Developed and Published by: Supergiant Games
Platforms: Switch (Reviewed), PC
Release Date: Out Now
They’ve done it again; and got me, too, coming back again and again. In Hades, Supergiant Games have crafted a masterful take on the roguelike that blends the brutal yet rewarding appeal of said genre with the immaculate, characterful art and music direction the developer is known for. I have never played a roguelike that encourages you on in such a way; not only are you seeking to better yourself on skill, but you’re motivated to find out more on the richly developed characters as well. If I was making a list of my top ten developers, Supergiant would probably be in there, and Hades is another example of why (again, a great idea for a list article there… I should start doing those)!
The story premise, whilst deeply layered within the Greek Mythology it employs, is quite straightforward in the goal set out to you. You play as Zagreus, son of Hades – the God of the Dead – and having grown tired of your constrained life within the Underworld, you set about trying to escape to discover more about your family. This means fighting through multiple areas, including Tartarus and Asphodel, in order to reach the surface and the secrets that await you there. It’s set out in familiar roguelike format; you battle through consecutive, randomised chambers of enemies and traps, with boss fights capping each of the sections; as well as this, there are surprise interludes; this includes fountains to restore health, and a shop run by Charon, Ferryman of the Underworld. If you die, you are kicked back to your starting point of The House of Hades, where you regroup (more on that below) before setting off again, undeterred.
Controls are deceptively simple; you play from a dynamic isometric perspective – it is reminiscent of previous Supergiant games, in particular Transistor – and this means that whilst Zagreus maneuvers around a open area with a sense of depth, it is in a 2D style (see the screenshots in this review). There is more surrounding space compared to roguelikes such as Rogue Legacy or Dead Cells, which are strictly from-the-side 2D and often claustrophobic – arguably to a fault. In contrast, Hades has a bit more freedom that is delightful to operate within; the game goes a long way to balancing out this extra space by throwing a barrage of enemies at you. Still, this approach does supply slight breathing room for the player, and I found it much less daunting – and, overall, easier (though not easy) – than other roguelikes, especially once you settle into the rhythm.
You have an attack and a special that are determined by your choice of Infernal Arms – there are 6 strains of weapon, from your starting sword to a spear, bow, and more. They each handle very differently and cater to different playstyles. Finding your preferred weapon (shock, I mainly go for archery) provides a sense of personal customisation to your repeated escape campaigns, especially as you unlock different Aspects to further fine-tune your loadout. Furthermore, you have a ranged cast attack, and in terms of movement, your dash is crucial to keep up momentum and avoid the smorgasbord of threats coming your way; the frenetic pace of the action means that mastering this is very important to being successful in Hades. There is then an extra ultimate-style move named a Call that you can only get as an offering from one of the Olympian Gods.
Which is a great way to segway into the Boons themselves. Another way that Hades brings distinct personality to the familiar roguelike set-up is with the way it portrays the Greek Mythology, especially the characters within it. You see, as you progress through an escape attempt, the Olympian Gods attempt to help you out; you will come across offerings from them – Lady Artemis (my favourite character in Hades), Lord Zeus, and Lady Athena, to name three – granting you Boons that affect the nature of your abilities. This may be a refinement of one of your attacks or your dash, or perhaps a passive improvement such as increased move speed. Two examples: Lady Artemis grants perks that focus on critical hits and pinpoint damage, whilst Lord Poseidon applies wave splash damage that pushes enemies aside and away from their trajectory. Utilisation and combination of these specific effects is the source of much possibility within Hades; experimenting to see the sets that work best for you is the source of long-lasting fun.
That fresh feeling on each attempt is supported by other elements too. Completing each chamber gives a reward: this could be a Boon, but also could be an increase to your Max Health that run, a modifier for your current choice of weapon, or another besides. You often get a choice of path at the end of each chamber, where you can see the next rewards on offer, again putting the initiative in your hands. Enemies along the way challenge you in different ways; at one moment you’re avoiding the close-range swipes of a skeleton, the next you’re dashing your way around incoming butterflies (no, really). It ensures that whichever set-up of skills you’re going with, you feel thoroughly tested. A subsequent pace to proceedings prevents encounters from getting stale – skipping from weapon to weapon, trialing different Boons, seeing how they work together in complimentary combos… It’s so, so enjoyable.
Importantly, this variety and sense of character is present whenever you go back to The House of Hades. Effectively a hub area that you visit before your next try, it is packed full of customisation, character interaction, and overriding charm. After appearing from the Styx, you’ll happen upon Hypnos and his sleepy demeanour as you approach the seat of Hades, who finds time away from judging the souls in front of him to berate you for one act or another – it’s not always the most healthy father-son relationship. Beside Hades is Cerberus, complete with petting option, and on the other is the House Contractor. The latter is the source of much longevity, as the resources you gather through your skirmishes can be exchanged here for a multitude of unlockables – some cosmetic, some very much gameplay-oriented.
From here you can explore more of the House; the Wretched Broker offers further options for currency exchange, fish you catch can be swapped with the chef, and Dusa – a Gorgon Head taking care of the House – is adorable. The more you progress in your escapes, the more facilities and conversations are available here, and this creates an air of anticipation for the content awaiting you here even when your fights don’t go as planned – there is a constant sense of progression that hooks you in for that one-more-go feeling. When the character interactions are so intrinsic to the feeling of reward, it means that the game needs to pack a lot in, as that approach could quickly fall apart if you started encountering repeat dialogue and repetitive systems. This, though, is where Supergiant has shined before, and that has translated to Hades in spectacular fashion.
Seriously, it is so impressive how much content is in this game. Even where I am now – post-credits and very much in the endgame – I still get surprises pop up in conversation and gameplay, and could perhaps count on one hand the amount of times I have run into repeated dialogue in well over 50 hours. Staggering detail is within Hades and goes towards maintaining the motivation to keep trying new escapes. The Darkness you gather can additionally be put towards new permanent perks, courtesy of Nyx, that affect every run – not just the one you are on at that moment. Therefore, your proficiency constantly rises and helps you to make more progress. Beyond this, from gifting Nectar to characters, you get Keepsakes in exchange that have traits of their own. You may be able to tell by this point that there are many ways to alter your experience and tactics in Hades, and well, you’d be right!
Ultimately, the narrative and the gameplay interweave beautifully to produce a story that feels as though it is always pushing on, just as you are always pushing gradually further in your escapes. At the heart of Hades is a touching story on family, and there are even multiple side quests where Zagreus is a driving force for improving the existence of others around him. If somehow that isn’t enough, the Fates’ Prophecies act as tracking for your advancement in different departments, whether that be acquiring every Boon from each God or getting two characters to reunite. There are sections later on I’m not going into due to spoilers, too! With engrossing combat and an expansive suite of progression, Hades has plenty to hold your attention.
Supergiant have really found their trademark style that makes their games distinctively theirs even as they hop across genres. It’s not a surprise at this point – Hades has artistic flair that takes all that which I have mentioned and presents it in a strikingly inviting manner. Stunning character artwork exudes eminent personality, even when static; and the models in motion are fluid and, as aforementioned, wonderful to control. The use of colour and stroke to make the world so vibrant allows the player to fall in with ease and start soaking the lore in. That clarity of art direction lends itself to the fast-paced roguelike genre too, as even when lots is happening on screen, it doesn’t descend into an undecipherable cacophony.
As much as visuals are a strength of Supergiant, so is audio design, and wowzas, the soundtrack is superb. Compared to the more dulcet tones of Transistor and Pyre, Hades is a slight departure in the more rock-oriented vibe. It’s as though the awesome Thrash Pack tune from Pyre has been expanded into a full soundtrack! Continuing on another Supergiant theme is the inclusion of heartfelt lyrical, voiced tracks, – this is another vinyl purchase to add to the collection… Similarly, the voice work throughout is another piece of the puzzle that gives Hades cohesive character, with the specific traits of everyone coming through as much in the speech as in the text itself, from the booming and often condescending tones of Hades to the endearingly sarcastic and witty Lady Artemis.
The energy of the audio suits the relentless nature of the game, and itself escalates to a peak as you get to the final fights. One endgame track is perhaps the pinnacle of this… Speaking of boss fights, they’re integral to the pace I have been talking about. They punctuate the different areas of the Underworld nicely, and include characters that impact the non-combat side of the game too; that is to say, referential and dynamic dialogue carries into these too. As instances where narrative and gameplay cross over, they’re exceptional examples of the strengths of Hades. Oh, and they’re very tough, so prepare yourself for that!
As I near the end of this review, a word on the way this game evolves with playtime. The roguelike nature is one the game stays committed to, but the way that your goal changes is part of how Hades regularly shakes itself up. Just be aware that the roguelike framework won’t disappear, even if your in-game position alters. Hades does a fantastic job of keeping this going, though to make another ever-so-slight criticism, the level at which it succeeds on that does fluctuate – never to the point of dissuading me from playing, but there was one section around mid-way where the main task felt slightly more repetitive than at other times.
The idea of a new Supergiant Games release is one that excites me, and I eagerly followed the route of Hades from Early Access to the recent 1.0 launch on Switch and PC. It’s remarkable that, even still, they surprise me as they glide seemingly seamlessly from genre to genre, maintaining their high quality and distinctive style as they go. With Hades, they have dived into the roguelike genre and put a new and unique spin on it to phenomenal success, not only nailing the gameplay cycle but giving it a personable and character-fueled element; it is currently the main contender to Resident Evil 3 as my Game of the Year. Is it my favourite Supergiant game? For me personally, no – the grace and precision of Transistor just edges it. A wonderful aspect of Supergiant is that it feels as though their releases form a lineage of evidence for how the studio has developed over time. Perhaps the greatest praise I can give Hades is that it fits into that emphatic aplomb.