When you think of the idea of a John Wick video game, it’s hard not to imagine it taking the form of some kind of non-stop action game. After all, these are movies built around delivering intense, brutal and perfectly choreographed fight scenes and gunplay at a breakneck pace. It seems obvious that translating that world into an interactive video game would result in something along the lines of Max Payne or a John Woo Stranglehold joint. Evidently, John Wick Hex developer Bithell Games never received that memo, because what they’ve created is the furthest thing from an action shooter possible. Yet, surprisingly, it’s still a faithful love letter to the world of the Baba Yaga.
Admittedly, it would be strange to expect a traditional sort of shooter experience from Mike Bithell and his team. The creative mind behind games like Thomas Is Alone and Volume, he’s better known for crafting puzzle-heavy experiences that challenge your critical thinking more than they challenge your trigger finger. John Wick Hex is no different, plucking the world and characters of the film franchise and placing them into a stylised, tactical grid-based battleground.
Like a traditional sort of squad-based action game, your camera can stay close to the shoulder of your character or zoom out into a wider, top-down view that lets you easily soak in the layout of the map. There is no squad here, though. Your only character is John Wick, and he and his enemies don’t play by normal rules.
Rather than a turn-based system where you make a move, then the enemies make theirs, John Wick Hex spins things into an intriguing mashup of XCOM and Superhot. Every character operates independently, but time will only move once you perform an action. Everything from taking a step to firing a gun takes time, so in the two seconds it takes for John Wick to move three spaces, an enemy may have already fired a shot at him or closed the gap for a melee strike. You’ll need to constantly be comparing the timing of your actions with those of your opponents to ensure that Wick doesn’t meet his end, creating constant miniature puzzles in each level that you need to carefully solve in order to make it to the next location alive. While this lends itself to a slow and methodical style of gameplay that seems at odds with what you see in the films, being able to step inside the mind of John Wick like this and live through all of the decisions and planning he makes within milliseconds during battle shines an incredibly interesting light on the character.
Thankfully, you won’t need to be doing any complicated mental math to figure out if you have enough time to parry that thug’s punch before another fires their uzi at you. The top of the screen has a bar that tracks the time it takes to pull off your selected action, as well as additional bars underneath it that show the length of actions being performed by nearby enemies. Movement actions will only have a white block in the UI marked by the seconds it takes to finish, but attack actions like throwing a gun or striking an enemy will have a white start-up block and a pink follow-through block where the actual damage is delivered. You’ll need to carefully compare your actions with those of the enemy to ensure that your pink damage-block arrives before theirs in order to interrupt their action and neutralize them.
It’s a simple system at first, but the odds can quickly become overwhelming. Your gun has limited ammo, enemy dropped weapons have even fewer bullets in them, and you’ll quickly lose chunks of health if you foolishly take on more than two enemies at once. Additionally, a lot of your actions, like melee takedowns, use up Focus, a meter that can be refilled at any time, as long as you’re willing to stop and spend the precious few seconds to clear John Wick’s head.
The arenas you do battle in may be small, but each chapter of John Wick Hex is made up of multiple connected stages through which all of your damage, ammo and depleted Focus persists until you beat the final area. This often consists of a standard zone with a boss in it, who will test your mental endurance even further with increased health, defensive armor and hordes of protective goons.
The odds can stack up against you very fast. While the challenge is appreciated, the frustration of making one wrong move at the end of a level and being almost instantly vaporized by enemies is not. As the game ramped up in difficulty, I often found myself wishing for some sort of way to undo recent moves so I could re-plot my course without having to start a level all over again. That’s especially true considering my runs were interrupted on a few occasions by frustrating glitches like enemies freezing in place, or not having any selectable actions after an enemy awkwardly interrupted my attack – I hope these will be patched up soon after launch.
Once you finish a level, you’re treated to a cinematic replay of the engagement that removes all of the pauses where you were picking your next action. It’s a fun mechanic in theory, but the somewhat slow and stilted movements of Wick and his adversaries causes the experience to lack the kind of frenetic, non-stop pacing you’d expect from Mister Wick.
The story of the game, while a bit thin, manages to add to the rapidly expanding film world of John Wick. It’s helped by the presence of original film actors Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, returning to voice their characters Winston and Charon. The two have been kidnapped by Hex, a mysterious figure voiced by the talented Troy Baker. He’s an engaging character, and his story dives deep into the rich lore of the world of John Wick, which will be a treat for fans of the film who appreciate those aspects of the franchise. If you prefer the more intimate action of John Wick and his journey of revenge, though, John Wick Hex will leave you dry. He’s barely an entity in the story, with the spotlight shining bright on Hex and his tormentees, while we simply play as John Wick silently tracking down the mysterious villain.