Published on April 1st, 2023 | by Richard Banks
Have A Nice Death Nintendo Switch Review @MagicDesignGame
Summary: Have A Nice Death takes the best bits of other roguelikes to create a slick adventure spoiled by an unrewarding difficulty curve.
If you’ve ever wondered if the Grim Reaper has a tonne of paperwork to fill in once he’s finished a hard day helping people shift off the mortal coil, there’s finally a game to help answer that question. Have A Nice Death leans heavily into its workplace setting, delivering a vibrant, funny world worth clocking in for, even if its gameplay doesn’t always pack the same punch.
But boy, is Have A Nice Death’s backdrop a delightfully weird treat. Death himself, CEO of his very own business, Death Incorporated, wants a vacation. Before he can get this well-earned rest, however, Death needs to regain control over his company and its departments, as each department head, known as the Sorrows, has started taking liberties down on Earth. Queue Death’s adventure, which takes players through charmingly macabre departments in an effort to get Death the rest the tortured CEO is so desperate for.
And from the off, I was surprised by how great Have A Nice Death’s writing was, and I was even more surprised that the workplace shtick didn’t grow old over my 20 or so hours of playtime. Each of Have A Nice Death’s kooky cast has plenty to say; even after thirty or so runs (including completed circuits), I was still discovering new interactions between the likes of the aptly-named Pump Quinn and fleshy business coach Harriet, as I tried new ways of getting to the end of Have A Nice Death’s eight worlds. Even after encountering the same bosses multiple times, it was refreshing to get plenty of new, witty remarks from Sorrow Brad and his fellow cohorts before I, at least tried, to beat them to a pulp.
It was the first thing about Have A Nice Death that reminded me heavily of the likes of Dead Cells and Hades, but it wouldn’t be the last. Like in these other roguelikes, combat and movement are super slick, making for smooth dashing and formidable attacks that feel meaningful and satisfying to initiate. Being so nimble means that Death can easily handle the relatively simple platforming sections of each map, as well as go head-to-head against Have A Nice Death’s creative bestiary with relative ease, give or take a couple of frustrating FPS drops that are most likely down to the Switches ageing hardware than any game-specific issues.
It’s even more satisfying when you take into consideration Have A Nice Death’s decent roster of weapons. There’s a selection of scythes (which act as your basic weapon) for you to choose from, as well as plenty of side weapons, like a potent javelin attack and splash-damaging hammer which are tied to a cooldown metre. Rounding out Death’s arsenal is a selection of mana-using magic attacks that usually deal area damage to enemies, perfectly complimenting Have A Nice Death’s impressive bag of tricks. After plenty of runs, I found several load-outs that worked for me, usually opting for a spell that caused damage over time, like the poison cloud, and a side weapon that packed a punch, but a dozen hours in, I still found new weapons that I’d not previously come across that made going around again even more enticing.
Speaking of completing Have A Nice Death runs, each journey through Death Incorporated is split into a visit to the company’s different departments, with each one split into five short, procedurally-generated levels followed by a boss battle. Keeping with the game’s theme, each department has a morbid theme, such as Industrial Waste, with each biome’s enemies also themed to match. That said, outside of what enemies show up, the areas do feel quite similar to each other, and it’s a shame that aesthetics and enemies aside, more wasn’t done to make each area feel unique.
Again, similar to Hades, you can tailor each run to suit your requirements by picking a level that could potentially give you the reward you’re most after, like more health or the potential for new weapons, but the real treasure is finding a level that adds new passive bonus Curse Cards to Death’s inventory. It’s familiar stuff, but it’s a system that works perfectly alongside Have A Nice Death’s other roguelike sensibilities.
But here’s where the similarities to the likes of Hades start to dissipate. It’s kind of the point for roguelikes to have a noticeable difficulty spike, allowing you to try again with the new tools and upgrades you’ve unlocked on your previous runs, but Have A Nice Death cranks it up to 11. It’s not immediately noticeable. Basic enemies can be taken down with a quick slash of your scythe, and your first run-in with a mini-boss (known as Thanagers) feels like a suitably challenging mixup, but as the game progresses, things start to almost feel cruel.
Dealing with main bosses comes down to the tried and tested method of learning their attack patterns and countering them the best way possible, but even after nailing their usual tricks, these fights still feel painfully unfair, often leading to quick and frustrating deaths. While smaller bad guys are easy enough to dodge, bosses tend to have huge damage-dealing abilities that are hard to escape. For example, Waldo, a Cuphead-esc creepy mascot boss, unleashes an attack that gives the player very few places to hide on the map, often leading the player to resort to luck to survive. The further you get into the game, you can unlock elevators to skip early levels to go straight to bosses, but this almost feels like it makes Have A Nice Death harder as you miss all the weapons and pickups you’d usually approach these bosses with.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for Have A Nice Death’s strange approach to healing. While you can heal with collectable Anima, some damage can only be cured with Pure Heal Anima, which can be difficult to obtain. If you don’t have Pure Heal Anima, your health will only heal to a reduced percentage, meaning that until you find more Pure Heal, or an item that fills your health bar, you’re running on empty. It’s a system I quite enjoyed, but Have A Nice Death doesn’t seem like the best place to implement it.
And the strange choices continue. Have A Nice Death pays out unfairly for your hard work, especially when compared to other roguelikes. Dying – and even fully completing the game – offer the most measly of bonuses, as does levelling up. Perhaps the most ridiculous payout for your hard work is reaching Level 9, which rewards players with the chance of getting an upgraded weapon by 1%. Outside of this, you also earn gold ingots as you go which can be swapped for further upgrades, and I like the fact that the better you get in certain aspects of the game the cheaper these upgrades are, but ingots themselves can be hard to come by.
The problem is, being so shy about rewarding players in a roguelike discourages players from wanting to keep playing. For example, there’s no better feeling than completing a run of Dead Cells and coming back with a handful of new blueprints and a bunch of cells to spend, which encourages the player to want to go around again. It’s this slow but meaningful reward system that makes you want to go back to a game that you’ve already invested hours into, so Have A Nice Death’s overall slow progression takes the shine off a game with other much finer attributes.
Difficulty spikes, no matter how steep, are fine in games of this ilk, but it’s harder to forgive Have A Nice Death’s approach to rewarding players. There is, however, so much joy in Have A Nice Death’s gloriously grim setting that it’s absolutely easy to recommend, but for roguelike players that prefer their rinse-and-repeat gaming a little more forgiving and, most importantly, rewarding, there are plenty of better options out there.