I don’t think there was a more solid pitch for a game in 2019 than “John Wick, but a tabletop game.” Attempting to put the revolutionary film series into a third-person shooter box feels bad just thinking about. A waist-high cover, run-and-gunner has never made me feel like a super soldier. Giving the Baba Yaga the Gears treatment would translate nothing about what makes watching those movies so engrossing.
But slowing the pace down, and putting you in Wick’s brain as he makes the split-second decisions to cut down a whole room of bad guys? That makes perfect sense. When John Wick Hex works, it makes repeat watches of the films that much more enjoyable. You can almost see time stop when he rounds a corner, and his kill-calculus starts running all the numbers. Some runs through the many stages, across seven different locations, have the same intense emotional resonance of that intimate fury Keanu’s black clad anti-hero possesses.
But as certain as there is no better video game pitch this year is another sad truth. John Wick Hex needed more time. The hours I spent with Good Shepherd Entertainment’s time-based strategy game was as interesting as it was disappointing.
The main crux of the game is a good one, on paper. You navigate small maps, point by point, where every action costs time, displayed on your timeline at the top of the screen. You have a limited set of actions that never change – there’s no skill trees or leveling up here. When you have line of sight of an enemy, their timelines are added under John’s. Actions taken are dropped on these timelines, and it’s up to you to figure out how to take priority to neutralize the enemy, or get out of harm’s way, before they can eliminate you.
It gives me great Frozen Synapse or Breach and Clear vibes. These were great simultaneous turn strategy games that had you thinking tactically every single second of a turn. The added tactical rpg element of choosing the right move from a limited and diverse moveset for the micro task makes you feel brilliant when you string a sequence that works. The sort of Grandia/Child of Light time bar management keeps everything challenging, especially when you’re surrounded by multiple enemies.
It only takes a few runs before you start asking questions that seem obvious. Example: John has an attack called “Push” where he, well, pushes enemies in a direction of your choosing. This isn’t just a dismissive shove. John grips the bad guy up and walks with him a couple spaces. The models on the screen suggest John is using said bad guy as a human shield. In reality, enemy fire will pass harmlessly through your apprehended foe as if they aren’t even there.
John has to spend Focus points to use some of these more advanced maneuvers. Focus also helps his accuracy, and increases your chances of dodging incoming fire. Should you run low on it, you have to stop and recover it. This, as well as bandaging wounds or reloading your weapon, all require time to do. You’ll be exposing yourself heavily whenever you decide to take one of these actions.
This is all well and good, but it doesn’t really make sense that John can only do these things while standing when the option to crouch exists. Crouching increases your dodge rate, and can break line of sight when hiding behind counters or walls. You can only dodge roll in this state, but it doesn’t take uber assassination talents to tend to a wound, or to take a couple of deep breaths to focus. I know, from personal experience, that you don’t need to be a living weapon to pick up an object while crouching next to it.
This isn’t just nit picky, fantasy game designing on my part. Adhering to some basic level of logic and physics is what makes watching the John Wick movies cool. Yes, there isn’t anything realistic about a cabal of global murders, and the one super killer they’re all afraid of. But many of the solutions Movie John comes up with involves pushing people into his line of sight and fidgeting with things while crouching. To watch Hex adhere to many of these things through animation, but not anything mechanical is a bummer. Especially since most of the animations leave a lot to be desired.
John Wick Hex is maybe one of the jankiest looking games I’ve played in a bit. John stalks the maps with a stiff gait that seems way more wooden than even Reeves is capable of. When he is actually attacking, the strikes and grapples almost always clip through enemies, who never seem to react on cue. The variation of strike and takedown animations is bare bones. You’ll see all the ways John can beat a dude with his fists and feet probably in the first map. To get an option to watch the whole run in a “cinematic” replay upon completion is for sure a jarring option. It’s impossible to get excited about watching those goofy sequences again, no matter what the camera angle is.
Hex< mimics some of the neon punk/old world porn juxtaposition in it’s cell shaded art direction admirably. For being displayed a sometimes really strange angles, each map at least looks good. There isn’t much interaction with it, besides moving through it, and hiding behind walls. Yet, the best designed maps really replicate that “John walks down a narrow hall with branching paths that could produce anything or nothing” type anxiety.
There is such a gripping concept at the core of John Wick Hex that I refuse to let the game’s various jarring issues stop me from seeing the end of it. Even if it doesn’t execute with The Boogeyman’s surgical precision, it’s still remarkable attempt at something you don’t see every day. I can only hope that, as the movies themselves got better over time, Hex is afforded more opportunities to learn and grow in the future.
This game was played on PC with an Epic Games Store code provided by a PR representative of the game.