Review: Have A Nice Death

16 Mar 2023

Are you exhausted? Overworked? Do the events of your life feel akin to the tides, where everything takes place in an omnipresent cycle, looping day in and day out without end?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you have something in common with the Grim Reaper himself—or at least as he’s represented in Have A Nice Death, a side-scrolling roguelite from developer Magic Design Studios and publisher Gearbox Publishing.

After originally releasing as an early access title last year, the game is now approaching its full launch on March 22nd, 2023 for PC and Nintendo Switch. It personifies the concept of death as the CEO of a corporation who plunges deeper into the office to bring his underlings back in line.

Let’s take a spirited leap into the underworld and see how it panned out.

I’m Gonna Need You to Come In Today

As Death, you step into his shoes as CEO of Death Inc., the company responsible for harvesting the souls of the deceased. Once a powerful being, Death now finds himself more diminutive than before, on the cusp of burning out, and drowning in an ocean of paperwork as his subordinates run amok. Fed up with way things are, Death takes up his trusty scythe and ventures deep into the everchanging office to knock some sense into them.

Throughout the course of each run, Death will interact with the cast of employees keeping the office running and the goings on of the company culture. As one might expect, Have A Nice Death is very much a game trying to make you chuckle, with nearly all of its humor deriving heavily from work culture at large and its countless complexities.

Squabbles between coworkers, evaluations, quotas, and even holiday parties all come into play at various points throughout the game’s runtime, and every item, upgrade, weapon, and the like has a unique description that’s cracking jokes in a similar vein.

This does require the game to make light of some pretty problematic and serious issues that can arise in the workplace, but it never felt like it was overtly punching down or insensitive with its dark humor. The game’s comedic stylings land more than they miss, but I did keep hoping Have A Nice Death would take more opportunities to add more poignancy to its messaging than it ended up taking.

Gameplay Resources Office

As mentioned above, Have A Nice Death is a very much a roguelite, with the mechanics and designs to match. Everything about your loadout, from weapons to passive bonuses, are completely up to random chance as you work through each run. As you travel from randomized floor to randomized floor, you’ll be making decisions regarding which resource you’d like to accrue or which enemies you’d like to face off against.

Oh, and dying countless times along the way. You’ll be doing a lot of that, naturally, and your performance in a given run builds towards an overall experience level that will allow you to access more conveniences and expand your arsenal for the next one. This will no doubt sound pretty familiar to anyone who’s even had passing experience with other roguelites, but Have A Nice Death immediately stands apart simply from the way it feels to play.

From the very beginning of the game, Death has access to a double jump, a responsive invincible dash, a ground smash, an alternate attack combo—the works. After playing through many games cut from this same cloth, it was exceedingly easy to appreciate the lack of limitations imposed on the player in its earliest points. The aforementioned double jump is also an attack in and of itself that changes based on which scythe you have equipped, which makes for some very satisfying instances of fluidity while battling.

Unfortunately, it can often feel as though the move sets of regular enemies aren’t quite up to the task of bringing out the best of your own. Most only have a single attack that they repeat until you decide cut them to shreds, which works well enough from a progression standpoint, but also causes encountering them to feel routine once you know what to expect.

Bosses are a different matter entirely. In stark contrast to the regular baddies Death comes across in the office, bosses sport a wide variety of moves they can execute at any given time, and typically even more once they switch to a different phase at an HP threshold. Have A Nice Death’s bosses are where the game really shows its difficulty, in other words, and they’ll be the cause of majority of your deaths. Learning their attack patterns is always a fun experience, and finally overcoming the one you’ve been stuck on before visiting a new floor for the first time is a great feeling.

As you’d expect, purchasing new weapons for your next run in the office can be done with currency gained from prior visits, but there’s a bit more complexity to the proceedings in the form of performance bonuses. As you passively fulfill certain objectives—say, defeating a specific enemy or using a specific weapon enough—the price for upgrades will be reduced by a percentage. With multiple tiers of discounts, this allows players to grind out unlocks to save their currency for other things they may want a little more, giving them more freedom in progression.

Outside of this though, Have A Nice Death’s commitment to tried and true rougelite elements is a thorough one. Nearly all of the gameplay elements on offer here have been done excellently elsewhere (and recently), which means it’s hard not to be reminded of other titles as you become more familiar with its systems. Moreover, since the majority of the game’s difficulty comes from its challenging boss fights, the more rote, unexciting execution of the roguelite mechanics stand out even more as you’re working your way towards one.

The game also has a significant weak spot in its procedurally generated levels. They simply feel too randomly generated at times, with the same templates and layouts appearing a smidge too often for a game that causes you to repeatedly go through them. This is a necessary evil of randomization, but it’s never a good feeling to “discover” an illusory wall because you recognized the template for its placement.

Have A Nice Death’s tight gameplay and boss designs do a lot to make up for these shortcomings, but there’s no denying how much better things could have been with more refinement in its implementation.

Art Department

When you first boot up Have A Nice Death, the artistry and aesthetic on display make the strongest first impression by far. Its darkly twisted character designs are memorable and perfectly encapsulate the personalities of each one, and the animations are universally smooth and expressive.

Perhaps the most impressive factor of the visuals is the level of cohesion they reach. A demonic security guard and a sentient, 1950s fast food mascot probably conjure up some pretty disparate visuals in your head, but they both completely feel like they belong in Have A Nice Death’s world.

Sound design also does its job well by suitably accentuating the impacts of hits, increasing the fun factor of each weapon as a result. Dialogue is delivered in Animal Crossing-style quips that are as cute as they are funny. The original soundtrack is also largely excellent as well, shifting from chugging, palm-muted guitar riffs to lounge music or orchestral pieces as the setting demands. I could listen to the elevator and shop music in Have A Nice Death forever.

Going Down?

In a many ways, Have A Nice Death feels as double-edged as its protagonist’s scythe can be. It sports ridiculously tight combat with speedy movement, but it only truly shines during the game’s boss fights. It competently incorporates its roguelite mechanics, but in ways that can feel overly familiar—particularly as your playtime increases. It has a gorgeous art style, but its unexciting level generation isn’t able to fully measure up to it.

And yet despite all this, I still had no shortage of difficulty putting down the controller. “Okay, one more run” was a common refrain as I worked my way through the offices of Death Inc., chuckling at the humor of its characters, throwing myself at its bosses, and taking in the new sights after overcoming one. Have A Nice Death is sure to please roguelite fans for its playability, but it’s a tad too easy to want a bit more from it.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review code provided by Gearbox Publishing for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Gearbox Publishing.