Hades is exceptional. Supergiant Games’ latest work excels in every area possible. An absurdly polished mix of morish combat, note perfect music, humanistic writing and textbook worthy narrative design.
Hades is a roguelike isometric combat game produced by Supergiant Games. It was in early access on the Epic Games Store for about a year, and finally released in September 2020.
Roguelikes are a genre I’m not typically fond of. For me, unless there’s a really satisfying gameplay hook, I just find it difficult to engage with a game where I can’t repeatedly get consistent gameplay or strategies. I’m also not a big fan of repetition for the sake of scores or personal bests.
Hades is exceptional. An absurdly polished mix of morish combat, note perfect music, humanistic writing and textbook worthy narrative design.
Taking that into account then, it should have extra impact that Hades is one of the best games I’ve played all year, and is absolutely going on the game of the year list in a few months.
You are playing as Zagreus, one of the less traditionally defined members of the Greek Pantheon. In this version of the myth, Zagreus is the son of the titular Hades, residing in the Greek Underworld. As is tradition in Greek Myths, our hero strives to cross the boundaries of the Underworld with the aids of the Gods on Olympus. This framing is simple, but sets the stage perfectly for how the game itself is experienced. It’s a hero’s journey in the classical sense.
Hades plays like a great many isometric games and roguelikes where combat is the focus. Fast, positioning based combat gameplay where the player makes the most of the resources they’re given.
The design team recommend you play Hades with a controller. I do too. The face buttons control Zagreus’ close attack, weapon specific special attack, dodge,and ranged attack; then the stick is for movement on the isometric plane. It’s simple, on an input level. Personally, the game made the most sense to me when thought of as a character action game without the combo inputs. Lots of flashy action and focus on positioning, especially as the game develops. Dealing with area attacks and getting extra damage from attacking opponents from behind encourages constant movement and planning.
As Zagreus’ escape progresses, he’ll choose one of the playstyles provided by one of the eight weapons. Things like swords, spears, bows and my personal favourite of a throwable shield to speak of a few.
Then he’ll enter the four layers of The Underworld (Tartarus, Asphodel, Elysium and The Temple of Styx) and battle through around a dozen encounters in each one before facing a boss encounter for the area. Each of these arenas are normally a single isometric screen with some hazards, and some enemies with colourful, easily readable designs and potentially complex synergies between their attack patterns.
The roguelike elements come through the arenas you’ll fight in and the blessings of the gods you’ll receive.
Zagreus begins every run by entering Tartarus and being gifted a boon by the gods. Depending on the god in question, this can vary in effect for each weapon. The buttery smooth talking Dionysus provides “Hangover” generation causes a poison like tick on enemies over time. Athena provides protection buffs. Artemis rewards clever dodging and boosts critical hits. Zeus is all lightning all the time.
You can replace this first blessing, but it will often set the tone for the remainder of the run as it can be developed.
From there, Zagreus enters a sequence of arenas. Then kills everything inside. When no more enemies are left, the player gets to collect whatever the reward of the room is and make a choice about the next room.
Sometimes it’s a single choice to move on, most times you’ll be choosing between a reward from a god or collecting some type of resource.
Simply choose a door based on the symbol to continue.
For the gods, the symbols are easily legible and colour coordinated for quick identification, eg, a yellow lightning bolt for Zeus, a pink heart for Aphrodite. Then, while the general effect for a given god may be Understood, there’s still some chance for randomness. Each God has around a dozen or more boons to grant, with the player choosing between three options each time. So while you may be hoping for something specific, the reality is that the player will still be making choices and adapting on almost every run.
Over time, a playstyle will develop. Some make use of constant dashing to cause area affect damage. Some rely heavily on constant aggression or using weapon spread to clear whole screens at once. Others build completely around powerful god abilities or ignoring damage.
There’s significant variety and randomness in each run, but the player very rarely feels locked into one bad decision as the run goes on.
Resources are a decision tree in the randomness again. Coins and upgrades for gear locked to this run, darkness/gems/keys for the overarching character progression. In a run that’s going well, you might be hamstrung by collecting resources that can’t be used till you win or die, so it’s a dilemma of where to focus your efforts.
As the game rumbles on, you’ll unlock some minor side challenges too where you’ll gamble that the damage you’ll take accomplishing them is worth the reward for completion, if you can even finish the run afterwards.
The overarching progression is part of why Hades ticks so many of my boxes.
It’s not just that you want your version of Zagreus to get more powerful. Or have better gear. (Though these things are important)
It’s that you also want to develop his relationships and the House of Hades that acts as your starting area. This is where Hades ends up standing apart from so many other roguelikes.
For me, Hades manages the perfect ludonarrative trick of tying story to mechanics. Development through the loop of attempting to escape the Underworld and dying creates progression both mechanically and narratively.
You are the Prince of the Underworld, trying to escape to Olympus. Fail, and you die. If you die in the Underworld, you’ll be swept back down the River Styx. But the narrative still advances. The first thing that happens every time you start again is you literally climb back out of the Styx back into the House of Hades.
The House of Hades is a hub area filled with characters. Ludicrously impressively presented and written characters. Some have ongoing interactions where you use your resources to develop the hub further, whereas every time you come back from death in the hub you can have a conversation with everyone there.
Hades wants you to be having these conversations.
You’ll want to be having these conversations.
It would not be uncharitable to say that there’s an entire relationship system/ dating game’s worth of writing tied up with Hades hub area.
And it’s a wonderfully good conversation each time. Each of the voice actors captures the spirit of their characters with ease. The imperviousness of Hades himself. The etherealness of the night mother Nyx. But they wouldn’t be even half as entertaining without a script that is completely unafraid to play with and enjoy the Greek myths for every character. Even those who you’re ostensibly fighting against in the Underworld.
In particular, the myths of Theseus and the Minotaur or Orpheus and Eurydice are reconsidered in thoughtful, meaningful ways. Mostly these work because the writers understand that at their core, the modern world understands these myths best as soap operas.
An errant son rebelling against a controlling father. An adopted brother who never fails to have a wry comment on their sibling’s failure. A mother figure who wants what’s best for her child, regardless of the consequences.
These are all arch, broad storylines. Perfect for Greek Myth. Somehow still perfect as the setting for a roguelike where the main draw SHOULD be the combat itself.
Yet Hades ties the development of their characters and the ongoing narratives with it’s looping roguelike gameplay. It stands up there with some of the finest Narrative design I’ve seen in a while. Mostly because it keeps developing.
Around my 12th attempt to escape, on my second or third loss to Hades himself, I began to get a touch frustrated as I started over. A set of boons gave me a combat style I wasn’t particularly keen on, and some bad luck on my part sent me back earlier than usual.
So I picked myself up from the River of Styx and went for one more run in that session before calling it a night.
Then I launched into some new, excellent dialogue from the cast around some background plot threads,and that was a salve to my frustrations.
Then I started my run. And as I reached the first area boss, something entirely new happened.
I won’t discuss it here because it should be experienced first hand. But the conversations and relationships developed over the course of the runs I’d made so far in the overarching story started to change the gameplay.
Hades isn’t meant to be rushed. It was a marathon. Not a sprint.
There were New bosses. New Sub Bosses. New Arenas and alternate paths featuring side characters with their own developing story.
Complete 180 on my mood. Now dying was its own reward, incentivising keeping on with every run, just to see if there was something new.
That exceptional core that is then built on in every aspect, including the music and design work.
It almost feels like a forgone conclusion that the soundtrack for Hades would be good. Darren Korb and Supergiant Games have some incredible form here.
Bastion set a high bar for the studio that they’ve somehow never failed to clear. Hades is no different. It straddles perfectly across its requirements. It’s a soundtrack that lulls and loops perfectly as you enter your twentieth room in the run, helping streamline the player’s focus. But it also rises out in the moments of quiet or narrative purchase, swelling to equal the punch of any of the writing.
In particular, Greek Myths of the Underworld have some specific stories where music is important, and uncovering those moments in Hades was rewarding in so many ways.
Those Greek myths define everything about the game. With the possible exception of the health pickups being an off puttingly stereotypical modern Greek Gyro meal, everything in the game is beautifully presented.
Each of the regions has a beautiful aesthetic palette that defines both the enemies found and the arenas. Tartarus is dark and brooding, the lowest rank of the Underworld filled with shades. Asphodel is suffocating Red tones and golden enemies among the magma. Elysium is pallid greens and blues as heroes live on in their verdant afterlife, with ghostly spirits contrasting with spot colours of butterfly pink. Each level captures the essence of the section of the underworld it represents. It may be set among the dead, but Hades is bursting with life.
These dichotomies sum up Hades to me. It’s a compelling roguelike about trying to use the limited tools available to avoid death in a very literal sense. Yet it’s also a game where every death is rewarded with more story, more time with the characters that you’re falling for every time you talk to them. Hades manages to bridge the two aspects. It’s the heroic godlike feats of daring as you battle bosses paired with the human moments of quiet conversation and introspection. Much like a Greek demigod. Hades is equally deserving of someone singing it’s praises.
(Images sourced from Supergiant Games, through the IGDB)