Have a Nice Death review: a roguelike with diminishing returns

Have a Nice Death review: a roguelike with diminishing returns

Part of the magic of The Devil Wears Prada is how deftly the film toes the fine line between excoriating a soul-sucking work culture and creating sympathy for the people inside it. Intern Andy Sachs struggles against Miranda Priestley’s authoritarian clutch over a fashion magazine, only to find herself becoming more and more like Priestley. The movie demonstrates how impactful a cruel boss can be.

The new roguelike Have a Nice Death delves into the same ideas, with critiques of work culture and burnout — but rather than portraying a cruel boss with a proper amount of criticism, the game ends up tipping into unearned sympathy for an overworked CEO.

Developer Magic Design Studios’ protagonist is Death, the founder of Death Inc. Death is dealing with burnout, having processed too many souls into the realm of the afterlife. He created employees to help him gather the dead, but these employees have gone rogue and begun to wreak havoc on his industry of ending life.

Death uses an area-of-effect attack in Have a Nice Death

Image: Magic Design Studios/Gearbox Publishing

You take charge of Death at this pivotal moment. Armed with a trusty scythe, cloak, and book with the names of the dead, Death has to work through his labyrinthine workplace to deal with his wayward employees, fighting them, defeating them, and whipping them back into shape.

Death’s headquarters are beautiful. The procedurally generated 2D dungeons look as if they’re pulled straight out of a Disney movie (the game does often feel like a playable Pixar short). The animations unfold in a crisp, moody noir highlighted by minimal splashes of color.

The fighting mechanics glow neon as curses and slashes and projectiles paint across the dull gray landscape. Mechanically, the game is a joy to play. Combat is slick and responsive, not unlike Dead Cells (whose lead designer “worked closely” with Magic Design), but feels more like a hack-and-slash. Death’s cloak can morph into additional weapons, like a gigantic hammer or a cloud of poison. I enjoyed mixing a ranged curse with a hard-hitting melee weapon. Weapons are easy to unlock and the available storage slot in your inventory makes switching combat styles in the middle of a run easier — the act of building momentum in early runs is satisfying, rewarding, and exciting.

There are currently seven worlds (with one more planned for the game’s full 1.0 release on March 22), each with its own boss, called a Sorrow, including Waldo, a Big Boy-faced killer spider of the Toxic-Food Processing Dept., and Major Warren Pliskhan, an overzealous war general and head of the Modern Warfare Dept., among others. The levels can get tiresome, with each biome having an average of only three or four main enemy types, but the enthusiastically designed main boss battles remain challenging over each run.

Death speaks to employees and vendors at a save space in Have a Nice Death

Image: Magic Design Studios/Gearbox Publishing

Throughout your runs, which, like in any roguelike, knock you back to the beginning upon dying (although it isn’t clear to me how Death himself dies?), you’ll encounter a variety of Sorrows. They’re stand-ins for global forces that cause destruction and end lives, and have gotten too productive in “processing” (read: killing) people. As a result, Death has to visit each of his employees, and they argue with him about their work quality before you try to beat them to a pulp.

Roguelikes are fruitful opportunities to ask questions about burnout, work culture, and even labor organizing. Going Under, Hitman World of Assassination‘s Freelancer mode, and even Hades frame their respective workplaces as endless loops where evil thrives.

But where Have a Nice Death differs from these other workplace roguelikes is also where it suffers. Instead of building sympathy for labor by playing as an intern in the dungeons of failed startups, or as the son and housecleaner for the god of the underworld, you play as the management.

In its focus on Death, without any interrogation of his role at Death Inc., Have a Nice Death, wittingly or not, frames the CEO as a sympathetic figure. And in some ways, he is—he’s grumpy but charming. But in his role, as an overseer and exploiter of laborers, it’s hard to wish him well as he yells at his employees.

There’s a version of this game where Death recognizes his, and his company’s, exploitative practices, and thus, the tongue-in-cheek jokes scattered throughout land harder, as he comes to grips with the pain and stress he has caused. But in its current state, Have a Nice Death doesn’t strike that balance.

Death uses a laser-focused dash in Have a Nice Death

Image: Magic Design Studios/Gearbox Publishing

The macabre humor is initially charming but soon sours upon meeting minibosses like W. Hung (a noose) or the Sorrow Maxxx (a personification for addiction with a syringe sticking out of its back). I shook my head in disappointed shock when I encountered the Sorrow Christina Imamura, an orientalist geisha standing in for natural disasters, and the disbelief transformed to rage when the animation of a nuclear bomb played after the battle. I ended up actively avoiding the branching paths that would bring me to these bumps.

What often brings me back to a good roguelike, failed run after failed run, is a careful blend of mechanical improvement and narrative progression. The development of the protagonist’s (and player’s) skill set, alongside the gradual incline in the character’s story arc, is key.

In Have a Nice Death, however, further discovery only lessened my appreciation for the game. The beautiful world and tight combat were captivating at the beginning — but the more I gleaned about the story and the world, the less I wanted to keep playing.

There will supposedly be a narrative conclusion that launches with the full release of the game when Death presumably, finally, gets PTO following a reveal about who is causing disturbances and turmoil at Death Inc. But I’m pessimistic that the new content can make up for the existing diminishing gameplay satisfaction, and even more pessimistic that it will be able to tie a neat bow on such a messy storyline.

The game itself is beautiful and the battle mechanics feel great, but the deeper I dig into Have a Nice Deaththe less value I find.

Have a Nice Death will be released on March 22 on Nintendo Switch and Windows PC. The game was reviewed 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.

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