Hanging on the wall of the afterlife's corporate break room is a different kind of motivational poster: an encouraging "Hang In There" written cheerfully above a skeleton giving a thumbs up while dangling from a noose. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the grim charm of Have a Nice Death, a side-scrolling hack-n-slasher where you play as the charming grim reaper himself. It’s up to this overworked CEO to literally kick his undead employees into shape – and even in the early demo build I got to play, it’s a roguelike I’m already excited to lose hours in.
I had the chance to fight through Have a Nice Death’s first two levels ahead of its Early Access launch in March. Its slick combat and clever theme make for a compelling and surprisingly polished package as is, even if it’s also still a little rough around the edges in the ways you might expect from an early work-in-progress build. From Hades to Dead Cells to countless more, the action-roguelike genre has flourished in recent years, but Have a Nice Death still manages to find plenty of ways to set itself apart.
Perhaps most strikingly is its art style. Its character designs are absolutely delightful, from your tiny but expressive grim reaper to the creative baddies you’ll cut down with his scythe. The world itself is also a treat – largely black and white with some splashes of color as you travel through satirical versions of the afterlife’s paperwork-filled offices. Even without much color, Have a Nice Death uses different shades of gray to impressive effect and its hand-drawn look is seriously top-notch as a result.
As usual with roguelikes, you explore procedurally assembled pathways in a series of themed levels, each capped off by its own boss to defeat. All the while you’ll be killing smaller baddies, getting upgrades, and improving your character while trying not to run out of health. Doing so will send you all the way back to the start for a fresh run, though your accomplishments along the way will earn you a persistent currency that you can spend between attempts to unlock more items to stumble upon in further tries. The price of these are even reduced by completing a list of achievement-style tasks like beating a specific boss a certain number of times, which is a nice way to unlock them either through sheer volume of playtime or a more nuanced targeting of goals.
An action game is only as good as its combat, though, and here Have a Nice Death feels great. While your moveset isn’t overly complex, it is immensely satisfying to use. Your primary scythe swings fast right out of the gate, making it easy to chain together simple, single-button combos with aerial maneuvers and quick dashes. It’s your bread and butter, and a pair of NPCs you can find in later levels will let you upgrade and modify it in interesting ways – that could just be more damage, or it could evolve your Scythe into options like a slower but longer range version that flings its blade forward on a chain.
You’ll also find secondary weapons as you progress, which add more options to your moveset and a bit of strategic variation to each run. Some of these are cooldown-based weapon attacks like a heavy hammer or ranged shuriken, while others like a fireblast or a particularly rare one that rains meteors from above instead use a refilling magic meter. Combat admittedly remains a little bit straightforward despite these, but the attacks of different enemies push you to be mobile and get creative with all the tools at your disposal in a way I really enjoyed.
Another clever twist on the usual roguelike structure is Have a Nice Death’s skill tree system. There are three randomized skill trees you can work your way up to unlock boons during each run, but the trick here is that you can see ahead of time which points on each tree are “cursed.” The buffs that will be offered get better as you go higher into a given tree, but you’ll inevitably hit one with a curse that will make things harder for you as well – be that making items in the shops you stumble across pricier or increasing the health of certain enemies. That added a fun extra layer to picking every upgrade as I looked ahead at where the next curse was looming in each tree.
The only thing I found potentially concerning about Have a Nice Death in my limited time with it is that enemies don’t drop anything on death a majority of the time. You’ll frequently be locked into amusing arena encounters that reward you with money once you kill all of the baddies, but I eventually realized that there didn’t seem to be a huge incentive to kill the regular enemies between them. That means you could theoretically learn to sprint past most of the enemies you see over time, checking corners for secrets and loot but only stopping to fight when the doors lock down and force you to.
But that’s where Have a Nice Death’s Early Access plans are encouraging to me, as it’s the type of thing that could undoubtedly be addressed after release if it actually turns out to be a serious issue. Developer Magic Design Studios tells me it plans to at least double the amount of content by the time it reaches 1.0, and it’s been proven time and time again that this sort of game is perfect for the evolving, reactive process of listening to a community and making adjustments that is Early Access. What’s here already is a ton of fun, but it’s also an exciting glimpse of how much more it could grow into as well.