In 2019, Magic Design Studios—a new team comprised of many ex-Ubisoft staff—put out the Rayman-esque Unruly Heroes, which we thought was a great platformer with some amazing visuals. For the next few years, the team went quiet while working on its next game, revealed in late 2021 as Have A Nice Death, a tough action roguelite about the grim reaper. Since then, it’s been gradually baking in early access on Steam and now that it finally reached 1.0 status, it’s received a console-exclusive release on Switch. We’re happy to report that the developer has succeeded with its sophomore outing; Have a Nice Death is an enjoyable and addictive experience that roguelite fans should take note of.
It places you in the role of Death himself, who has grown tired of the hard graft involved in harvesting souls for millennia. To take the weight off his shoulders, he decides to start a corporation to hire various ghouls and ghosts to do the work for him while he can distantly manage affairs from a comfy executive office. For years, Death enjoys putting his feet up and letting the Kafkaesque organization do its thing while he just rubber stamps the paperwork that comes across his desk, but matters begin to get out of hand when the admin rises to ridiculous levels. It turns out that Death delegated too many tasks; all the beings he appointed to oversee transitions to the afterlife have gotten much too trigger-happy and have been going way over quota. Death thus picks up his old scythe and begins a little corporate restructuring, setting out on a journey through every floor of every department to aggressively lay off his misbehaving staff.
There’s not much more to the story of Have a Nice Death in terms of plot, but this is a title that absolutely revels in its delightfully dark and morbid sense of humor. Whether it be a naïve and overworked intern excitedly telling you that she’s going to be hazed tomorrow or a detailed description of the over-the-top way that an enemy met their original demise, there’s tons of personality and wit to be found in Have a Nice Death's writing. Though we occasionally wish there was a more focused narrative to show us around this fascinating corporate hellscape, things like flavor text in the bestiary and brief conversations with NPCs nonetheless do a great job of worldbuilding.
Gameplay closely follows the blueprint of a typical action roguelite, particularly Dead Cells, wherein you attempt to fight your way through an increasingly more difficult gauntlet of randomized levels as you ascend the floors of your headquarters and defeat the supervisor of each department. Death is a nimble and potent combatant armed with his scythe, and there’s a variety of secondary weapons and spells—such as a powerful hammer or a bow—you can collect along the way to round out your repertoire and give you more flexibility in the heat of battle. Most foes, of course, don’t take more than a few blows, but the many bosses you can face off against provide memorable and brutal trials that test the limits of your skills and build.
Whether you’re going up against a Thanager (a sort of mini-boss) or the supervisor of the department, we appreciated the sheer variety and creativity present in these boss fights, which brought the battles of Cuphead to mind. Whether you’re fighting an in-universe take on the Big Boy mascot or something more low-key like an irate skeletal janitor armed with a vacuum cleaner, every fight offers up a shocking amount of challenge as you narrowly dodge through a barrage of hard-hitting strikes. These bosses definitely don’t pull their punches, even when playing on the easiest difficulty setting, and it’ll take you multiple (failed) attempts to finally learn their tells and timing well enough to succeed.
This high difficulty is likely what will act as the main sticking point for many players. Have a Nice Death offers a brutal challenge on its intended base difficulty level, and this isn’t a roguelite that you can eventually overcome by grinding meta-progression. Although there is some light character progression (more on that in a bit), most of it only expands the variety of weapons and drops in the loot pool for each run. So, if you don’t have the razor-sharp dexterity and reflexes needed to outmaneuver the many things that’ll try to hurt you, you’re probably gonna have a bad time here as it’s not like you can eventually buff your character’s stats enough to permanently reduce the difficulty.
We appreciated this rather uncompromising challenge given that it makes progress feel truly earned after you’ve practiced hard enough, but those who don’t have the time or patience to master the game mechanics may feel disappointed by the unforgiving and unmoving skill walls they hit.
A big part of surviving the challenge is found in being strategic with your choices on each run. It’s important to know what weapons you’re most effective with and how to maximize their usefulness, but there are other factors to consider that can sink or save your run. The rewards that you collect at the end of a level are a good example, and you’re usually given a choice about what rewards you want to show up at the end of the next level before you get there. Sometimes it's best to roll the dice and hope you’ll get a good equipment drop, sometimes it’s better to play it safe with a currency infusion at the end.
Most notably, you’ll occasionally be given the option to select a new Curse that’ll directly buff Death’s stats or performance in some way. There are three varieties—red, blue, and green—to pick from each time, and these will do things like infuse all your attacks with lightning or decrease the cooldown on your dodge. The Curses generally get higher quality the more you get of a particular color, but this comes with a tradeoff or 'penalty', like increasing the amount of damage you take from certain sources or hiding all the elements of the UI. Curses are a great addition to the gameplay loop, as they leave a lot of room for experimentation and the random nature of them ensures that no two runs will ever give you the same buffs in the same order.
When you inevitably fall to some ghoul, your performance over the run will be assessed and turned into a final score, which will then convert to experience that will both level up Death and add to your bank of gold ingots. Leveling up will do things like increase the amount of ingots you earn per run or give you an extra heal item to start each run with. None of the buffs are a replacement for you gitting gud, but they do help to create some slightly wider margins for error that just may save you later on down the line. Plus, it just feels good to have tangible benefits that ensure your efforts on the last run weren’t entirely wasted.
Ingots are the other side of meta-progression, and these can be invested into new equipment and power-ups in a smartly implemented system that encourages run variety. Every new unlock will have a sticker price attached to it, but you have the option to discount it by fixed percentages by fulfilling specific tasks. These tasks ask you to do things like kill a certain amount of enemies with a weapon class or defeat a boss a certain number of times. You don’t have to actually reach any of the specific goals, but you’ll knock more off the price of the item the closer you get, so there’s a light sense of strategy here as you determine for yourself how miserly you want to be. Most items are given away for nearly free if you fulfill their conditions, but it might take much longer to do so.
As for its presentation, Have a Nice Death has quite attractive and unique visuals. The hand-drawn art style generally adheres to a monochromatic, and ‘cute but dark’ aesthetic, not unlike Hollow Knight. And while there’s not much color to visually distinguish each department from the next, we appreciated that there are various environmental elements to keep things distinct. For example, the Toxic Food Processing Department is filled with mountains of junk food and old diner signs, while the enemies are themed after things like cupcakes and cups of soda. Animations are quite smooth, too, which helps to make combat feel much more kinetic and free-flowing as Death smoothly transitions between combos and weapon types.
These visuals are matched by equally distinct sound design that contributes a lot to Have a Nice Death’s unique character. The music generally sticks to a jazzy collection of Halloween music rife with theremins and didgeridoos to give it that ‘weird’ tinge, while some tracks have a more comical element to them, such as the muzak that plays while Death chills in the elevator on loading screens. Meanwhile, little touches like a record scratch when you get hit mid-combo or the cute gibberish that characters verbalize in dialogue help to create a generally lighthearted atmosphere despite the morbid themes.
All this is well and good, but it does need to be said that Have a Nice Death could use some tightening up on the performance side of things. Though 60 FPS is the target here, we noted in docked mode that there were many instances where the frame rate would tank considerably as a new level took its time loading in. Related to this, we noted that load times could be a little on the long side, clocking in at anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds long while the next floor loads. It may not sound like much, but each level only takes a couple minutes to finish and those load times really start to add up over time. We noted that docked performance was worse in this regard; load times are long in either docked or handheld, but they were generally a few seconds longer when playing on the TV. If you end up springing for the Switch version, we’d recommend primarily playing this undocked.
Have a Nice Death may not reinvent the wheel for roguelites, but this is a high-quality new entry in the genre. The brutal difficulty, creative theming, and satisfying combat all combine to make this a memorable and worthwhile experience, even if we wish it had better performance. We’d recommend this to anyone looking for another extremely competent and humorous action roguelite to add to their collection, though with the caveat that you should only take the plunge into this underworld if you feel confident in the sharpness of your skills. There’s a lot to love about Have a Nice Death, but as the name suggests, the bony hand of the reaper will be the only one holding yours.