REVIEW: ‘John Wick Hex’ – Being the Baba Yaga is a Tough Gig (XSX)

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John Wick Hex - But Why Tho?
John Wick Hex is a turn-based action strategy game developed by Bithell Games and published by Good Shepherd Entertainment. Before John Wick left his life as the Baba Yaga to live quietly with his wife Helen, he was the most feared assassin in the underworld. In those days he once had to go after a man who had kidnapped two of the operators of the Continental, Winston and Charon.

Dynamite action, fluid world-building, and memorable charters are the cornerstones of the John Wick franchise. These features have built a series of popcorn action movies that have enthralled fans like few other series of the last decade. And while John Wick Hex manages to bring some of that to my Xbox Series X, it comes with a cost. And the price is more than I think many gamers will be willing to pay.

As your journey through the game opens, you quickly learn that Winston and Charon from the Continental, whose roles are reprised by their movie actors Ian McShane and Lance Reddick respectively, have been taken by a man known as Hex. The three characters provide narration for the game, as well as background information about the various bad guys Wick confronts. This information is provided both between levels, as well as while the action plays out. This is a nice, dramatic touch I appreciated, as it allows the plot to have a bit more of a cinematic feel to its delivery. Rather than simply telling the player what’s going on or who they are about to face, the information is delivered in the form of a running conversation between the three men. This gives the information more style and flair in its delivery.

John Wick Hex’s gameplay begins with an easy to follow tutorial. Basic commands like movement, how to target enemies, and special actions like reloading, and using bandages are all explained clearly. This is one of those games where the complexity isn’t in the mechanics, it’s in the execution.

Every action the player takes has a time cost attached to it. A running time gauge at the top of the screen shows how long it will take to complete, as well as what other characters are doing, and when their actions will end relative to your own. So if you are hoping to shoot an enemy before they shoot you, you will be able to assess whose shot will fire first.

This time management system creates a level of intensity as you try to gauge how best to approach problems. At least some of the time. Other times it feels like a lead weight that drags you down into a sort of time-accrued debt that you can’t buy your way out of.

The first thing to understand is that everyone in this game who wields a gun is good with it. Good enough that it’s safe to assume that if someone shoots at you, you’re probably gonna get hit. While you can take a few hits before death, it’s still something best avoided. That, coupled with the way actions are timed out, often puts you in situations where discretion feels like the better part of valor. Ducking behind a counter for a couple of turns so you can pop up and get a shot in before an enemy seems like a smart play. And sometimes it is. However, there are areas of this game where the enemies seem to spawn endlessly and like clockwork. Every few seconds of game time a new one seems to pop out. This forces you to feel like you need to shoot fast and move on. This becomes even more of a problem when a boss gets added to the situation.

John Wick Hex separates boss characters from regular characters first through the use of a focus gauge. Having focus makes the boss harder to shoot. In a situation where John might have an 80% chance to shoot a goon, he’ll have a 20% to pull of the same shot on a boss with high focus. In order to lower a boss’s focus, John must engage in melee with them.

Against normal goons, using melee is a good secondary way of killing enemies. It’s quiet and doesn’t burn through Wick’s ammo. And ammo in this game is a precious commodity. Against a boss, however; melee combat only serves to deplete their focus gauge. It will take a couple of hits to lower the gauge enough to allow for a respectable chance to get in the shots needed to kill.

This multi-step process wouldn’t be so bad if there was a fixed number of opponents during the battle. But sometimes, there aren’t. Boss fights can take place near enemy spawn points, making it nearly impossible to find a long enough window to finish off a boss before getting shot by minions who are moving to encircle you. Even lowering the boss’s focus and then leaving them alone to clean up the growing minions does little to rectify the situation. Since they’re a boss, the more deadly character isn’t going to just leave you alone to fight his goons. Oh, and if you don’t finish a boss off immediately, they can run from you as well. This can be just as bad as them shooting at you given the time crunch the game puts the player under. Playing tag with a cowardly boss isn’t something you have time for either.

Now, to give John Wick Hex the benefit of the doubt,  I’m not a tactical mastermind. There could be something there I’m just missing. But having survived turn-based campaigns for games like XCOM, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Gears Tactics, and many others, I know a bit about strategy. And none of those games taxed me nearly as badly as John Wick Hex. So unless you are looking for a tactical challenge in line with a souls-like, you might want to find some friendlier skies to fly.

Another feature of the game is the ability to rewatch levels after completion in real-time. This was a big talking point during the press circuit for the game prior to launch. It was billed as being able to see the cool moves and sweet kills a player could rack up during a mission like they would look in the movie. You’d get to see how your version of John Wick would look. Unfortunately, it doesn’t play out that way.

The reason for the semi-failure of this system comes from how the game plays back the level. While this is understandable to a point, it often mires the experience of watching it all play out. For example, when Wick does a melee attack the computer randomly choices one of several animations to use. When executing multiple in a row, Wick will likely do the same attack animation repeatedly. This hurts the rewatch potential greatly. Combine this with simple things like taking a wrong turn, or accidentally selecting the wrong tile to move to, then having to take another move to go back, making Wick look a bit confused, and you’ll quickly see why this feature couldn’t deliver what it was hyped as.

The visuals in John Wick Hex, while simple, deliver the style and atmosphere you would expect. The placement of objects was always clear, making it easy to judge what would or wouldn’t provide cover or block the line of fire. The locations of pickups, and where one stands to interact with the environment, was also presented in a clear way. The only problem I had visually is with the text. Like many games that release first on PC, the text feels like it expects my eyes to be a foot and a half from the screen. But, since I have a moderately sized tv sitting six to seven feet from me, the text is a bit of a problem. Not unreadable. But it made me squint a bit till I had the pop-up action menus memorized for sure.

When all is said and done, John Wick Hex delivers an interesting experience that provides a unique, and brutally difficult time. If you are looking for that brutal difficulty to bang your head against, this game might be for you. For anyone else, however, I think this one will be a hard pass.

John Wick Hex Is available now on PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, Xbox One, Xbox One X|S, and Nintendo Switch.

John Wick Hex
  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10
7/10

TL;DR

When all is said and done, John Wick Hex delivers an interesting experience that provides a unique, and brutally difficult time. If you are looking for that brutal difficulty to bang your head against, this game might be for you. For anyone else, however, I think this one will be a hard pass.