Have a Nice Death sees you playing as the titular Death, a classic-looking grim reaper who is the CEO of Death, Inc. Death has had a long life reaping souls from the world of the living, but when it became too much for him to handle, he created the Sorrows – shadowy beings who personify plenty of different reasons that humans die. The Sorrows were meant to help Death reap souls, heading up different departments and grabbing the souls that die in their jurisdiction. The problem is that the Sorrows really like their jobs, and they’re doing them a little too enthusiastically. As more and more of the souls of the damned flood through the gates to the underworld, Death is drowning in paperwork, and he’s sick of it. This is where Have a Nice Death starts. Armed with his trusty scythe, Death will venture through all the departments of Death, Inc. to bring the Sorrows in line, so that he can have a peaceful life while running the afterlife.
A roguelike to its very core, you’ll start out in Have a Nice Death with just your scythe, but as you progress through the floors of Death, Inc. you’ll gain new weapons, spells, and passive abilities, but if your health hits zero, it’s game over and you’ll have to start again. Upgrades come in a few different forms – additional weapons are known as Cloaks, there are also Spells, which let you fire projectiles or summon various creatures to attack for you, and Curses, which provide passive effects like attaching a burning effect to your weapons, increasing your base health, or more.
The Cloaks, Spells, and Curses you collect throughout a run are only for that singular run, and when you die, you’ll lose access to them until they’re found again. That isn’t to say that you’re starting entirely over every time you die, as there are a few permanent upgrades you can make, though they are few and far between. Permanent upgrades include things that directly affect your run, like starting your run with a healing Anima already in tow, or unlocking elevators directly to certain bosses, but you can also permanently unlock new, more powerful weapons and spells for you to find on subsequent runs.
Burnout from Hell
When done well, roguelike systems like this can be very fun, and very motivating. However, in Have a Nice Death the progression ends up feeling like a slog more often than not. Each of your runs generates experience towards your total level, which unlocks some of the permanent upgrades mentioned above, but as your level gets higher, it takes more and more experience to unlock these bonuses, and frankly it feels like it takes too much time to get anything meaningful. New weapons, on the other hand, seem pretty easy to come by, but I have yet to come across anything that has felt meaningfully more powerful than what was already at my disposal.
Don’t get me wrong, the gameplay itself is thrilling. 90% of the time the combat is difficult and punishing without being frustrating, and I loved figuring out the patterns of the bosses and mini-bosses and executing the tight maneuvers it would take to overpower some of them. Where some of the frustration with the progression does come in is that the game is definitely hard. One mistake can cost you an entire run of carefully stacked upgrades, and starting all over from that point isn’t always fun. I know the joy of a roguelike is in the replayability, but when any significant upgrades are so few and far between, that joy is hard to feel.
A Storied Afterlife
As is probably to be expected in an indie game about the afterlife, the writing in Have a Nice Death is quirky and humorous, with plenty of NPCs that report to the CEO of Death, Inc. each with their own job and weird personality. The humor is top notch more often than not, with some vague pop-culture references blended in between all of the good puns about the afterlife that you don’t expect and the bad puns about the afterlife that you do expect.
Underneath the humor, the narrative of the entire game is intriguing as well. Though, much like upgrades to the gameplay, it’s going to take you a while to unlock anything incredibly meaningful. It’s clear that all is not right at Death, Inc., but it took me so many runs to get lore dumps that were more than just vague hints to the overarching story that it was difficult to want to push deeper for the story’s sake.
A Stylish Afterlife
What immediately drew me to Have a Nice Death in the first place was the visual style. It has charm absolutely pouring out of every corner, with gorgeous, smooth, and flowing animations on attacks to stark neon effects on the spells. Enemies are cleverly designed around the department they are in and ooze just a smooch style as they ooze, well, ooze. Each Sorrow is well designed and, again, has absolutely gorgeous animation. The environments are all visually distinct and lively without being too busy. A lot of hard work, love, and care went into designing how this game looks, and it shows at every opportunity.
Adding to some of my frustration with Have a Nice Death are long load times on Nintendo Switch that are accompanied by a harshly stuttering frame rate during, and immediately after, the loading screen. The longer loading times normally wouldn’t bother me, except you are seeing the loading screen a lot since floors are fairly short, and the elevator music that accompanies it started to get very grating during longer sessions of play.
Frame dips weren’t limited to immediately after the loading screen either, certain weapons, effects, and even levels all seemed to contribute to a laggy visual experience, which can be very detrimental in a game with such tight and difficult combat. I’d be lying if I said that stuttering hadn’t cost me any runs in my time with Have a Nice Death, which is kind of a bummer. I also had the game crash on me once during an early run, though thankfully when I loaded back in I was able to start from the floor I was already on, rather than having to restart my whole run.
Have a Nice Afterlife
With just a bit of tweaking, I think that Have a Nice Death could have been one of the indie roguelike greats. I’ll likely still find myself opening it up to get a few runs in here or there, slowly building my smattering of upgrades or discovering more about what’s really going on at Death, Inc, but I don’t see myself sticking around for long each time. Maybe with more time the game will open up and draw me in further, but it needs to have enough present from the get-go to make me want to spend that time with it. Have a Nice Death’s exciting gameplay, gorgeous presentation, humorous writing, and intriguing story are all held back by tiny frustrations in the way the progression works, both with upgrades and the overarching narrative, and that’s a shame, because I really, really wanted to fall in love with this game. Maybe I’ll get my chance in another
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: March 22, 2023
Developer: Magic Design Studios