Unfinished Business is NME’s weekly column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access games. This week, Rick Lane helps the Grim Reaper deal with burnout in Have A Nice Death.
Have A Nice Death is framed around the premise that making your life (or unlife) more efficient is not the same as making it easier. Take email, for example. Sending an email is much more efficient than sending a letter. It arrives instantly and can be responded to instantly, which in theory lets you get to other tasks quicker. The problem with this idea is that email lets lots of people send lots of messages, all of whom expect an instant or near-instant response. Consequently, everyone ends up overwhelmed by their inboxes, preventing them from attending to the jobs or activities those emails are often about.
Have A Nice Death covers the same ground, but it replaces emails with the souls of the dead. You play as an overworked grim reaper who, tired of doing everything himself, delegates the task of reaping souls to a bunch of minions. But all that happens is old Grimmus gets drowned in paperwork, while his new middle-management seize control of Death, Inc from under his nose cavity. Hence, Death has no choice but to step out of his office and make some very literal cutbacks.
Such is the setup for what is undoubtedly the most arresting concept for a roguelike since Hades. As Death, you need to work your way through the many floors of Death Inc, battling ghostly enemies and hulking bosses in challenging combat to reassert control of the company.
By far the game’s strongest feature is its presentation. Have A Nice’s Death‘s art and animation is up there with your Ori‘s and your Hollow Knight‘s in terms of style and detail. It’s funny too. I chuckled at least three times during the opening cutscene, while the game itself is filled with pleasing visual gags, such as the flying books that attack you with conjured paper aeroplanes.
The excellent animation work lends itself naturally to the game’s combat. Death’s default weapon is his scythe (obviously) which he can use to attack enemies in a sequence of lightning-fast swipes, or a sweeping uppercut move that’s particularly useful for dealing with those books I just mentioned. Killing enemies also builds up a power meter that lets you unleash a devastating special attack specific to each weapon. In the scythe’s case, this sees Death teleport around the screen slicing every enemy on it into ribbons.
Your goal in each randomly generated level is to reach an elevator on the far side. Here, you’ll get a choice of floors to move to, each of which is themed around a different upgrade. “Soulerys”, for example, will provide a greater chance of reaping more souls used to by upgrades. Other floors will let you fight minibosses or find new active abilities, which range from weapons like a hammer that stuns enemies, to a devastating power that calls down a hail of asteroids. Each new floor will also bring you one step closer toward that particular area’s boss, highly challenging encounters that’ll test your newfound powers to the limit.
Indeed, I would say that progressing through Have A Nice Death is no mean feat, but meanness is arguably one of the game’s main flaws in its current Early Access state. The game is far too stingy with its health drops given how brittle Death is, which not only makes the game extremely hard, but also means that health drops are more exciting than any of the cool powers that the game throws your way, simply because they give you a better shot at survival.
The bigger problem, though, is that Have A Nice Death lacks the character-building element that made Hades so compelling. When you ‘die’ in Have A Nice Death, not only are you catapulted back to the start of the game, you lose pretty much everything that you picked up during that run. The only item you get to keep is “ingots”, golden currency that lets you unlock new weapons. But unless I missed a menu option, you don’t seem to be able to start a run with those new weapons.
Not only does this mean you’re heavily dependent on getting lucky with the level generation, it also makes it hard to develop a play-style that works for you. In one run, for example, I picked up a wicked bow and arrow ability that would have been great to slot in as my default attack. But as soon as I died, I lost it, and didn’t see it again for another hour. Where death in Hades was a natural part of the progression arc, giving you a chance to acquire and experiment with new abilities, here it exists solely to extend the length of the game.
Have A Nice Death finds itself in an unusual position for an Early Access title. Most workable Early Access projects have a solid core that then needs polishing and building upon. Have A Nice Death, by comparison, is already superbly polished – it’s the core itself that needs adjusting, to make individual runs more balanced and rewarding, and to feel less like you’re just doing the same thing over and over. After all, that’s what got Death into this whole mess in the first place.