of his employees have gone somewhat rogue by actively combatting the directives they’ve been given. So, to restore normalcy to his work environment and perhaps even enjoy a long-deserved vacation, Death sets off through his company’s various departments to reprimand his misbehaving employees and put them back on the grind.
As can be perceived by simply glancing at footage and screenshots, Have a Nice Death has an adorably cynical tone, and that ambiance is at the heart of this experience. The charmingly pleasant and loosely relatable conversations players will witness from the many characters Death interacts with all contribute toward its dark sense of humor. Above all else, while the action is sublime, the interactions are on an equal playing field of prominence that players will assuredly find themselves sticking around for.
For instance, whenever encountering a boss, even on repeated battles, there’s a brief bit of dialogue between them and Death that emits a sense of casualness, letting the surprisingly ordinary attitudes toward their jobs shine amidst the obvious supernaturalism. There are moments of relatability with multiple subjects, no matter how slight, making the experience endearing to the point that I often found myself unconsciously smiling.
Regarding gameplay, the first factor all players will take note of is how fast and smooth the movement feels. I mean no exaggeration when I say that Have a Nice Death has some of the best combat I’ve ever felt in any recent action game because everything I did felt like a natural extension of myself. Between the swift jumping and nearly instant weapon swings, I never grew tired of progression, even amidst countless resets, a sign of genuinely gratifying action design.
Further, different directional inputs, magic, charged maneuvers, and special attacks called Frenzy provide flavorful spice to the already addictive gameplay loop. Most of these systems are self-explanatory, so the general processes will likely come instinctually to most players. The combat’s cohesion is amplified by dashing, always granting generous opportunities for immediate follow-ups. However, there is some consequence, as you’re unable to move afterward for the slightest of moments, so you can’t wholly rely on reactionary measures. And, when Death is damaged, one of the more unique mechanics rears its head. As damage is taken, the gray health gauge will make itself known.
This can be somewhat confusing to explain, but essentially, the gray bar of health, called injuries, indicates how much remaining HP Death can restore using the standard Anima healing items. On the other hand, the black portion of the health gauge is unrecoverable without the use of the rarer Golden Anima granting Pure Heals that replenish it. This system sounds more contrived than it really is; it just encourages players to be keenly aware of their surroundings, especially in new areas, where even the seemingly most minor mistakes can result in a loss of a semi-permanent safety net.
Thankfully, every enemy I faced boasts terrific telegraphs and, in the case of bosses, noticeable patterns that become apparent across numerous attempts, instilling that cathartic learning the genre is known for. The constant yet fair tension is appealing to me, though it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Then again, you probably already know whether this type of game is for you or not.
Moving on, there is a fair amount of character customization that significantly alters the experience depending on what is unlocked. The simplest and most straightforward avenue of this idea comprises shops found throughout runs, hosting weapons, upgrades, and even direct healing. These upgrades are called Curses and arrive in three colors, all with their own specialties. Interestingly, there are penalties, usually given when a particularly potent Curse is picked, so the element of choice is expectedly crucial. In the same vein of upgrades are Prismiums, used for multiple tasks, such as investing in the shop for its stock’s quality to enhance. Additionally, they’re required for weapon upgrading and transformation, making their retrieval a truly celebratory affair.
This collective element of choice extends to the hub before runs, too. As you return via death or otherwise, you’ll gain ingots for achieving various feats. This currency serves as the anchor for unlocking new findable items and weapons in runs. Then, when beginning a new run, Death will ritualistically encounter Jocelyn, a specter-like being who imposes several selectable contracts that grant boons or penalties reliant on their fine print. At least one contract must be chosen, with up to four stackable concurrently. The gameplay cycle here has enough well-implemented randomness, thrills, and necessitated skill for progression to it that makes every go-around thrilling in consistently distinct ways.
It’s also worth bringing attention to the difficulty modes, specifically the beginner-friendly one, Self-Fulfillment. Selectable after dying at least once, players will begin their runs with three Anima, restore half of their health when defeating bosses, battle weaker mobs, and even have more potent Anima heals across each death. I found this mode to mar the sense of accomplishment you’d feel on the greater difficulties, so I only recommend it if you are inexperienced with the genre. Still, additional options are always appreciated, especially since they can cause vaster enthused crowds to form.
One final yet abundantly obvious point worth bringing attention to is this game’s stellar presentation. Calling a title of this style Tim Burton-esque is probably a pretty eye-rolling remark, though that’s what I found myself thinking during the early hours. Aside from the characters and environments only coming off as inspired by those works by direct comparison, there’s a general tone here that really struck a chord with me and reminded me of several of Burton’s projects that I enjoyed in my younger years. However, as much as I loved the art direction, even the later areas themselves were rarely individually recognizable. This isn’t a strong negative point and will wildly differ from player to player, but the design changes were often too subtle for me to really feel like I reached somewhere new. Granted, the context of the game occurring in various job departments has tonal and visual similarities that make this make sense, I suppose; it just became dull at points.
Have a Nice Death is a roguelike experience to die for. Its systems are intensely addictive to provide a reason to return to the grind and clock in for overtime. The action combat is some of the best I’ve ever felt, with compelling progression systems and fantastic enemy designs. While it may not stand out from its contemporaries, it approaches everything it touches with a brilliant finesse that makes it tough to put down.
My critiques of the all-encompassing familiar area design aside, I heartily recommend this title to anyone possessing even a passing curiosity since there’s a good chance you’ll walk away after hours you weren’t even aware of spending.
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