Going into Death or Treat I felt bad for Saona Studios. The 14 or so person team couldn’t possibly predict Gearbox would publish Have a Nice Death, which players frequently compare this to. Since I had the opportunity to explore one, and also love the genre, I wanted to make sure to give this experience a chance. With a different take on the roguelike genre, a variety of spooky levels, and dark humor, is Death or Treat a delight, or should it have not seen the light of day?
Death or Treat doesn’t have much of a narrative, but the content it has is rather unusual. Essentially an evil businessman has brought ruin to a small town and you decide to take up arms against them. What makes this narrative unusual are the fairly common references to noteworthy business men.
Hey, I Know That Guy
This starts with the main villain, Fackerberg, before extending out to Mr. Jobs, a Pumpkin that resembles Steve Jobs. So much so I noticed the design long before I saw his name. Your other main helper is Joe Bite Them, who doesn’t quite resemble Joe Biden in looks, action, or approach, yet is presumably meant to be a reference. I can’t say I understood all of the references, assuming every character is a reference to something, but I can say one of the bosses is Jeff Bezos, and Fackerberg is obviously Mark Zuckerberg.
A lot of the word play is reminiscent of what Dodge Roll did with Enter the Gungeon. I actually enjoy the quirky names like Jeff Beelzeboss, or noticing a tombstone in the background that says Al Gore Rhythm. There are even some crude ones, like an occasional sign that replaces the Z with an F in Zuckerberg, something I am still not quite sure if it was the characters original intended name, or meant to be an edgy gag.
They Went There
While all of this stuff is great, the story itself is pretty weak. Every boss and stage gets a couple sentences to explain what is going on, before concluding the same way. Thankfully, games like this are not about narrative as much as gameplay.
Fundamentally, Death or Treat is enjoyable. Players start with one weapon and three skills, with a wide variety of unlockable options. These include multiple weapons, improvements to skills, health upgrades, and much more.
It’s All So Simple!
Combat comes down to alternating between main and secondary attacks, and a few special inputs. Depending on the weapon you use the attacks will vary. Swords are fast, dual swords work best against groups, wands are all about distance, with heavy allowing players to maximize damage. These sound great on paper, though in practice Death or Treat strongly favors wands.
Most levels are designed in an oddly frustrating way. Going against gameplay tradition, floors are solid and need to be worked around. Likewise, breakable objects with candies inside will prevent you from moving, though nothing stops you from ghosting through enemies. This will often result in taking damage from an unexpected stop, or by inadvertently attacking into your enemies attack. This would also be fine if attacks could be cancelled into a dash, or if dash had invincibility frames.
Pick Your Weapon
Several locations are also designed to ensure players take damage. A lot of enemies will shoot distance attacks in a way that is hard to avoid. Often times jumping over one hazard will bring you into another. Many enemies are also designed around users expectations. Bats are notorious for this. They will fly to a set location, and then take a bite forward. Not anticipating the additional movement will often result in taking a hit.
A lot of these issues could be overlooked if there weren’t so many bugs. Screen tearing was so frequent and common it is impossible to miss. Even if you don’t notice it in every screen, it happened so often I would legitimately believe it always happened somewhere. This is bad, especially since there is no reason why PlayStation 5 would struggle to run a game like this.
If that isn’t bad enough, several sections would suffer from one problem or another. Certain bosses and enemies can get stuck in loops where they no longer attack and just die. More than once the bat buddy would get stuck in a loop attacking nothing. Breaking chests will occasionally drop your frames to single digits. Several attacks were inconsistent, where I’d sometimes take damage despite them dying, with another run not taking any damage despite doing the same thing.
What a Hard Choice…
There were multiple times I got to the power up podium, where you could take one perk or another, but only one perk would appear. I initially figured it was an error due to a perk I had being rolled, but on a later run I had it happen when I had no perks at all.
In addition to various annoying glitches, certain gameplay choices are just poor. Take the whole unlock system. Enemies drop materials that can be used to enhance various things. Every run you can only save a finite number of materials, even if you choose to end your run, or beat the game. You just don’t take a material penalty in those situations.
This system ensures most Death or Treat will be grinding unlocks. Admittedly that is how these games tend to go, though it’s a fairly underwhelming system. I was able to beat Death or Treat with only one health upgrade, a mid-tier weapon, and two skill upgrades. If my math is correct, that leaves 54 possible upgrades. That is a lot of content that will likely require hundreds of materials across just as many runs. Especially when most of it are just metrics.
Death or Treat Review Verdict
I really don’t like giving games low scores, especially to a game that was clearly a labor of love by a small team, but Death or Treat is a really hard sell. It’s short, features only four bosses, limited variety, poorly balanced, and filled with bugs. The last one is really important because I can overlook some of these things, but in its current state I just can’t recommend it. This is really a shame, because the jokes and core gameplay loop are quite enjoyable, but the flaws are just impossible to miss.
[Editor’s Note: Death or Treat was reviewed on PlayStation 5, and a copy was provided to us for review purposes.]