Years ago when I first played Bastion, I remember being drawn in by the ever present narration, the overwhelming amount of options, and the soundtrack more than anything else. The same would go for Transistor, whose gameplay became even more unique and its story more tight and investible compared to its predecessor. Both of those gems are on Switch now and are worthy of your time, but they’ve just gotten some steep competition for it thanks to developer Supergiant Games’ latest – Hades.
Though there are more rogue-likes than I can count out in the world, rarely do they look this good or come with a pedigree this consistent (which also includes the sadly-not-on-Switch Pyre). As a fan of the developer I knew I’d be taken with Hades and its Switch announcement and surprise release have been a blessing. It doesn’t reinvent the genre but stands as an exemplary sample, and offers enough narratively, sensory, and mechanically to stand amongst the best.
Taking abundant inspiration from Greek myth, Hades concerns the little known godling Zagreus. Son of the titular god of the dead, you control him as he attempts to escape the house and realm that share his father’s name.
Both of these deities being proud and stubborn, this task becomes a Heraclean labor as the paths and chambers to the surface change every time and swaths of enemies stand in your way. As an immortal, death merely sends Zag back to his father though each attempt gives you resources to become stronger and improve your chances next time.
Though Hades himself may oppose you, you do have allies both within his realm and from the gods of Olympus. They each offer their aid in different ways, with the Pantheon providing boons that enhance your base skills both directly and passively. Spread across nine Olympians, the amount of specific skills and combinations is staggering and, combined with the changing layouts and situations, make the game replayable over and over and over again.
While this sort of kit building isn’t new, it’s how Hades makes the basic tools such a solid foundation and then kicks open the door with thousands of possibilities that keeps me coming back. Along with your basic attack and a more powerful special, you have a long range projectile called a Cast and a dash to get out of (or into) tight situations better.
They can get the job done during the game’s earliest points but soon you’ll be adding effects like lightning that jumps from one foe to another courtesy of Zeus, or add knockback to attacks from your uncle Poseidon. Depending on your preference (and what pops up during a run) you can either focus on making those more potent (now foes who are knocked back take damage over time when they move for a bit, or that chain lightning is more powerful) or you can grab as many different kinds of abilities as you can to become a varied but less specialized force.
Many of the occurrences during an escape attempt are out of your hands and up to fate, but it’s how you handle the choices offered to you along the way that makes the difference. Every time you move from one room to the next you’ll know what’s waiting for you as a reward. It could be a godly boon, or items that make those boons stronger, or more max health, or a currency / resource that’ll better your chances in the long run. I’ve definitely had “I shouldn’t have done that…” moments after entering a room but those instances can turn into a chance to swing the odds in your favor and climb upward from your mistakes. There have been unexpected difficulty spikes here and there, but never have these nuances felt unfair.
Out of Tartarus
It’s one thing to keep seeing new things, but another altogether to keep enjoying them. Though I’ve had to step away, I’ve never wanted to stop playing Hades since I’ve started. On top of the various godly boons, there are multiple weapons (each with their own unlockable modifications), the way you spec your own stats via blessings from the embodiment of night herself, trinkets gifted to you from other characters, and special chambers to unlock over time. In the several hours and dozens of runs I’ve played, nothing has ever felt repetitive.
While the gameplay’s infinitesimal enjoyment is one thing, the game does an incredible job of being interesting from a narrative perspective. This is antiquity at its finest, adding an inherent layer of drama (in the cultural sense) and gravitas. Zagreus is fueled by admirable and understandable, but admittedly selfish reasons that leave those who care about him most behind. He may be courteous and appreciative of their help but he gains favor with the Olympians not out of their good will, but through half truths. And Hades himself is not an evil figure but a tragic one – a beleaguered bureaucrat with a massive chip (and pauldron) on his shoulder who lets pride and envy lead him to abuse his progeny.
By attempting to escape Hades you gain chances to talk to other characters, progressing your knowledge of them. Some, like the hero Achilles, are guiding and helpful figures. Others are less empathetic to your plight and chide you for your folly, like death himself, Thanatos. By fostering these relationships over repeat conversation and occasional gift giving, you’re treated to line after line of well written characterization and ear-stroking voice work. Supergiant have always delivered on both of those, from Bastion’s narration to Transistor’s solemn humming, but they’ve truly outdone themselves here on all fronts.
While it’s possible to understand Hades as a game after just a few runs, it paces itself well in terms of introducing new features and characters that can shape those underworldly jaunts. I’m still being given new options to customize weapons, and can keep improving my relationships with its cast. Even when I finally reached the surface there were still new things to see and do, and for those comparative types certain stats are kept such as number of attempts made, enemies slain with certain weapons, and best times.
Just as I struggle to put the game down I struggle to find anything to complain about. The character art and music in their titles are another highpoint for Supergiant, and Hades has exceeded my expectations. If I had to reach for criticism, it’s that there are only four “levels” in terms of visual variety. The number of bosses is similarly low, though the ones that do appear have variations that start to appear on later runs.
I’d also have enjoyed seeing more deities (to fill out the Pantheon) and mythic figures (either as bosses or as allies) included. A way to influence certain characters to appear so I could improve my relationships with them quicker would also have been helpful. That and decorating the House of Hades are the only aspects of the game that feel remotely grindy, though they’re also separate from the core gameplay if you’d prefer to ignore them (not that I’d suggest doing so).
Even then, though, Hades does an admirable job of dare-I-say tricking you into making progress towards its more costly unlockables. Maybe you see you need a few more Chthonic Keys to access more skills and decide to make those your first choice any time they appear. As you’re aiming for them you’ll likely pick up more Darkness and Gemstones without even thinking about it, fueling other long term purchases. I’ve not hit a plateau on this feedback loop, and even if I do eventually (or the numbers simply get higher and higher) it was enough to get me hooked early on – as such, no run has ever felt “just because”.
In the Blood
If you’ve read this far and aren’t convinced that Hades is a must have on your Switch (or PC, if you prefer) then I’m sorry to inform you’re already dead yourself. Now on their fourth release, Supergiant Games have proven themselves masters of interweaving narrative and gameplay. Though their previous games were rooted more in a singular, linear experience that offered plenty of choices and customizations, they’ve found a way to bring that excessive excellence to a never ending rogue-like.
Rarely do I comment on a game’s price as a point of interest either, but for $24.99 base price this is an absolute steal worthy of any mythic trickster. If the game doesn’t sound like your particular taste or you’re worried about difficulty from the frequent deaths or hellish thematics, don’t be. Though there’s more depth than I can adequately introduce, Hades is a game with enough going for it to make up for perceived shortcomings of the genre and is accessible in its depth. Put even more plainly, Hades is a god-like game and deserves to be heralded as such.Leave a Comment
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: September 17, 2020
Categories: Action, Adventure
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Developer: Supergiant Games