Movie tie-in games have a long history of not being that great, which is putting it lightly. Gems like Escape From Butcher Bay are in the minority to bilge like Catwoman, and recent years have seen movie tie-ins be relegated to mobile slot machines rather than full-fledged releases. John Wick is seemingly tailor-made for a video game adaptation, the furious violence and neon-soaked style almost asking you to plug a controller into the TV. Enter John Wick Hex, an unexpected spin on the traditional tie-in from Bithell Games.
While not technically a tie-in with Parabellum having long ago blasting its way to box office success, John Wick Hex does dive into prequel territory for the franchise, showing what life was like for our favourite assassin before Helen, his wife, came along. Keanu Reeves unfortunately didn’t venture into the VO booth for Hex, though Ian McShane and Lance Reddick return as Winston and Charon respectively.
The plot is a simple one: Troy Baker’s Hex has taken Winston and Charon captive, leading John on a chase across Hex’s organisation to track them down. The story unfolds through static comic book-style panels as Baker chews up the scenery and spits it out, his performance not really suiting the tall, aged stature of Hex. McShane and Reddick (who admirably don’t phone it in) are the exposition devices, asking Hex questions to make him fill in the gaps. It’s not the most engaging of plots, but then again, this is John Wick we’re talking about — you’re just here for pencils and throat punches.
Rather than taking the obvious approach of a first-person shooter replete with bullet time and a special move to unleash dogs, John Wick Hex takes the unexpected top-down strategy route, you moving across a grid each level with a nice spin on turn-based combat that initially promises plenty. Unlike Wick himself, however, the execution is rather messy.
You move across dots in a level at a time, the action pausing when Wick spots an enemy emerging through the puzzling fog of war. Once they’re in your sights, you can elect to shoot them from afar or get in close for a melee attack. You can utilise your (somewhat stingy) focus to take them down quicker, dodging, or crouching and then rolling out of danger. They, too, have focus which can be dwindled down with physical attacks.
The “turns” are designated by an ingenious bar system at the top of the screen which shows if your action will be completed before the enemy’s. Spotting an enemy first means that you will typically be able to get off the first attack, though this does peculiarly depend on the weapon you have to hand — a shotgun, for instance, takes a day and a half to shoot. If they get the drop on you, using quicker moves — like a parry — is vital to bring the odds back in your favour, otherwise you can roll the dice and hope that they miss their attack while you clunkily trudge to cover.
John Wick Hex is a game all about thinking tactically, not running around and spraying bullets. It wants you to slow down and think like Wick does, to analyse a room before unleashing Hell. The first few levels are the best for this, them being well balanced and rewarding to patiently batter your way through. Unfortunately, the dice rolls, fog of war, and ridiculous enemy placement and density provide a constant source of imbalanced frustration before long.
Each ranged attack in John Wick Hex is based on a percentage — the further away the enemy, the lower the percentage. Similarly, an automatic weapon has a lower hit chance overall, which, when combined with the odd choice to make them shoot slower and having to go through a full shooting animation even when the enemy is downed, means that a simple pistol is probably the most reliable weapon you can get in the game.
The issue with this XCOM-lite approach is further compounded by the game’s limiting fog of war, which will often throw multiple enemies at you from nowhere. The turn-based nature of John Wick Hex means that any long action (such as reloading or using a bandaging) never feels safe as anyone could emerge from the shadows and shoot you down. Later levels are horrendous for this, the game barely giving you a second to breathe with waves of attackers closing in, leading to utterly ludicrous situations of John taking it in turns to hit bad guys as their bodies pile up at his feet.
When you inevitably fail to hurdle one of the many cheap roadblocks John Wick Hex throws at you, the game returns you to the start of the level, which can become quite long and drawn out the deeper into the story you go. It’s not long before John Wick Hex devolves into pure trial and error, you basically sending John out as a scout with the expectation that he will die just so that there is some kind of idea of what to expect. Irritatingly, however, enemy types and weapons (as well as the amount of ammo they hold) are randomised, meaning that while you might be expecting a simple thug to turn the corner, it’s a fully armoured guy with a shotgun instead.
Frustration isn’t helped by how scant ammo can be, especially the further into a section you progress. You’re given a handgun with an additional clip at the start of each section, but with enemies taking progressively more and more bullets to die the longer the game wears on, it won’t be long until you’re scrambling around on the floor to find a new weapon. Despite Wick himself being a walking arsenal in the movies, Bithell Games have taken the questionable approach of Wick only being able to carry one gun at a time here, so prepare to be constantly swapping guns around like Secret Santa at an NRA event.
John Wick Hex is split into different sections with there being multiple levels within each. Before the start of a new section, you are given the opportunity to stash items for later levels and purchase upgrades with coins, which are earned based on your performance in a previous section. This is arguably John Wick Hex’s best mechanic, it making you choose between additional bandages or giving buffs to John’s max health, focus, and so on. You only get given two bandages per level, and with how quickly the tables can turn, you will need as many as you can get as you crawl your way to the section’s boss.
Bizarrely, boss battles are probably the easiest encounters you will have across John Wick Hex. While normal enemy attacks can be interrupted by your own, bosses’ can’t, meaning that you have to wear down their focus before you can realistically chip away at their health bar. Sounds tricky, but it really isn’t — simply weave in and out of the fog of war to dodge their attacks, get in close, strike them, rinse and repeat until you can light them up. While the penultimate level had me tearing open my shirt and screaming at the sun over the injustice of it all, the final boss was dispatched in my very first attempt.
The game’s later levels are unbelievably imbalanced in their difficulty, almost to the point of comedy. They rely on the elevator trope constantly, making you wait for the door to open and additional enemies to come flooding out before you can finish an already arduous level, and even just throws packs of enemies at you seemingly without any thought for balancing. I could only laugh when I walked through a door and the fog of war pulled back to reveal three enemies with murder on their mind, one to my left, one to my right, and one directly in front of me. You can die very quickly when the odds are against you, so I was promptly returned to the start of the level with a disbelieving shake of the head and a bitter smile. I wasn’t quite as restrained the next time.
As a low-budget, low price game, John Wick Hex’s rigid animations can be forgiven, most attackers trudging up to you like Mr. X and general combat movement understandably missing the fluidity of its movie counterparts. It doesn’t do itself any favours with its unsightly character models, however, with almost everyone looking like their appendages have been stretched out by a medieval torture device. The game possesses an odd aesthetic overall, the occasional splash of pink not doing much to help you feel like you’ve been brought into the Wickverse. Similarly, the soundtrack lacks a spark, the electronic beats becoming increasingly annoying and repetitive the more you deal with the staccato gameplay.
John Wick Hex is an interesting spin on the usually lazy movie tie-in subgenre that sadly fails to capitalise on its unique ideas to deliver a fun, engaging experience. Instead, the trial by error gameplay makes the simple act of walking through a door exasperating, and the game never really makes the most of the license, leaving John Wick Hex feeling like a wasted opportunity that might make you want to put a pencil through your eye.
An EGS key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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John Wick Hex's early pretence of fulfilling strategy gives way to a maddening trial and error experience that simply doesn't do the license justice.
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