John Wick Hex Review
No dogs were harmed in the making of this game.
Fans of the Keanu Reeves action film series were excited to hear that it would be getting a new video game release in the form of John Wick Hex. Whenever a movie series gets adapted, fans can typically bet on a few things. The game will most often be focused on action and will probably be a quick cash grab that simply layers elements of the movie on top of a by-the-numbers release. John Wick Hex bucks both of these trends, instead delivering a strategy title that has more in common with chess than Call of Duty. The result is a pleasant surprise in many respects, but the boldness presents its own challenges which the game struggles to fully overcome.
The John Wick movies begin with the titular hitman already in retirement. This left his career as largely a mystery outside of in-movie references and explanations. This allows for a lot of leeway in terms of story for other elements of the franchise and John Wick Hex takes advantage by acting as a prequel. Set during Wick’s more active days, the story sees John taking on another seemingly impossible challenge as he takes on Hex and his massive arsenal of goons. Featuring the fan favorite characters Winston and Charon, voiced by their film actors Ian McShane and Lance Reddick respectively, fans will enjoy this look at Wick before his “retirement”.
As I said, the gameplay for John Wick Hex goes quite against the grain. What other developers would have seen as a quick and easy action title, Bithell Games saw an an opportunity. The character of John Wick has been cemented as a near superhuman, able to overcome impossible odds as he methodically and meticulously eliminates anything in his way. With this in mind, a more tactical and strategy focused game makes more sense.
How this works in John Wick Hex is that the game is semi turn-based, with everything in the game operating on a sort of timeline. Every action eats up precious seconds, and you must keep an eye on the clock, which shows when your actions will occur in relation to those of nearby enemies. Think of it more like editing a video. You see everything on a timeline and see where your actions go in relation to other elements of the “scene”, and you can move or shift things to make it work out how you want. It’s easy enough when it’s one on one, or you sneak up behind someone, but once your presence is known and enemies begin flooding in from all around, it becomes quite frenetic, despite the perpetually paused clock (unless you play on the higher difficulty that limits options to a 5 second clock).
The gameplay for John Wick Hex goes quite against the grain.
At each moment you must decide whether to dodge incoming attacks, fight hand-to-hand, position yourself for future attacks, pick up a new weapon, fire your gun, change your stance to increase your effectiveness, and many more. Every time you hover over an option you see how it will play out, either hitting first and potentially preventing more damage, or happening too late to be effective. For example, if an enemy is across the room you can fire at them first if they haven’t seen you and prepared their own attack. If they have, you can throw your gun at them to stun them and move in for a melee, but this leaves you vulnerable to other enemies who may be nearby. Once the game kicks into high gear, this can become a truly challenging task as you decide how each action flows to the next, allowing you to overcome the odds and make it to the exit.
Where this struggles is when the game throws too much at you. Enemies spawn quite frequently and often in areas you previously cleared of threats. Boss fights especially suffer in this regard, as they often require many rounds of hand-to-hand fighting before bullets are even a real option. Yet they can fire at Wick with impunity, and their added friends become a true threat causing some frustration if you end up in what feels like an especially impossible spot.
And those impossible to defeat spots happen more often than they need to since your inventory and health carry over between stages within the overall level. Each level contains a set of missions, and while you can prepare a few things before beginning such as stashing supplies by spending coins, once you start you’re in it until you finish the whole thing. Get hurt too much in Stage 1? You might just want to restart right away, because there’s no way to fully recover. Bandages are quite rare, and while there’s always enough guns to pick up from the floor, you can only drop your current gun to pick up a new one, rather than collect ammo or additional weapons as you go.
The idea here makes a lot of sense, given what we’ve seen of John’s style throughout the movies. In fact, when it works, it works extremely well. You truly do start to get into Wick’s head in a way, understanding in a much slower fashion how he might plan out his attacks on secured targets. Each shot and movement matters, and you have to think at least a few moves ahead to survive. But once it falls apart it does so quickly and in a way that feels quite frustrating for not much reason. With more health pickups, an action to grab ammo from weapons while retaining your own, a more forgiving field-of-view, or just a better way to reset some progress, the game would feel less annoying in its restrictions.
John Wick Hex is a surprise in a number of ways, but the biggest is how much it hits the mark in terms of conveying what it’s like to be John Wick himself. While it falters in some key areas, the overall experience is a good one. More importantly though, it’s unique, offering something that’s both surprising and distinct from other licensed properties. While you may become frustrated at specific levels or how tough the challenge can become fans of the franchise will find a nice addition to it here.
John Wick Hex
- Available On: PC
- Published By: Good Shepherd Entertainment
- Developed By: Bithell Games
- Genre: Action, Strategy
- US Release Date: October 8th, 2019
- Reviewed On: PC
- Quote: "John Wick Hex is a surprise in a number of ways, but the biggest is how much it hits the mark in terms of conveying what it's like to be John Wick himself. While it falters in some key areas, the overall experience is a good one."