As I’ve gotten older, and dare I say, a bit wiser in relation to narrative and character design, I’ve come to appreciate the nuance of the Grim Reaper. As a child, the grim spectre of Death was always portrayed as a villain — robbing people of life to suit its own twisted desires. However, more nuanced accounts, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, show him as a more affectionate, sympathetic character who is doing a necessary, albeit disliked, job.
Given that death is pretty much the only card video games know how to play — not only as a central gameplay device but about the only emotional hook it has. I find it odd then that so few games have you play as Death, with only Death Jr. and Grim Fandango springing to mind. This is what initially drew me to Have a Nice Death — coupled with it looking very much like Hollow Knight in its 2022 VGA announcement trailer.
Truthfully, I probably should’ve looked into Have a Nice Death a little more before playing it, because I was really sold on the idea that this was going to be a Hollow-like, but with the Grim Reaper. But what I actually got was pleasantly surprising and unique — utilizing intense 2D action with Hades-style rogue-legacy elements.
Have a Nice Death tells the story of the Grim Reaper, who becomes so overworked collecting souls throughout the centuries, and decides to outsource his work to ghastly beings known as “Hollows.” Over the years, management of these Hollows requires Death to form his own company, and for a while, it goes pretty well. But the years of paperwork begin to wear on Death — figuratively and literally, shrinking him from the formidable figure he was to a cuter more chibi character.
Once he notices the massive influx of souls, and subsequently, paperwork, are due to his hired Hollows slacking off and abusing the system, he decides to take matters into his boney hands once again. While it may not be the most original premise — taking something natural or magical and turning it into a bureaucracy — it provides a solid enough backdrop to have a lot of fun with the idea and lends itself to a lot of dark-humour moments. It’s simple and effective and also allows for Have a Nice Death to have a lot of funny and interesting characters.
As I mentioned above, Have a Nice Death‘s gameplay is a fresh mix of combat — not dissimilar to Hollow Knight — and Hades, as players move through two-dimensional levels, battling unruly employees until they reach the end where, like Hades, they’re able to choose the next floor they want to go to based on what potential rewards lay waiting. If Death is defeated before reaching the end, then the run is wiped, and players will have to start again fresh. However, it’s not a pure roguelike, as players gain experience and gold with each run which will enable them to unlock permanent bonuses for future runs.
While feeling a bit similar to Hollow Knight, combat is a bit deeper than its unintentional inspiration. Death has a wide array of attacks from basic combos, aerial attacks, and rising attack, down slam, ground sweep, and charged attack. While Death’s weapon of choice is definitely his iconic Scythe, with each run players have a choice of scythe style that randomizes with every run.
The Dis-Scythe is a Kasumi-Kama-styled chain blade that comes out quick with a far reach, while the Twinsies is a duel-bladed Scythe that is a bit slower, but hits way harder. On top of the main weapon, players can unlock a multitude of sub-weapons and spells as well as the chance to gain perks throughout the run that provide a lot of versatility to playstyles.
“Have a Nice Death has a great, cartoon style with excellently animated characters and enemies that suit each of the game’s areas perfectly.”
While combat is a fast, fluid, and mostly fun experience, in my opinion, it suffers in two crucial areas. Firstly, Death’s dash can feel a bit restrictive, being set to a certain distance and there’s no way to cancel out of it — making it not really effective when certain spatial attacks fill the room and you need precision placement. Also, unlike Hollow Knight or Hades, players are unable to dash until certain attack animations finish, which can result in taking damage you saw coming just because you were caught in a combo.
Secondly, the health and recovery system is somewhat needlessly obtuse. When players take damage, they not only lose health but part of the health bar is greyed out, which is referred to as injury. Players can acquire Anima which will restore health, but only up to a certain amount of injury — whereas Golden Anima can restore health and injury. It honestly seems completely unnecessary since you die from losing all your health anyway, so there’s really no point attaching an extra step to healing. To exacerbate this, both regular and Golden Anima restore such little health to be borderline worthless.
However, these are minor complaints and for the most part, Have a Nice Death remains an incredibly fun game that constantly felt fresh and never made me want to stop playing. It’s definitely got that great roguelike style that feels a bit restrictive at the start, but the longer you stay in and learn, the more it rewards you. But the thing I really love about Have a Nice Death is its sense of style, both visually and narratively.
“…Have a Nice Death is a fantastic game that is excellently executed and deadly fun.”
Have a Nice Death has a great, cartoon style with excellently animated characters and enemies that suit each of the game’s areas perfectly. It utilizes a somewhat restricted colour palette that works to create an environment devoid of life — and rightly so. Though it loses a bit of its lustre in handheld where everything is shrunk and looks compressed in 720p, it really does shine in docked mode.
The visuals are backed by a comical, jazz/funk soundtrack that liberally uses theremin to add a somewhat spooky vibe to the whole thing. There’s some added flair to the soundtrack, like how there’s a noticeable record scratch every time Death gets hit to suggest this is his personal “get to work” soundtrack that we’re listening to.
But it’s not just the visuals. The whole game has a dark sense of humour that is certainly needed for this kind of concept. The way this is best exemplified is in Death Inc’s various departments. After players clear the first administrative floor, the lower depths of the company all represent various causes of death — ranging from the Toxic Food Processing Department to the Physical Illness Department. I genuinely cackled when I entered the Addictions Department and the enemies were living cigarettes and loot boxes — it was a DARK joke, but it landed.
“…Have a Nice Death remains an incredibly fun game that constantly felt fresh and never made me want to stop playing.”
Bolstering this is the way the game’s main and mini-bosses are exaggerated reflections of causes of death — Will Hung is a living and dangerous noose that drags around a helpless employee, while Candice is a hyperactive cupcake who assaults you with a giant lollipop. It adds a unique sense of character to the game that not many are able to pull off with such aplomb. Again, they’re dark jokes, but they work.
However, I will say that Have a Nice Death suffers from some minor performance issues, particularly when starting a level. There’s a noticeably tragic amount of lag every time a level begins which may be a small gripe when the level loads properly and runs smooth, but it’s a gripe nonetheless. This may be an issue exclusive to the Switch, but come on — the Switch can run Hades perfectly fine, so a game like this should have no problem on it. Also, and this might also be a Switch problem and only bother me, but in the in-game encyclopedia, images of characters and enemies are extremely compressed with a noticeable amount of artifacting.
Nevertheless, Have a Nice Death is a fantastic game that is excellently executed and deadly fun. It’s fast-paced roguelike gameplay perfectly suits a system like the Switch and had me hooked for hours. All it needs is a small performance update, and it is a must own!
This content was originally published here.