When first booting up new indie roguelite Death or Treat, I was left puzzled by a pretty major bug where I was unable to select any option on its main title screen. I’m no QA tester, but it seemed like quite a significant issue to have been overlooked. It left me with a poor impression during its first start up, especially for a game citing such polished inspirations as Hollow Knight and the Ori series. This wasn’t the only experience I would have of a game-breaking bug that caused me to reboot. Later I’d find that one of the buttons had simply stopped registering in-game, and as much as other bugs like dialogue options failing to appear were more humorous, unfortunately the sour taste in my mouth remained throughout my experience with Death or Treat.
Death or Treat follows the main character, Scary, as they attempt to rescue HallowTown from the clutches of an evil tech mogul so that they can continue their business of selling sweets to all the residents. The theming comes across as somewhat odd, with a mixture of Nightmare Before Christmas-esque, child-friendly scares combined with a strange parody of tech companies such as TikTok and Facebook (with ‘spookified’ names such as RIPtok and Faceboo). Many side characters appear to be named after real-life figures, but with seemingly no actual correlation other than wondering ‘what would you call a vampire version of Joe Biden’? The answer, of course, being Joe Bite Them, a pun that was such a stretch that, without any sort of voiceover, it took me quite a few minutes to even realise who the joke was meant to be a reference to.
The game isn’t devoid of positive qualities. The hand drawn art-style and animation works to provide the game with a good amount of charm, with each sprite playfully bobbing along as they travel through the world. It also attempts an interesting play on the roguelite formula with its currency system. Enemies drop a variety of different materials that you use back at the town to make new weapons, reconstruct buildings, and more. Bucking the typical roguelite formula, all of these materials persist between runs, allowing you to build up large amounts over time. However, upon death you are only allowed to take back a certain amount of each material, dependant on what upgrades you have acquired. It’s a simple system, but it allows the player to always feel as if they’re making progress toward something even when a run wasn’t as successful as they’d like.
The whole game comes across feeling distinctly half-baked
The issue is that even these positive attributes are made problematic by the greater design of the game. The material-gathering mechanic ultimately fails to feel like any sort of hindrance considering that the runs of Death or Treat are always presented in the same linear progression of zones, each with their own unique materials. By the time you get to the next zone of the game, you’ve already gathered more than enough materials from the one prior during previous failed runs. I never felt like I was making a meaningful decision on what to keep and what to leave behind – it was always just as simple as taking whatever I had the least of. As mentioned, the art style is great, but often results in environments that become impossible to read in terms of what counts as a ledge and what doesn’t. This is made even worse by the fact that some ledges allow you to pass through them whilst jumping up, and others don’t. This combined with floaty jumps made the platforming in the game a chore.
Enemies often suffer from a lack of thought as to how the player will interact with them. Many are staggered far too easily, making carving through them essentially thoughtless, even when the game attempts to spawn in a larger, more elite version to intimidate the player. Others have rather long wind-ups, but Scary themselves have so much movement when attacking that hitting enemies simultaneously functions as a dodge. Ranged enemies are the only challenging foes – these detect you from far off-screen and can fire a shot at you with pinpoint accuracy. They could stand to donate some of this awareness to the brute enemies that don’t even notice you hitting them if they aren’t directly looking at you.
The whole game comes across feeling distinctly half-baked, to the point that even fixing the bugs I’ve encountered wouldn’t exactly feel like enough. Even at its best, Death or Treat just can’t quite pin down something to make it feel truly special. Considering its stated influences, I wonder if the team wouldn’t have benefitted more from trying to make a metroidvania rather than a roguelite, being able to handcraft each element and provide a better outlet for the wonderful artwork.
Disclosure: This review was given by Perp Games as a pre-release copy for the PS5, and the game received a launch day patch for its PS5 and Xbox editions on May 11th, 2023.