I’m convinced that Mike Bithell’s John Wick Hex is a compelling adaptation of the Keanu Reeves action films but I’m not all that sold that it’s a particularly great video game.
Bithell, a darling of the indie gaming world responsible for the rightfully-acclaimed Thomas Was Alone, is probably one of the last people you’d expect Lionsgate to bestow the John Wick license upon. Usually, when a major franchise is involved, the rights either go to a studio you’ve never heard of or the nearest AAA publisher. You either get The Walking Dead: No Man’s Land or you get DICE’s Star Wars Battlefront.
It feels like Lionsgate took a genuine gamble on Bithell and I really like that. If the intent here was intended to create a film tie-in that’s unlike any other, then John Wick Hex is an overwhelming success. Unfortunately, as a game that I played in order to review, I find it hard to love.
Set prior to the events of the films, Hex takes the best parts of John Wick - getting to watch Keanu Reeves tear apart innumerable goons with a mesmerizing and rhythmic yet calculated efficiency - and turns it into an ultra-stylish turn-based strategy game.
Yes, you heard that right. A turn-based strategy game. What exactly does that look like? Well, the gameplay in John Wick Hex operates on a timeline. At a glance, you can see exactly how long any visible action will take.
The trick is then in finding and making the most of any opportunity to react. If a goon is going to take 2.5 seconds to aim and shoot at you, you need to find something that’ll either stop that from happening. Fail to do so and you’ll take damage. Take too much damage and you’ll have to start the stage over again. The sum total of this system - which seems pretty intuitive to grasp even if you’re not super familiar with stuff like X-COM - is a constant balancing act.
As John Wick, you’re a hammer in a world where everyone else is a nail but each of the levels in the Hex endeavors to even the scales through sheer and intense attrition.
The setup here is that Winston and Charon are being held hostage by a new antagonist named Hex, played by Troy Baker. Both Ian McShane and Lance Reddick reprise their roles here but Reeve is nowhere to be found. The story is told through interstitial cutscenes that break up each level in the game. Nevertheless, taking control of John Wick, you’re tasked with fighting your way through a series of locations and confronting Hex.
Rather than go in on something more photo-realistic, Bithell’s take on the John Wick universe embraces the franchises’ graphic novel inspirations. The character designs in Hex are more stylised and caricaturesque than you might expect but, as a visual style, the overall aesthetic crackles with energetic tones in a way that effectively evokes the vibe of the films.
You can even review completed levels as a procedurally-generated cinematic- which is a novel inclusion, even if the appeal wears thin quickly.
Each level is broken into a series of stages and each stage is a ceaseless game of whack-a-mole. Enemies emerge from every corner and burst forth from every closet and you’ve got to manage all these threats in what is - essentially - real time. You’ve got time to think, sure, but you’re still working to a clock.
Hex does an effortless job of capturing the perfectly-efficient action sequences of the John Wick films. Unfortunately, whenever you fail to live up to that standard, it leaves you feeling like a big dummy.
The road to the kind of flawless execution that you know, love and associate with John Wick is one paved by trial and error. Bullet conservation is also a pivotal factor in how all this flows.
As with the films, John Wick Hex treats ammo as a scarce resource. Every shot counts and if you run out of bullets, you need to find yourself a new gun. The fastest way to do that is to get one off an enemy - either dead or alive. Of course, running around without a gun means making yourself vulnerable. There’s always a risk to leaving cover behind.
At it’s best, Hex is filled with this gritty arithmetic and dense decision making. It’s constantly forcing you to try and think your way out of the situation in a way that comes across as very authentic to the source material. Unfortunately, this tension really grated at my enjoyment of the game over time.
Sure, the first few levels are pretty straightforward. You enter a space as John and you dominate everyone in it. It’s only on the third or so stage that the knives really come out and John Wick Hex gets proper difficult. I think this might be one of the most difficult games I’ve played this year difficult.
Sometimes you’ll make it through half of the total stages in a level before you realise that you’re one hit away from death and are probably best restarting the sequence outright in order to have a better chance of making it to the end.
I’ve beaten Sekiro four times and I almost rage-quit this game more than once. But more than just frustrating, some of the longer levels and stages in the game just made me feel numbed by defeatism. Whenever you don’t live up to the legend of John Wick, it feels excessively demoralising.
Later levels do introduce coins that can be spent to upgrade John’s core abilities and plants supplies later throughout a level. However, frustratingly, most of the abilities you start the game are the same ones you’ll have throughout the entirety.
In my opinion, the problem here is that there’s no pressure valve or sense of progression to offset the difficulty of the later levels.
As a tactics game, John Wick Hex demands you rise to the occasion and perform with the level of perfection associated with its protagonist. Anything less than that won’t cut it. The times when you live up to those high expectations are elating but the hundreds of times you don’t grind you down.
Of all the changes I wish had been made here, I wish that there was some kind of rogue-like element in the mix. If my many many failed attempts accrued some sort of currency or resource that I could invest in making John’s core attributes better or buying consumable, I’d feel much better about the tilt-inducing difficult spikes in this game.
As a bold take on its source material, John Wick Hex is sweet but as a strategy game, it left me soured.
John Wick Hex is available now on PC and Mac through the Epic Games Store.