Hades May Be King of the Underworld, and Also of Roguelites
Deep beneath Mt. Olympus, and far from the influence of Zeus, the god of the underworld rules supreme over the souls of the dead. His rule is cold and stern, with a vicious bite prepared for those who defy his will. Prince Zagreus has never felt he belongs among the damned. Though he lives comfortably and with considerable prestige among the riff raff of hell, he longs for more. Intrigued by the decadence of Olympus and its denizens, he decides to escape. To do that, he’ll need to die. Repeatedly. Welcome to Hades.
Escaping Hades is no easy task. Before reaching ground, Zagreus has to make it through 4 distinct regions including The Temple of Styx, and the fire soaked Asphodel. Each offers a unique set of challenges, and one that evolves with each attempt. Like a lot of games, Hades is a procedural, run based experience. What’s unique, though, is that Hades is superbly paced. From the challenge of simply playing the game, to the mechanics you’ll have to master, to the overarching story of the Prince, there’s a constant positive pressure on your back. Prepare for some late nights, friends: you’re going to be needing “just one more run.”
Each, uhhh, night? Does hell have nights? Sure. Each night, Prince Zagreus roams the Hall of Hades before commencing a jailbreak. It’s where you’ll spend the spoils of your previous run, unlocking permanent ability upgrades, new weapons, and, well, redecorating the place. There are an eye watering number of resources and currencies by the time you complete the game, and I’m going to avoid covering them all – I know you’d rather hear about how good this game is than have me churn out a feature list. Right?
The hall itself is stacked with interesting residents, including night mother Nyx, the multi-headed dog Cerberus, and the big man himself, Hades. I expected my time in the Hall of Hades to be as limited as possible – just enough to spend some currency and get back to escaping. I was wrong. Developing Zagreus’ relationships with the gods of Hades is supremely interesting. Each one has their own subplot and tale to tell, and you’ll find yourself seeking everyone out each time you return to the hall. It’s all really fun and well written, and packs the information into tiny bites. Interactions never outlasted my patience, and it kept me coming back again and again for those snack sized pieces of lore.
This Is The Run!
But eventually, the time will come to make a run for it. From Supergiant’s trademark ¾ perspective, you’ll dash, slash, and shoot your way through the individual rooms making up Hades. Each one offers some form of reward – boons, obols, upgrades, etc. – and your chosen path guides both your build and the difficulty of your run. It’s a fast and frantic action hybrid, where standing still is a liability and complacency is a death sentence. Still, you feel in complete control of your destiny. Controls are direct, responsive, and with a distinct feeling that each hit you take is your own damn fault. Each of the face buttons maps to an attack or dash, while the timing and situational use of each button press becomes more important the higher you climb. I do wish there were some additional enemies to deal with along the way, and that there was an extra area or two to explore. There’s not exactly a lack of content in Hades, though. Roguelites are naturally repetition focused, but a bit more would have been nice. (DLC? Please?)
What I will say is: it feels phenomenal. Perhaps not quite as visceral as Dead Cells, but flexible and satisfying nonetheless. Though I’ve “finished” the game, Hades is one I’ll be coming back to again and again, just because it’s fun.
You’re not alone on your quest, either. The Gods of Olympus have taken a particular interest in Zagreus’ mission, and provide boons along the way. The themes of each are predictable, but invisible dice rolls guide their strength and effect on each run. Attempting to curry favour with your preferred benefactors through gifts can stack the deck slightly, but the procedural nature of each run means you’ll generally be working with completely different powers every time. They often stack and interact with one another too, making your moment to moment build decision have lasting implications.
As frustrating as that can be in games like this, the balance is truly outstanding. Each of the gods and their boons are of overwhelming power… once you master them. It can be tempting to stick to what you know, but – and this is a recurring theme – you’ll often find that your view of things evolves with your progress.
Never feeling stalled or like you’ve hit your ceiling is critical to roguelite games being successful. Hades does this better than any that have come before it, even the fantastic Dead Cells. The key is that progress comes in myriad forms. Major milestones like escaping Tarturus for the first time yield tangible mechanical changes such as unlocking equippable keepsakes, but even less successful (read: awful) runs get you some resources to spend in the Hall of Hades, or perhaps more interestingly, more of the story.
Here’s the thing, though: Hades does a remarkable job of making you feel successful, even in the most miserable of failures. That dizzying array of mechanics and choice over the course of a run becomes a trusted ally instead of a hellish burden. After a couple of resounding losses to Megaera (Meg), I started to think more tactically about my boons and route selection. I shifted towards powers that would let me keep my distance, and that resulted in my first key victory. That’s not the amazing part, though.
Several runs later, now getting stomped by a Hydra, I realized that those crutches I’d used to get past Meg weren’t quite so helpful in the face of a giant dragon. I went back to the drawing board, mastered a new weapon and tactical set, and adapted to different boons that’d allow for success on two fronts. That’s when it hit me: any grouping of boons, with any weapon, in any situation, can be the winning combination. The balance of it all – likely fueled by Hades’ months in Early Access – is majestic.
Deadly Sense of Style
Even though you’ll be spending a good deal of time in hell, it’ll feel like heaven on your ears. Darren Korb’s soundtrack has incredible range, deftly utilizing howling synths, ripping guitars, and thundering tribal beats among softer, more orchestral arrangements. It’s excellent top to bottom, and easily in “I’d listen to this outside the game” territory.
The flavour of the music is matched only by the visual design of Hades. It all looks as though it’s been scrawled onto a piece of parchment, and yet has an incredible vibrance to it. Character portraits take cues from traditional renderings of the Greek gods, but it’s the environmental design that truly blew me away. It looks outstanding in a static shot, but even better in motion. The surfaces and monsters, and backdrops give a great sense of depth, and the use of light and shadow really struck me. It’s far from the most technically complex visual implementation out there, but it’s gorgeous in motion, and again strikes a fine balance between visual legibility and total particle overload. There are viewpoints dotted around your escape route, and I’d often revisit them just to marvel at the beautiful art of it all.
Hades is a hell of a good time. It’s tight and responsive, with vast depth beyond the surface levels you’ll need to technically complete it. It looks great, sounds better, and does a masterful job of keeping you moving forward in both story and mechanics. Hades is without doubt one of the best roguelite games to date, a new high point for Supergiant Games, and a dark horse contender for game of the year lists this fall.
**PC review code provided by publisher**
- Responsive, fast, and frantic
- Surprisingly engaging story
- Fantastic soundtrack and art style
- Could use more enemy variety
- More content would be a-ok