Supergiant Games is one of those developers whose name guarantees quality. From their first hit, Bastion, which earned an Editor’s Choice from me, to Transistor and Pyre, you can always count on sharp game balance and quality presentation. Hades has had generous time out in early access to earn free QA and fine-tune itself before release, and the end product is nothing short of a gift from the gods.
Now that you’re done rolling your eyes, let me tell you about Hades. The plot is fine and straightforward. Players control Zagreus, son of Hades (god of the Underworld), as he throws himself onto the path to the surface time and time again until he escapes. Hades doesn’t like this, so he tries to stop his son from going against his wishes.
In truth, the plot is ho-hum, but the characters make the story far more enjoyable to take in. Who doesn’t love Greek mythology? Every god and denizen has a fun personality bolstered by top-tier voice acting. Whether it’s grim sentiment, playful banter, or groans, every character brings the Underworld to life and makes it a place worth exploring for writing alone. In fact, the characters are so fun that I always give them a certain consumable that only results in a few lines of dialogue and no gameplay progression, when I could instead exchange it for other goods that could enhance my character. If that isn’t an endorsement of the personalities on offer here, I don’t know what is.
Speaking of enhancements, this is an RPG, isn’t it? The action gameplay is roguelike in nature, so players will find themselves hacking, slashing, and accruing random upgrades until they inevitably die, only to use some loot that carries over to make Zagreus just a tad bit stronger, and so on. While that sounds repetitive (it is), the game almost never feels like a grind. Every run introduces new lines of dialogue when certain upgrades are picked up, the occasional new encounter, and an opportunity for players to learn how to customize and use their weapon of choice, which is important because Hades has a pretty decent skill ceiling.
Essentially, players enter a room with random enemies in it. Once all the enemies are killed, a bonus drops. Typically, this bonus results in three randomly chosen perks in relation to a particular god. For instance, sometimes players can enhance the backstab damage of their weapon, change how a castable perk works entirely, or gain an additional dodge charge. Once the item is retrieved, players can decide which door, out of up to three, they want to go through. Above each door is an icon that details which god or item is associated with that room. Initially, these icons are nearly meaningless, but after a couple hours, players will begin to learn what sorts of perks they can expect from each item. This flow continues until players reach that layer’s boss. Rinse and repeat until Zagreus dies or reaches the surface.
The gameplay is frenetic and demands your attention. No matter what weapon is used, players can customize a build to their liking and overcome a variety of enemies that boast truly unique attack patterns and movements. Upgrades outside of runs alter Zagreus and the dungeon in expected ways, like starting with additional gold or improving damage under certain conditions, but other changes can meaningfully impact how players observe and interact with the environment. While the game doesn’t change in any drastic way, Hades provides players with enough extra goodies to keep their attention.
If I’m to be honest, though, Hades doesn’t play well in long sessions. I’ve spent hours in one sitting doing run after run, and while I still enjoy myself, the game loses its charm. This is likely because, while the game changes frequently, each excursion can run together if players don’t make any headway. Some bosses can feel like gatekeepers with certain weapons and tissue paper with others. Losing right before the finish line three runs in a row with no meaningful upgrades available can make Hades seem like a Sisyphean effort.
But practice with each weapon improves your efforts, and soon enough, you earn currency to perk Zagreus up just a bit more. Victory is assured — eventually. Upon “beating” the game, players will find much more to accomplish and a seemingly never-ending supply of secrets to uncover. Hades is certainly not lacking for content, and Supergiant Games stuffed it full of quality.
Musically, Hades is passable. Similarly, its visuals won’t wow anyone. The art direction will appeal to some a great deal, but compared to modern games, Hades looks good enough to keep your attention. As you might expect, the controls are seamless; they have to be in a game like this. I have yet to find even one instance of damage or death where I thought the game wasn’t playing fair. No, every death is my own, and I embrace it as a learning experience.
Hades is a game for almost everyone. The only people I could see not getting struck by Aphrodite are those who can’t stand procedural generation or action games at all. If you’ve got even a cursory interest in roguelikes or action RPGs, you absolutely cannot pass this game up. Its only real shortcoming is the less-than-stellar story, which is a first for Supergiant Games. Rest assured, the gameplay, characters, secrets, and customization more than make up for a lack of a gripping narrative.