It feels like the world has gone mad for Hades, Supergiant’s latest creation perhaps most notable due to its high-profile Early Access period, and timed exclusivity on the Epic Games Store. It was popular then, but since the 1.0 launch (which includes the Nintendo Switch), Hades has been all over my social feeds in a way that rivals Fall Guys earlier this year. In some ways Hades feels unremarkable, as a longtime fan of roguelites. But what’s really special here is that Supergiant cracked the code so many others have tried. Hades is a brutally difficult roguelite that has mass audience appeal.
Hades is set in the mythological Greek Underworld, and you play as Zagreus, Hades’ son and rebellious pain in the neck. Despite being immortal he’s clearly a teenager, and recently found out Hades has been lying about who his mother is. Naturally, Zagreus was to escape the Underworld and meet her. Hades isn’t interested in letting that happen, and takes advantage of everyone’s immortality by freely ordering his minions to kill his own son. It’s hardly a big deal in this situation, since if Zagreus is killed, he pops right back up from the fancy blood fountain in the office.
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Naturally this setup segues super cleanly into repetitious, run-based gameplay that sees the player dying over and over while making small chunks of progress here and there. Zagreus fights his best, dies, then emerges from the blood only to be mocked by his old man who doesn’t even look up from his paperwork. Much like other roguelikes, Hades doesn’t save your progress in its dungeons, which include Tartarus, Asphodel, Elysium, and of course Styx. Every new run starts at the bottom. But while that’s part and parcel for the genre, what Hades really makes its own is the space in-between those dungeon runs.
This game takes a minimalist approach to its main setting; you (almost) never venture outside of the main office area in the Underworld. Everything you can access, which isn’t much, spiders out from Hades’ desk. You can check out a hallway off to the side, visit a shop in the employee lounge, or hang out in Zagreus’ room. The secret sauce here is all the characters you can talk to between runs. Nearly every time you pop back into the hub, someone will have something new to say to you.
It isn’t just dialogue, though. You can establish bonds with these characters and build relationships, even romance options if you choose. This includes characters you can run into as an opponent in the dungeons. Having conversations with everyone progresses your relationship, which fills in a journal behaving like a codex. But aside from that, characters will also give you Keepsakes, equipment that gives Zagreus a specific modifier to his abilities.
This is Supergiant we’re talking about here; the writing talent there needs no introduction. Hades opts to be almost entirely character-focused, relying on pop culture’s general knowledge of Greek Mythology to eschew much world-building. Instead of a large scale plot, you’re developing all these interpersonal relationships with important figures in the Underworld, and even the gods of Olympius. And each character you can talk to is full of life and personality.
Dying in Hades can be frustrating, sure. There are only four main bosses, although you can run into variants of some of them. But the boss rooms are the measuring sticks, and your build or physical skills won’t be up to snuff sometimes, especially early on. But failing a run is ultimately a treat here, as you end up progressing little bits and pieces of storytelling, including some characters reacting to the way you died or your overall progress. It’s all naturally written and the VO is top-notch, so even these ludicrous personalities all clashing together feel more human than you might expect.
Effectively, the actual roguelike part of Hades hardly matters. The game uses the roguelike structure as a narrative vascular system, directly tying the juicer morsels to so many different common genre elements. If you get a Boon from a god, they chat you up and fill out your journal. Picking up gems lets you renovate and add more furniture to the hub, even clean up after cerberus when he breaks something. Those have no bearing on the dungeon-crawling, but they add to the story. It’s the same with encountering bosses, dying to the bosses, and coming back for rematches. Even if you’re having trouble on a specific part, you’ll always find something new.
That said when it does come to combat, there’s a lot to dig into. Hades is about clearing rooms, much like The Binding of Isaac. Instead of navigating whole floors at a time or a large, open area, each “Encounter” is a smaller combat challenge, usually with some hazards or other quirks that make you adjust your play slightly. Clear the room and you’ll get to choose a door (usually), marked with the reward you’ll get when you win.
So there is an element of planning you can do, even if it’s just weighing your two or three choices with what you have so far. Boons from gods will give you passive modifiers, such as critical hit damage or higher movement speed. But they can also significantly alter the way your weapon works, with each god having a theme. Dionysus, for example, applies “Hangover,” which is really just poison. Poseidon gives many of your actions extra knockback. Zeus is Zeus.
What makes things interesting here is how many different combinations and interactions you can have. Many Boons will overlap, with the major attack changes the only ones that can’t stack on each other. Otherwise you can end up with all kinds of builds, for example applying status effects with one god’s power, another god giving you cooldown modifiers, and another giving you reward bonuses. There’s a lot of synergy, and sometimes you can even activate a Duo Boon, mixing two gods’ powers together to make something new.
Sometimes this can work to Hades’ detriment. There are so many options, that you can end up with a bunch of stuff that’s more disparate, then end up out of steam by the next boss fight. It’s easy to end up so underpowered you simply get worn out by bosses, which can be frustrating when you’re doing well otherwise. That isn’t unique to Hades, but in such an adrenaline-pumping action game, it’s natural to feel like your skill with the controller should matter more than it sometimes does.
That said, once you get things down well enough, it’s hard to not have a great time. Even if the beginning is tough going, there are persistent boosts you can unlock, which do things like give Zagreus a higher HP cap, second chances, and more. Each weapon can be upgraded, and special renovations can increase the payout for various resources. This is a roguelite after all, so it does want to see you succeed regardless of your skill level. In fact, there’s a toggle that will slightly increase your defenses every time you die, finding a sweet spot for you without compromising the game’s spirit.
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Hades just gets it right, you feel me? As we’ve already seen evidenced on gaming Twitter and elsewhere, Hades is a roguelite for people who aren’t into those types of games. Even for someone already into roguelikes and Mystery Dungeon, I’m hooked. I don’t even really like the combat that much relative to some other games. But because of all the synergies, because of the loop-driven storytelling, and because of the overwhelming quality of the music, visuals, acting, and more I’m still working my way to the true ending. At the end of the day I just want to know everything all these characters have to say.
- Bar-setting character writing for the genre
- Excellent production values
- Everyone’s hot
- There’s a button to give Cerberus pets
- Weapons do that Supergiant thing where they have fumbly properties you have to get used to
- Some slowdown on the Switch version when things get really wild
- Sometimes the variety of powerups ends up being a roadblock
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher/developer for review