Are roguelikes today’s defining video game genre? It’s a hard argument to oppose.
Indie darling turned multiplatform powerhouse Hades all but dominated 2020’s award season; Returnal showcased the PlayStation 5’s staying power in 2021; Cult of the Lamb, Vampire Survivors, Rogue Legacy 2, and Nobody Saves the World meshed roguelike mechanics with an array of other genres last year. And just this week, Dead Cells, one of the early staples in the roguelike resurgence, received a new DLC in partnership with one of the medium’s most revered series.
Now, here is Have a Nice Death, a project from Magic Design Studios, which will be fully released on March 22 after a year in early access. Its protagonist is none other than Death himself, whittled down to a nub by burnout and ennui thanks to the grind of never-ending paperwork and office politics. I played three hours of the game this week, during which I slashed my way through the first two areas of Magic Design’s bureaucratic hell, gathering macabre new weapons and fighting dark yet cartoonish manifestations of corporate culture. Have a Nice Death got its hooks into me early with its tight combat, slick platforming, and a slew of creative enemy types. But I’m still not sold on its long-term progression loop. And in an increasingly crowded genre, a long-term progression loop can make or break a game.
As Death, your objective is to travel through the various departments of Death Incorporated, reprimanding (read: beating up) unruly employees and correcting corporate clusterfucks as you go. On each run, you begin with Death’s trusty scythe, and build a loadout from there. (The scythe, appropriately, appears to be a permanently equipped item.) Over the course of a run, you might find a spear whose attack doubles as a dash past bigger enemies; you might then complement said spear with a duo of hornets that will home in on the nearest bad guy. After dying and starting a new run, you might switch to a weapon combination consisting of a massive hammer and an area-of-effect fire attack. Weapon stats shift from run to run, but also throughout each run, so you’re encouraged to be flexible with your arsenal and swap out any weapon that’s not getting the job done. As Death, you’re nimble, able to chain slashes of your scythe into midair dashes that bring you to the next flying enemy, before slamming into the ground beneath you and crushing an otherwise stubborn opponent (decked out in a Dwight Schrute-esque getup, of course).
On a mechanical level, Have a Nice Death is immediately responsive and satisfying. Most fights in the first area (the Hall of Eternity) have been a breeze on each run, including each encounter with Brad, the Chad in charge of office security. Even the second area, the Industrial Pollution Department, seems lacking in major challenges, barring the final boss of the area, one Mr. Gordon Grimes. There are upgrades called “curses” that can improve a weapon or ability but also bestow a debilitating nerf, along with challenges and modifiers that might make future runs more difficult — but all in all, I’ve found Have a Nice Death to be a bit too forgiving, right up to the point where it’s brutally tough. It’s possible that I just need to change my thinking with regard to my loadouts in future runs, but as it stands, Gordon is an unwelcome difficulty spike at the end of a diverting cruise.
Speaking of jarring: Have a Nice Death’s humor ranges from satirically incisive (interns are barred from using any powers or garnering any useful abilities) to downright cringey. An example of the latter: I encountered a miniboss named “W. Hung,” and, as it turns out, the name was not an attempt at innuendo, but a reference to the fact that he was an office worker hanging from an actual noose. But wait! If you read the journal entry about Mr. Hung after defeating him, it turns out that he was the rope, and not the man strangled by it, and the misconception was a constant thorn in his side.
I plan on continuing my trek through Have a Nice Death’s morose corridors, the better to understand its upgrades, uncover its secret rooms, and improve Death Incorporated’s various vending machines and employee shops. But as of now, I can’t help feeling like my journey thus far has been unremarkable. The roguelike genre is a competitive space these days, and while I appreciate Have a Nice Death’s wonderfully tight combat mechanics, I’m not optimistic that they’ll be enough to set the game apart. Its long-term progression loop hasn’t grabbed me, and its humor is pushing me away. But maybe Death still has something up his sleeve.
Have a Nice Death will be released out of early access on March 22 on Nintendo Switch and Windows PC. The game was played on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Gearbox Publishing. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.