Hades was the critical darling when it came out on the Nintendo Switch. Unfortunately, not being an owner of that platform, I had no opportunity to experience it. It is now on PS5, with some minor and adorable features.
Hades is a beautiful, top-down, roguelike action game that shuns the punishing parts of roguelike mechanics, replacing them with meaningful, story-driven, social engagements. Created by the talented folks of Supergiant Games – makers of Bastion and Transistor – players take on the role of Zagreus, the son of the titular ancient Greek god of the underworld, Hades. Zagreus wants to escape his father and the place itself. Using fast, beautifully responsive controls, fascinating systems for combat, Zagreus must battle his way out of the underworld.
Like all roguelikes, I was tasked with getting from the beginning to the end without dying. Zagreus acquires skills and abilities, some of which are permanent and others temporary. But I died – often. And each time I did, Zagreus learns something new in terms of story and skill. I found I also improved due to learning mechanics through play.
At the beginning of every run from the bottom of the underworld to the exit, Zagreus starts with a so-called “boon”, from one of his Olympian god family: Father of the gods, Zeus, might allow Zagreus to shoot lighting with every hit; goddess of agriculture and Zeus’ sister, Demeter, might allow Zagreus to freeze as he dashes. Mixing and matching different gods leads to fun, unexpected results – I also learned to tailor my play, since Zagreus has access to various weapons: from giant fists to magic bows. Each weapon is responsive and watching how the game handles the different systems was one my favourite experiences.
It’s fast, stylish, fun, all aided by a fantastic score by Darren Korb (who voices Zagreus himself, as well as another character called Skelly – in addition, Korb does the sound effects. No one should be this talented.)
Each level sees new enemies, requiring different tactics. I learned by play, since there’s little to no instruction or easy responses. Adjusting and tailoring my play started off initially feeling quite random – but as I grew to learn the system, I knew how to proceed. See at the end of every stage, after defeating all the enemies, you get a reward: It could be another boon from the god, upgrading a skill, adding to a large pool of experience points referred to as “Darkness” (this is permanent, thankfully, since it can only be spent after Zagreus dies), and so on. But before you enter a stage, a door will indicate what type of reward you will receive. Sometimes before entering there will be two doors, meaning you can decide what kind of reward you want and what is better suited to your current run. My tactic was to upgrade my skills and weapon damage as fast and as soon as possible. But by choosing this, I lost out on boons or other rewards. This choice is one that you must consider, but again, speaks to the variety central to the game.
Basically: I was never bored, despite there only being a few levels and stages. I enjoyed myself despite these repetitive levels – again, because it is a roguelike. Further, the amount of dialogue and discussion is phenomenal. Gods react to your weapon choices or the boons you’ve taken from other gods; friends and enemies discuss who the last creature or boss was that slayed you. I kept waiting for lines to repeat themselves but, thus far, no character has. Thus, despite repeating the same levels, progress occurs. This philosophy appeals to me and it’s why, despite shunning roguelikes otherwise, I felt my time was well spent.
Imagine every constantly disgruntled, overworked father figure, who shuns his only son, and you have Hades – a god so vainglorious, his place of work, his domain is named after himself. He’s one step away from putting his name in large, ugly gold lettering on tall structures and running for the US Presidency on the GOP ticket.
Hades’ antagonism toward his son is palpable and it’s not hard to sympathise with Zagreus and his determination to leave his father’s domain. Hades is verbally abusive, antagonistic, dismissive, patronising and, of course – as the final boss – physically abusive too.
The story manages to balance the thin amount of characterisation emblematic of ancient myth alongside a fairly substantive examination of duty, family, love, and so forth. Enemies can be befriended; Zagreus fights family members – physically and verbally; I learned more about the secrets of the underworld and Zagreus himself.
I also managed to do some light renovations and build rooms, relationships and romances. The reward isn’t merely fancy carpets in Zagreus’ bedroom or the ability to seduce some Erinyes, but actual combat mechanic benefits.
This is a game focused on conversations, arguments, building trust; it’s one where Zagreus wants a better world yet yearns to leave it. Why renovate a place you’re trying desperately to leave? Why build relationships with those who would see you dead or won’t hear from when you leave? Because, I suppose, you never really leave home – do you?
Death in the underworld
Dying is a mechanic properly used here. Unlike other roguelikes, I looked forward to death in Hades, since it is often what propels the story and uncovers more lore about the game’s world.
Of course, death in the underworld – aside from being comically and cosmically ironic – works in terms of design. Dying and retrying is not some magical mechanic that is explained away by virtue of the game’s genre, but an integral part of the game’s story and setting. Where would you go if you died in the land of the dead except back to the bottom of it? It’s so masterfully clever, I am surprised no one did it before.
Zagreus traverses various stages, though there can be no permanent map as each run randomises its levels (keeping with other roguelikes). I did wish for perhaps a minimap, lest I had to go pixel hunt for items or tools. But exploring is also essential to get the most out of Hades.
I finally understand people’s deep love for this game. It’s beautiful to look at, a wonder to play and I absolutely adored the characters. The voice performances are astounding.
Naturally, it plays like a dream on next-gen: instant loading, some light adaptive trigger responses (you can feel the response from Cereberus, the giant three-headed dog, when you pet him.)
I loved my time with it – and my ongoing time with it – and I absolutely hate roguelikes. But this looks at roguelikes, pats it on the head like three-headed hound, and proceeds to create a wonderfully unique bit of art.
Also, shoutout to Supergiant for respecting its workers.
(PS5 review code provided by Supergiant Games.)