Review: Death or Treat – I Choose Death

Patchwork clothing. Mosaic canvases. Genre-mashing indies with eclectic art styles. Throughout all mediums of design, there is great charm in that which has been cobbled together. Seemingly disparate pieces join to create something unexpectedly brilliant. Taking just a few ideas, tossing in a framework, and fashioning something out of these elements sparks an almost innate joy. Many games achieve great highs with this sort of direction. Death or Treat is not one of those games.

From developer Saona Studios, Death or Treat is a 2D action roguelike that places you in the shoes of Scary, a sweet-loving ghost just trying to make a living. After realising his potential customers are all completely absorbed in their phones with no time for candy, Scary heads out to hunt the heads of the not-so-subtly named social media giants: Darkchat, Riptok, Deviltube, and FaceBoo!. Following a gorgeously animated opening cutscene, that is about all the story context we get.

Give me a reason to.

In most cases, this would be enough for a short indie game: a simple story that serves only as a framework for gameplay. In Death or Treat’s case, the lack of any compelling narrative only accentuates its overall lacking structure. From the very first biome, Darkchat, I was plagued by issues much scarier than my protagonist.

To start, Death or Treat visually peaks in its opening cutscene. Environments are bland with muted colours and a lot of repetition between rooms in a single run. Scary’s movements are well animated, but there’s a stilted nature to them which, coupled with repetition, prevents them from ever feeling lively. There’s respectable environmental storytelling, but even this feels on-the-nose thematically. In the first biome, for example, I saw silos labelled “likes” while walking past a seedy bar sign for a joint named “Memes.” The humour in Death or Treat does an admirable job of toeing the line between mildly funny and eye roll-inducing, but often falls on the latter.

A veneer of wine red isn’t enough to get me drunk on power here.

Tripping over its own jokes is the least of Death or Treat’s problems, however. A dull sense of humour that will not quit is exacerbated by exploration that most certainly will. Despite a respectable moveset on paper, Death or Treat feels consistently underwhelming to navigate; Level design feels rudimentary, double jumps and dashes feel floaty at best and what few hidden paths there are only lead to basic currency collectibles, as well as a number of special, named items which are… just more currency. The reward doesn’t feel nearly worth the gauntlets you’ll sometimes have to go through to get to these items. Homing bats and unseen enemies beneath you who hurl bombs with alarming accuracy make most exploration unnecessarily taxing. Which is saying something, considering Death or Treat’s entire combat ethos seems to literally be “unnecessarily taxing.”

At first glance, my claim may appear to be an exaggeration. For a combat-focused roguelike, Death or Treat sports a lot of trash mob enemies with laughably dumb AI. Big enemies are easy to run circles around, while more than a few forget to attack half the time. “Taxing” doesn’t even begin to apply—until you get comfortable. The second you do, Death or Treat decides to up the ante by… throwing more enemies at you. A lot more.

$5 if you can tell me where Scary is in this photo.

It’s a simple solution to balancing difficulty. It’s also a wholly inelegant one that does not work in the slightest. Despite having more powerful heavy moves and spells, Death or Treat quickly falls into the trap of having its basic three-hit combo be its most effective weapon. Monotonous button mashing is the meta. Even this falls short, however, when the hordes are unleashed. More often than not in later runs, my screen was filled with enemies. Shambling pumpkin heads rove in droves, larger ones stalk behind them, and dogs run amok as bats zoom in for the kill. Not to mention random environmental hazards, half of which are barely visible against the backgrounds. It’s a clumsy smorgasbord of combat encounters not even remotely built to work together. Giving combat a proper effort never felt worth it. Even with concentrated dodging and animation cancelling, I’d either die to something from out of nowhere or survive after doing the same, slow thing for minutes on end. After yet another death from being overwhelmed by numbers—in the penultimate biome, no less—I was at my wits’ end. So, I skipped.

Literally. Death or Treat sports aggressively linear level design, with the end goal of each room always an arbitrary distance to the right. It was infinitely faster to just dash through each room, platforming where necessary, and reach each exit. I didn’t even miss anything by way of upgrades. Any significant boons in a run will always be available for purchase right before a boss room. These cost Candies, which are in plentiful supply at the start of every other room: exploration is all but unnecessary to survive. Sure, I occasionally missed some of the other random item currencies, which contribute to more permanent upgrades, but these are already so chaotically and sparsely spread that I hardly felt the difference. Bosses offered enough for basic progression.

We will not be chilling.

Well-placed merchants do little to save the combat experience, however. Outside of boons with numerical stat boosts (+12 damage, anyone?), there’s another merchant right outside the boss rooms. This one will sell you unlabeled, randomised potions. This is not a bug, like the “Button Prompt” dialogue option I got the first time I met one. No, this is a feature. Potions are a gamble, and have equal chance to buff or debuff you. I consumed one potion since I felt in need of an upgrade. I got more health! I also lost damage… Twice. I bought the potion, and was greeted with a popup box that said “Health Up, Damage Down, Damage Down.” Neat.

Debuffed and disinterested, I entered most boss fights feeling anything but powerful. At the very least, these were entertaining bouts. Bosses in Death or Treat still follow the same old “more is more” principle like the rank and file foes, but are less egregious. The first boss, for example, has Scary hitting switches in the correct order to bring him down and get some damage in (or lack thereof after potions). All the while, I was jumping around and dodging all manner of projectiles. It wasn’t too much, and felt fair and balanced. The same cannot be said for other bosses, who boast moves like an absurd tracking shot that never goes away. These encounters are only marginally more well thought out than the levels that precede them, but the effort is still noticeable.

Guess I’ll die.

By Death or Treat’s end, however, these smaller bits of fun paled against the repetition of all the other issues. Throughout my playtime, I was left incensed at best and bored at worst. The story had little of interest, and I felt thoroughly unmotivated to continue. Interesting ideas threatened to burst forth here and there, but never came to fruition. Death or Treat ultimately fails to make the latter option of its titular ultimatum the more appealing one.

Sarim played Death or Treat on PlayStation 5 with a review code provided by the publisher. Death or Treat is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X|S, and PC via Steam.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments