Have A Nice Death Lets Me Grind My Way To Making A Difficult Game More Approachable

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I’ve really enjoyed my first few hours with Have a Nice Death. The 2D platformer roguelike has launched in Steam Early Access, and its morbidly charming adventure is already proving to be an entertaining challenge.

Have a Nice Death sees you play as the titular Death. He’s burned out and in serious need of a vacation but can’t manage to get away with all the paperwork that needs doing. He eventually snaps, infuriated at his subordinates’ refusal to give a damn about him, and all the extra work their lackadaisical nature is causing. Deciding that he’s long overdue for some respect, Death embarks on a rampage through the different departments of Death, Inc. to remind his lackies who’s really in charge.

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Narratively, I don’t think this setup is anything to truly write home about. Have a Nice Death doesn’t seem to achieve any narrative depth beyond the simple messages that “crunch is bad” and “burnout isn’t healthy.” Important stuff, but the game’s early hours are more concerned with inviting you into its charming world. Despite the dark nature of the narrative, Have a Nice Death posits that this situation is more a case of “business as usual,” and that these characters are simply your run-of-the-mill office workers trying their best to just get through the day

On paper, I shouldn’t be a big fan of Have a Nice Death. I don’t really like roguelikes, despite dropping an ungodly number of hours into Hades. The evolving narrative and incredible characters are what convinced me to stubbornly work through the challenging gameplay loop of Supergiant’s game, and though Have a Nice Death implements similar storytelling devices, they don’t quite reach the same highs. Instead, Have a Nice Death appeals to me by making the loop of a roguelike more approachable.

Like most roguelikes, the overall objective of Have a Nice Death is to complete a perfect run–completing every available level within a single session. Failing to do so sees you having to start over without all of the fancy weapons and items you managed to find in your last run, though there are permanent abilities connected to three skill trees that you can unlock to make subsequent runs a bit easier.

Beyond that skill tree, Have a Nice Death also features ways of permanently improving Death’s arsenal and survivability with new weapons and health items. You buy these upgrades with ingots, which can be found during runs and earned by killing enemies.

Early on, the prices for unlocking these new weapons and health items are pretty steep. Unlocking the Shake Spear costs a whopping 105 ingots to start, for example (you’re typically only earning 10 or so a run if you’re stuck on the first area of ​​the game). But Have a Nice Death incorporates a challenge system into its upgrades. Kill any 15 enemies over the course of the game (a very easy goal) and the price of that weapon drops by 25 percent. Kill 15 more enemies and it drops even further. By the time you’ve killed 50 enemies, the price is discounted to one ingot. So even if you’re not completing Have a Nice Death on your first, second, or third run, the act of simply killing enemies during those early attempts is increasing the likelihood you can afford this permanent upgrade.

All of the upgrades are similarly tied to challenges that allow you to earn discounts and speed up the process of acquiring stronger weapons and healing items. Some task you with getting kills with a specific weapon, while others ask you to find a way to deal a huge amount of damage with a weaker weapon or reach an area or overcome a boss a number of times.

Because of this, I’m actually spending the first dozen or so runs of Have a Nice Death striving to accomplish smaller goals–one far more achievable than “beat every mandatory boss and level in a single run.” I’ll get to that challenge eventually, but for now, I’m content with simply growing stronger and seeing how my efforts are contributing to me doing a little bit better on those early levels.

And granted, plenty of roguelikes divide their seemingly insurmountable goal of beating them into more manageable tasks–Dead Cells features metroidvania elements that allow you to chase after small upgrades that make it easier to surpass chunks of the game, and Hades has tied episodic stories to each of its main characters that you can pursue while trying to escape the underworld. But Have a Nice Death is novel in how it allows you to see what you’re striving for. From the shop menu, you can see what weapons and health items you’re working towards before even trying to go for them, allowing you to determine whether they’re worth the pursuit. It respects my time.

And so now, after only a few hours, I’m getting the hang of enemy and boss attack patterns and am discovering new strategies by following the directions of the challenges as opposed to just experimenting on my own. I can’t quite get through all of the early areas without taking a single hit, but I’ve come close a few times now just by being encouraged to try out a bunch of different playstyles and discovering what works for me.

All that said, my efforts aren’t making Have a Nice Death easy. While they’ve certainly made the daunting task of beating it seem more plausible, this is still quite a difficult game. When talking to GameSpot, lead game designer Simon Dutertre compares the process of playing Have a Nice Death to climbing a mountain. In my experience, that seems like an apt comparison–Have a Nice Death incorporates several punishing systems that take a while to get the hang of. For instance, taking damage not only lowers your health, it can lower your maximum HP as well, preventing you from being able to heal completely if you’re not careful. This seems to be a game that wants you to play near perfectly through the first half in order to have a fighting chance at overcoming the second. Normally that’s too tall an order for me, but the challenge-based upgrade system is making the task seem feasible enough that I’m willing to try.

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