Supergiant Games has developed a reputation for creating quality indie titles without the necessity for high definition graphics or ridiculously long playtimes. Instead, past games put an emphasis on excellent voicework, intriguing stories, and unique game mechanics to carry their players through an experience that may only take a few hours to complete.
In the case of Supergiant’s newest game, Hades, the mechanics may not be all that new for the roguelike genre, but the storytelling is something to behold. Lending reason to the repetitive nature of roguelikes, every action and recurrence happens for a reason within the story, allowing for some interesting relationships to form and dialogues that look at death as a very temporary state in the Underworld.
You play the part of Zagreus, the son of Hades and Persephone from Greek mythology, as you try to make your escape from the Underworld in order to meet your mother and find answers for your abandonment. Starting out each run in the offices of Lord Hades, you quickly build relationships with the regular staff and denizens while learning a bit more about what makes Zagreus want to leave.
And leave he does, as every run represents one more escape attempt to get out of the Underworld and up to join his relatives on Mount Olympus. While making these escapes, Zagreus is aided by other major Greek gods, looking to help him stick it to Hades, who seems to be maligned by just about everyone but his own staff.
Along with those Gods, a few of the “locals” in the Underworld may also lend a hand, giving buffs and creating further stories and relationships to build upon. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Hades is how it never loses sight of that story-telling charm. Every person bears an original personality with their own conflicts and ties to the people of the Underworld, and those ties unfold as you continue to try and break out.
Perhaps a roguelike isn’t the best conduit for a linear story, but it’s precisely what makes this game so endearing. Death is just another opportunity to chat with your stepmother Nyx, or maybe you want to add some renovations to the office. It keeps the frustration of losing progress to a minimum while also advancing the lore in meaningful ways.
In terms of gameplay, Hades has a crisp feel that demonstrates the polish and care necessary for such a fast-paced action brawler. You start out with just Zagreus’s trusty sword, but over time you’re able to unlock six wildly different weapons, known as the Infernal Arms, that evolve in their own unique ways.
Combat is mostly performed through the use of a basic attack, a certain special attack, and then a cast that performs the same for each weapon. Zagreus also has a dash that becomes the cornerstone of his kit, used for closing gaps, dodging shots, and traversing pits without taking damage.
As you move through the dungeons, though, the Greek gods bestow boons on Zagreus that may alter the attack effects or buff damage numbers. Each god specializes in certain mechanics, such as Aphrodite’s boons charming and weakening enemies, or Poseidon’s boons usually causing knockback. These skills can vary in rarity and level, so it’s up to the player to choose what works best for them in a given run.
A step up from the boons is the Daedelus Hammer, which can enhance the fundamental attacks of your weapon. Perhaps the spear now fans out in three attacks when striking, or maybe your shield hits twice each attack, but it won’t knock back opponents. These changes can then shift your boon decisions to fit this new mechanic, but the combinations will only last for that one run.
On top of that customization, completing a full run then unlocks multiple aspects for each weapon. These are independent of the runs, so you level them with a rare currency and each aspect handles differently from the standard aspect you first unlock. The customization and variety seen within each attempt are astounding, and I never felt bored with the combat or boss fights since my kit was constantly evolving.
The game even encourages you to try out everything it has to offer in the form of the prophecies of the Fates. These act as overarching achievements that reward you for selecting every boon from a god, or for defeating every different type of enemy. Since these lists can be quite long, selections are marked by a scroll that denotes how you may need this particular choice to finish up a prophecy.
Deep customization and reflex-heavy combat keep the game feeling intense while you battle through the corridors of the Underworld, but it’s the moments of relaxation that gives Hades such an excellent personality. For a guy born under the heavy hand of Hades himself, Zagreus comes across as a relaxed, amicable rogue just looking for answers from his long-lost mother. Still a citizen of the Underworld, Zag is compelled to befriend the major players in the office, and only a couple actually resent him for trying to leave.
Still, every character is given life in this game, going through this experience with Zagreus, perhaps as an obstacle for you to overcome, or perhaps as a side relationship for you to discover. Every line is voice acted, and the delivery is exceptional. Characters feel like regular humans, feeling emotions, and yet hiding some truths that may expose deeper feelings.
The gods, though helpful in the trials, only communicate through one-way messages towards Zagreus. Though they always seem hopeful of his joining them, the gods also carry larger-than-life personalities where there could perhaps be a hidden motive behind all the pleasantries. The characters in the office all have mixed feelings for how Zagreus is handling a tough situation and what it means for those still stuck in the Underworld.
Zagreus, in all of his kindness, certainly feels focused on his singular goal without considering what impact it may have on him and his family. But these feelings only come to light because the story is so perfectly told through the mechanics of a roguelike. If it wasn’t for Zagreus continually dying and respawning at the pits of Tartarus, you wouldn’t get to continue that family discussion with Nyx.
Playing through the dungeons of Hades feels wonderful by itself, with combat feeling hectic yet fluid, various yet consistent. Put a story full of mystery and wonder centered on the very human relationships between gods and children, and Hades is a game worth every minute of your time. Runs may only last 10 to 30 minutes, but each one gives you a clear goal on how to improve and overcome the challenges ahead.
A game about family ties at its core, Zagreus and the gods of Olympus sure feel more human than they ever have, and I can’t wait to keep digging further into their stories and bonds. Supergiant Games have a track record for telling wondrous stories that only games could tell, and Hades sure as hell continues that tradition. No matter how many times you find yourself escaping the Underworld, this game will keep bringing you back for another round.
A PC key was provided by Supergiant for the purposes of this review.
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A roguelike with exceptional storytelling, Hades brings heart and soul to a genre known for its emphasis on combat. With the continuing evolution of characters and challenges, the Underworld will keep bringing you back long after you’ve escaped.
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