It feels good to play a game where you’re meant to die. We’ve spent the past month playing rock-hard platformers and Metroidvanias, so we’ve been smeared across spikes and blown up by bad guys more times than we’d like to admit. But in Die With Glory, death is the point, and marching towards Valhalla is your objective.
Except you can’t die in any old manner. Sigurd the Red Beard, your character in Die With Glory, wants to ascend with pride, which means finding a worthy enemy’s sword to slide onto. His greatest desire is to die by dragon, jabberwocky, knight, warlock or other beastie; he has tried, many times, to become their victim but to no avail.
Die With Glory is broken into seven levels, each with a method or two of potential death. But instead of merrily wandering in and impaling yourself on spikes, the levels will have some sub-objectives that must be ‘true’: you might need to be killed by a green knight, not a red knight, and the instrument of death has to be a sword, rather than a fall from a balcony. It’s like reverse-engineering a game of Cluedo.
You’re then thrown into the tale, and your aim is to meet the grisly end that you signed up for. This takes the form of something similar to a graphic adventure, but all on a single 2D plane. You move left and right, finding items to squirrel into your inventory and use elsewhere. Some levels are more linear than others, but they’re all no bigger than a few screens in size. It’s often a game of cause-and-effect, as you interact with something that has a prompt over the top, to see what new possibilities it creates. Firing a cannon at some enemies might mean they fire arrows in reply. Fantastic, you now have some arrows to use as kindling, which melts an ice block around a sword, which you can then use to fight a vampire. You have died in the correct manner.
There are fun red herrings, as Die With Glory offers you incorrect deaths. We tumbled into lava and got squashed by carts, or we got killed by the wrong colour of knight. You’ll get a “no, it didn’t happen like that”, before being returned to the moment beforehand. It’s a shame that Die With Glory doesn’t do anything more with these red herrings, though: finding and collecting them might have made for the weirdest (but most fun) of all collectathons. Perhaps a set of achievements would have done it.
Once you’ve completed all the objectives and met your maker, you’re greeted with a cutscene before getting whisked back by a Valkyrie called Hilda to the Hack and Slash Tavern which, as far as we can tell, seems to be a kind of Restaurant at the End of the Universe. From here, you can move to the next level and the next death, or choose to replay the same level but with an alternate death, with up to three different takes on the same level.
It’s all nicely presented, with a paper cut-out aesthetic that’s somewhere between Rayman Legends and Tearaway. Die With Glory is awash with colour and character, and some of that comes through in the script, too, as it’s loaded with wisecracking and pop culture references (Plants vs. Zombies, Star Trek and Star Wars all get several nods). Die With Glory can be funny, and we laughed out loud to a couple of one-liners. We’d never heard “build a man a fire and he’ll be warm for a day, set a man on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life” before, and we’re nicking it for use elsewhere.
Die With Glory has all the ingredients for a cracking little adventure. The focus on ‘a good death’ is original and creates some great moments, as you get everything in position and watch as a Warlock zaps you with a death ray. It looks good, it has the funnies. But, somehow, it doesn’t quite come together.
A lot of the problems derive from the setup. It’s a product of the writing and – perhaps – some mistranslation, but the whats, whys and wherefores are never clear. Why are you still alive, if you keep dying in the levels? Why do you want to die? Where is this Hack and Slash Tavern, and why are all the characters here? Why is it important to die a certain way? It’s not that we’re interested in the lore of Die With Glory’s world; it’s just not clear why we’re doing the things that we’re doing, and that takes its toll on how much we care. A clear setup – that you’re an immortal who is looking to break a curse by finding the correct way to die – would have been perfect, but what we get is a series of skits with death as punchlines, but nothing pulling them together.
There might be answers in Die With Glory, but the problem is that everyone is a smart-arse, and you can’t get a straight answer to anything. Virtually every line is dense with jokes, and the quality of the writing can’t quite pull it off. Sometimes the writing makes no sense, other times it’s groansome, and too often it relies on a movie reference as a replacement for comedy. Yep, two characters are called Wedge and Biggs, I get it. Yep, the two people at the bar are quoting lines from Mos Eisley Cantina.
The deaths, too, feel like a waste of the setup. Almost all of the deaths are ‘fight and get killed by X thing’. What that means in reality is you’re doing the same thing that you do in every other game: you’re finding a weapon, trekking to the boss, and then fighting them. This is a game that could have bucked convention and created weird and fanciful deaths, but we’re left with a twist on the same old objectives, which robs Die With Glory of a little of its originality. There’s an alternative-universe version of Die With Glory where you’re trying to set up a ludicrous death, and watching the dominoes fall on the way to a glorious decapitation.
What neuters Die With Glory most, though, is the concessions it makes for console-play and simplicity. This is a one-button game: you can get to the end with just the analogue stick and the A button. It achieves this by making everything contextual: if you stand by a lever, you press A to pull it; if you have an item that can be used on something else, you will be automatically prompted to press A to use it. It’s wonderfully accessible, but there is a compromise: Die With Glory becomes a game of ‘find the prompt’. You walk around an area, pressing A on everything that you can press A on, until the level ends. Things happen, which might wake you up for a moment, but then you can go back to sleep.
It’s too big a compromise. It’s like playing Monkey Island, but characters with foam hands are eagerly pointing at the things you need to use. You will have a plan to satisfy the objectives, but that plan then gets handed to you, laminated, with the steps clearly laid out, and all the joy disappears. There is some agency in choosing the items that will lead to the correct death, but failure puts you back a step or two before, so why wouldn’t you just use everything for the lols? We ended up in a pattern where we hoovered up the items, and then went on a tour of the level, pressing A whenever asked to.
You can stack on some control niggles too. For reasons we can’t explain, some areas require you to click on an arrow to enter them, rather than just wander in. But highlighting said arrow is a huge pain, especially when several arrows are in the same place. Die With Glory has a hard time switching between them, and knowing which one is in focus is also unintuitive. Presumably, this isn’t a problem on PC or touch screens.
None of this is to say that Die With Glory is unenjoyable. The one-button controls might steal away your opportunity to problem-solve, but exploring airships, dragon lairs and jungle hideouts still keeps your attention, and there’s fun to be had in watching the fallout from your actions. The dialogue might be patchy, but the writers still know their way around a visual set-piece, and watching a knight’s death by ham never gets old. This is a colourful world – you just don’t get to properly interact with it.
There’s a fantastic premise at the core of Die With Glory on the Xbox. Rather than striving for victory, you’re looking to die spectacularly. But that premise never quite gets realised: the deaths are never outlandish, and the quests to get to them are too simplistic. With a little more faith in the player, handing them more control than a few presses of the A button, Die With Glory might have been a triumph. Instead, it gets halfway to that goal before keeling over and dying.