September 17, 2020
Developer Supergiant Games is known for creating titles with rich narratives and sophisticated themes, and one of the great triumphs of Hades is how those elements are seamlessly integrated into a roguelite structure. Through a seemingly limitless array of character interactions and plot progression, Hades seeds its storytelling over many hours of repeated runs, as you lead your character along one attempted escape from hell to the next. In addition to weapon and character upgrades, new story insights are among the most satisfying rewards. But that also means that you’ll be eager to see those plot threads resolve, and to do that, you should prepare for an especially long road.
Zagreus is the son of mighty Hades, who rules the realm of the dead with a barely controlled anger only matched by his insistence on total control. He’s the definition of an overbearing father, and Zagreus’ desire to strike out on his own feels as much like a family drama as the retelling of a familiar mythology. His quest to find a mother he’s never known brings him into contact with a who’s who of Olympus and the Greek ancient world, including Zeus, Athena, Achilles, and Medusa. The constantly shifting dynamics between these characters makes for great fun, from the sibling rivalry among the Olympians to reconnecting old flames like Orpheus and Eurydice, and I love the way story tidbits creep in both between action sequences and during them.
Each escape attempt encompasses a series of isometric arena battles, assaulting an impressive variety of enemies in throwdowns that demand precision and careful observation. The combat is fast-paced and challenging, nodding more to stylish action games like Devil May Cry than the isometric RPGs it might look like at first glance. The sense of adrenaline is always high, but there’s also a potential for encounters to devolve into frantic button mashing as you spam out every available attack to bring foes down before they can unleash their worst counters.
New weapons unlock regularly, and they can dramatically change your playstyle, from the precision of the Heart-Seeking Bow to the furious melee dominance of the Twin Fists of Malphon. The most impressive design feat is how even the same weapon inevitably feels different on each run, as god-gifted boons alter and enhance individual armaments, spells, and other abilities. As I got into the rhythm of flowing from one death into my next attempt, I was consistently excited to see how my approach might change.
Among the many familiar names encountered, Zagreus gets to know the good-natured Sisyphus, who endlessly pushes a boulder up a hill he will never top, never complaining of his task. It’s an appropriate allegory that speaks to the broader game, which kept me engaged thanks to its slow drip of character improvement and fiction, but along a path that felt increasingly Sisyphean the longer I played. I spent dozens of hours picking away at the various plot threads and chasing upgrades. It’s enjoyable, but as the hours wear on, my interest in the same sequence of chambers wore thin. I longed for a wrap-up, even as the game demanded more escape attempts. Even after “winning,” that tease continues for hours more before a proper conclusion.
The story is stretched across too many hours of play to maintain excitement throughout, but there’s absolutely a rich bounty of content to uncover along the way. Hades is a massive game, with a wealth of additional content to appease even the most hardcore of engagement. A “god mode” offers a gradual increase in damage resistance after each death, putting victory in reach for even those with a cap on their skills. On the other hand, risk-takers looking for more rewards can eventually access a way to increase the difficulty. Alternate boss fights, new weapon aspects, hidden storylines, and plenty more invite the player to get lost in Hades’ potential. These variants and additional options provide life to the game, long after the charm of standard completion attempts begins to wear out.
Even serious engagement doesn’t ensure story completion without many hours of investment, and only the most dedicated players will see the full spread of what Hades has to offer. But Supergiant’s latest opus is a beautiful and thoughtful twist on Greek mythology, flipping these old stories on their head and transforming them into commentaries on modern relationships. High-octane action gameplay may pull you into hell for the first time, but I suspect you’ll stay to find out about this eccentric and fascinating family.
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Summary: Supergiant has crafted another beautiful game, this time a story-laden roguelite that demands dozens of hours to fully experience.
Concept: Fight your way out of hell over and over again as the son of Hades
Graphics: Stylish and painterly touches lend the action an exaggerated, animated aesthetic
Sound: In keeping with Supergiant’s heritage, excellent voice acting and dialogue create some wonderful characters. The high-octane musical score is fun, but can wear thin after several dozen runs
Playability: Hades finds variety in its many weapons and playstyles, and each is balanced thoughtfully for a tight and challenging ride
Entertainment: A cleverly reimagined take on Greek mythology with fast and challenging combat, but seeing it through to the end is an endurance challenge