Come for the varied combat, stay for the Greek god drama.
Developer: Supergiant Games
Release date: Sept. 17, 2020
Platforms: PC [played], Mac and Nintendo Switch
Supergiant games are well-known for their incredible art style and stories. I’m a big fan of their previous games, but I was still hesitant when they announced Hades, an action roguelite that combines run-based gameplay with a persistent story. How could they possibly combine two seemingly disparate elements?
The general structure of a roguelite is that the player attempts multiple runs to get through a dungeon filled with enemies and discovers new items with unique abilities along the way. There’s generally some sort of meta-progression outside of each run as well, which means that the player is always making progress towards a new unlock while attempting to get further into the dungeon or complete it altogether. If a roguelite is good, it’ll have the player repeatedly saying “one more run” until it’s 6 a.m. on a Monday. Hades succeeds in creating that feeling.
The player controls the witty Zagreus, son of Hades, as he makes countless attempts to escape the underworld and reach Mount Olympus. Zagreus isn’t alone. He is always being helped along by the gods who provide him with boons that temporarily upgrade his abilities for that particular run. Each time, Zagreus dies attempting to escape, he is transported back to the House of Hades which serves as a central hub between runs.
The House of Hades is home to many souls of the dead which can be seen wandering around the halls as ghostly “shades.” The player can also eavesdrop on their conversations and discover how some of them died. A few of them are quite funny, such as someone falling off a ladder because the person holding it got distracted or being crushed by an elephant.
The player can also converse with any gods who may be wandering the halls at that moment. One such god is Hypnos, the embodiment of sleep, who can actually be quite upbeat and cheery. The legendary warrior Achilles is also sometimes around and always willing to impart solid advice to Zagreus. The three-headed Hound of Hell, Cerberus, stays ever vigilant beside his master Hades, but is always happy to be pet by Zagreus (as long as it’s the right head).
Skelly serves as the resident training dummy. Hades can test out weapons against him without fear, as Skelly can simply reform after being defeated. There are six unlockable “infernal arms,” each with completely unique moves that ensure runs never feel stale. Zagreus starts with the one-handed Stygian Blade and the weapons only get better from there. Without spoiling any of them, they all feel great to use in their own way, even the plain old sword.
When Zagreus inevitably ventures out into Tartarus, he travels through rooms with a combat encounter. Defeat the enemies without dying and he moves on to the next room. However, the fraught path to Olympus is not a linear one.
Zagreus can choose between two paths from most rooms. The difference between them is the reward he will get after completing the encounter. It could be money to buy items from the Stygian Boatman, Charon’s shop when found, darkness that can be used to obtain permanent stat upgrades, or an opportunity to choose from two different boons. In the latter scenario, the god whose boon is not chosen will take offense and summon enemies to battle Zagreus.
Eventually the player acquires so many boons that it’s hard to keep track of them all. It’s possible to sort through them and read about their effects at any point during a run. It’s not really necessary to know what everything does exactly when the player feels like an unstoppable killing machine, until the next boss sends them back to House of Hades that is.
Each god has a wonderfully fitting personality. Poseidon is the cool chilled-out uncle everyone wishes they had, Aphrodite, in a constant state of nudity, always refers to Zagreus as a “little godling” and Hades, Zagreus’ father, is indifferent to his son’s futile escape attempts, except when he’s criticizing him for one thing or another.
Hades is at it’s best when it reveals more about these characters and their relationships to one another. Even if the player doesn’t make it to the first boss, there is seemingly endless unique dialogue with impeccable voice acting to hear. Hades also benefits greatly from the fact that one set of the unlockable items are codex entries with even more story details and lore.
One of my favorite parts of any new Supergiant game is a new song featuring Ashley Barrett, and I’m pleased to say Hades doesn’t disappoint. “Good Riddance” by Darren Korb is fantastic with Barrett’s angelic vocals.
While the combat feels responsive and intense, learning more about Supergiant’s take on the Greek gods is what’s keeping me coming back. I’m still not the world’s biggest roguelite fan (I still don’t like seeing the same areas over and over), but Hades has convinced me that I may have missed something. I’ve played four hours so far and I can’t tell how much longer Hades will hold my attention, but for now, maybe I’ll just do one more run.