Developer: Supergiant Games | Publisher: Supergiant Games | Genre: Roguelite | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Steam | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
Like its swaggering, sculpted, hot-as-hell protagonist, Hades is confidence itself. Every single aspect of Supergiant Games‘ latest title is meticulously crafted and fine-tuned to a degree practically unseen in the world of video game development. It is both a reimagining and a love letter to the Greek pantheon, told in a bold and refreshing way. It is a roguelite for people who don’t like playing roguelites as it perfectly fuses both gameplay and storytelling. It respects players’ time yet is not afraid to devour it. Like a lightning bolt from Zeus himself, Hades explodes with undeniable magnitude to become an unmissable masterpiece, one of the most riveting and just plain fun games of the year.
Standing Out in a Crowd
Hades thrives on details. The core loop is similar to others in the roguelite family: the player hacks and slashes their way through dozens of encounters with increasingly-difficult enemies. They gather different weapons and skills, battling deadlier and deadlier bosses until they are eventually overwhelmed and sent packing back to the start. But the devil is in the details, and its the details that set Hades apart and place it firmly in the upper echelon of the live-die-repeat genre.
Roguelikes and rogue-lites have been on the rise in recent years. Spelunky 2 was released earlier this month, and Dead Cells is still receiving substantial, game-changing updates years after its debut. But even in a crowded field, Hades stands tall. It knows exactly what it is, due to an extended period of time in early access on Steam. By listening to community feedback and fine-tuning everything to the nth degree, Supergiant’s latest release feels perfectly crafted to give a satisfying action experience every time. This is a run-based game: every escape attempt is going to feel different. Players choose a weapon and lock in a smattering of skills at the top of a run, and then the rest is up the Fates during the actual playing of the levels.
After leaving the safe confines of the House of Hades, it’s all-out war. Zagreus is a more than capable brawler, and he’ll need to be fast and deadly to survive the waves of enemies that are constantly thrown at him. Zagreus was trained by the best, the warrior Achilles, and has four standard moves to make his way through Underworld: a basic attack, a special attack, a cast, and a dash. Every chamber is packed with different types of enemies, from sturdy Strongbows to disgusting Vermin, and there are damaging traps to contend with, too. After a series of encounters, if they’re good enough, the player will reach the end of each Underworld region, where an epic boss fight awaits. Much more difficult than standard encounters, boss fights reward Zagreus with rare bounties. But once Zagreus’ HP depletes to zero, whether from a lowly Lout, scary Satyr, or humongous Hydra, it’s all the way back to the hub of the House of Hades to mount another assault.
But while Hades is difficult, it is not as cruel as other roguelites. Instead of losing everything after suffering a defeat, players always have something to look forward to in the form of permanent upgrades. There are new weapons to purchase and play with, and new skills to obtain using special currency that is always banked, even when the player is killed unexpectedly. There is still tension in every run, but players can relax knowing that with few exceptions they are always progressing forward. In a year where individual hours have lost all meaning, it’s encouraging that Hades is considerate of players’ time.
If You Know, You Know
Even players with only a passing knowledge of ancient Greek myths and legends will find plenty to love in Hades. Zagreus, the prince of the Underworld and son of the god of the dead, is on a mission to flee his home and the maze surrounding it. To do so, he’ll have to fight his way to the surface. But he, and the player, quickly realize that escaping the land of the dead is easier said than done. Hades has spent an eternity designing the Underworld to be impossible to escape. Zagreus is going to need more than just his charm to break through the ever-shifting walls of Tartarus or the fiery shores of Asphodel. Fortunately, he’s got friends in high places.
As Madeline Miller puts it in her 2011 novel The Song of Achilles, “gods were known to be notoriously poor parents.” As such, Zagreus and Hades don’t exactly get along. Anyone who’s even glanced at Edith Hamilton’s seminal text Mythology or grew up with Disney’s Hercules animated film knows that the Greek gods are meddlers in the extreme. So when Athena and the other Olympians catch wind of Zagreus’ intentions to escape the house that his father built, they do what they do best: interfere. Soon enough, everyone from Hades’ estranged brothers Zeus and Poseidon to the mysterious being Primordial Chaos is offering to help Zagreus. By granting him advice, and most importantly, upgradeable combat boons, the pantheon seems eager to see Hades taken down a peg. But the story soon reveals itself to be more than just a hit job on Hades and a celebration of Zagreus’ great escape. As Zagreus meets and develops relationships with everyone he meets in the Underworld, Hades makes it clear that its greatest strengths are its Persona series-esque character interactions.
It is a Supergiant staple of design that the more players talk to other characters, the more depth will be revealed. In Hades, players are subtly encouraged to speak with everyone they see. The more conversations they have, the more fulfilling the game becomes. Hades’ writing is exquisitely lush, the perfect blend of comedy and pathos. It is also incredibly rewarding for anyone who grew up a fan of Greek myths. Players have seen depictions of Ares and Athena in the God of War series, but they’ve never seen a blissed-out Dionysus who insists on calling the player character “Zag” like he’s auditioning to be in a Beatles cover band.
It’s easy to go on and on about the character designs and utterly fantastic art direction by Jen Zee, but special attention deserves to be paid to the music and score in Hades. Once again, Supergiant stalwart Darren Korb has crafted an incredible soundtrack that perfectly sets the mood for every situation. The boss battles feature music to slay to, and once a certain court musician is revealed, players can start unlocking the entire soundtrack to listen to whenever they like. It’s a feature that Supergiant’s done before, but a welcome one.
The world of Hades is perfectly crafted and thrives in small, easily-missed touches. The way Zagreus’ “flame-licked feet”, as the unseen narrator describes them, burn footprints into the ground everywhere he goes. How Poseidon sounds like he’s underwater every time he speaks. How every time Zagreus emerges from the River Styx after being defeated, he shakes the blood out of his hair like he’s emerging from a pool.
There are several touches in Hades that can’t quite be called “Easter eggs” because they’re almost obvious for scholars of the Greeks. Similar to how comic readers appreciate the tweaks and twists that the MCU has made to various superheroes, Hades is packed with great interpretations of gods, goddesses, and relationships that capture the soul of the myths without sacrificing their character. Savvy students of literature might remember that Hades himself had a love interest, but the way that information is revealed and how it affects the story is wonderful. No spoilers, but it’s revealed in exactly the right way at exactly the right time; even when it’s expected, it’s still a gut punch. Sometimes how a story is told is as important as the story itself.
A Forever Game for a Neverending Year
It is easy to recommend Hades for its aesthetics alone. It’s also memorable for its fantastic takes on the Greeks. But at the end of the day, it’s the gripping gameplay that will keep players completing “just one more run” for hours on end. Hades is addictive, encouraging risky play because the rewards are so satisfying throughout. At every turn, it points players towards new strategies and tactics with supremely enjoyable skills that stack on top of each other. This is the roguelite for players who’ve never clicked with them.
Part of how Hades encourages players is through its excellent boon system. The boons bestowed upon Zagreus in between chambers function like perks. Sometimes boons are passive; healing effects between encounters become more powerful, or movement speed is increased. Occasionally they’re conditional: if an enemy strikes Zagreus, then they’ll be buffeted by a blast of cold air. But most often, they’re combat-focused. By experimenting, players can use these boons to interact with each other to make combat unforgettable.
Combining boons to chase a perfect build is Hades’ secret sauce. It’s one thing to focus efforts on making Zagreus more durable by increasing his health or his basic attack damage. It’s quite another to pick and choose which gods to favor and which to ignore based on the uncanny skills they provide. The way boons combine and stack never fails to delight. Players can spend time agonizing over choices, but Hades is so well-designed that players can almost always stumble into a build that works for them. Half the fun is discovering combinations that shouldn’t work, but do, and then fervently trying to keep the streak going to make it to the final boss. Should the player focus on building up a stash of Charon’s obol, paying the infernal ferryman, and keeping a stash of consumable items on hand? Or is it better to swear fealty to Aphrodite, goddess of love and master of making enemies weaker and less deadly? What worked once might not work again. Playing the hand they’re dealt with is where player skill really comes into play, especially once players can comfortably clear regions and start to mess around with the variable difficulty settings.
Of course, Hades wouldn’t be a true roguelite if defeating the final boss was actually the goal. There is so much more to unlock and discover that players can sink literally dozens of runs into Hades and still not see everything this game has to offer. But it is to Supergiant’s credit that the game feels fresh and interesting throughout. There are always new conversations to tease out of the moody and melancholy characters and anyone attempting to fully upgrade Zagreus’ suite of weapons is in for a Sisyphean task. And yet, somehow, it never gets old. Hades is designed from both a mechanics and narrative perspective to be played over and over again, but it is somehow suffused with urgency throughout. The mechanics are utterly satisfying and make replaying the game necessary, but ultimately its the narrative and the relationships that drive multiple playthroughs.
To call Supergiant Games a singular developer is an understatement. With the release of Hades, the studios’ fourth game, it is safe to say that this is the studio that can’t miss. Hades himself may be characterized as a mirthless busybody, but Hades is an instant classic. As the nymph Eurydice puts it when players encounter her in fiery Asphodel, “Actions beat intentions, hon”. Other roguelites may lay claim to being the best there is, but Hades and Supergiant have actually created it.