Now I have never been the biggest fan of Supergiant Games’ work, things like Transistor and Pyre just never really resonated with me on a gameplay level. They were masterclasses in video game presentation, and I stuck them out due to that alone. Taking a look at any of the four games from their portfolio, you cannot argue that they aren’t gorgeous. What I’ve found with each outing is that I’ve always wanted to like them a lot more than I actually did, at the risk of sounding like a snob – I appreciated them.
Hades is not like this, Hades rocks. Finally, a gameplay style more aligned with what I was looking for, married up with a Greek mythology story, dressed up in Supergiant’s finest. In short, that is my review, but let’s dive a little deeper.
As I’ve mentioned just seconds prior, the presentation here is second-to-none. Just look at some of these hand-drawn assets, all of the gods look superb. Each illustration perfectly capturing that character’s personality and quirks – Aphrodite is posing cheekily, Dionysus looks laid-back and chill, Thanatos is stern and unwavering, it’s all so perfect.
It helps then that the story told here, while nodding to the Greek myths you may have read as a child, it never relies on them to deliver the narrative here. Further reading around mythology leads to many Easter eggs however, so if you are a bit of a buff, you’re sure to find something to make you feel like a big brain boy.
The main narrative is full of intrigue as you delve into conversations with the gods, learning of their petty squabbles, and how, if at all, you fit into their world. As Zagreus, the son of Hades, you embark on a quest to break out of the Underworld within which your father has kept you trapped your entire life. Each attempt brings you closer to the surface, and allows for further conversing with your distant relatives up on Mount Olympus. This is the main driver of the story, aside from the game being so fun to play to start with.
Parchment pleasing writing
The writing is fantastic and legitimately funny when it wants to be, for example, the narrator poking fun at Zagreus’ juvenile demeaner through pointing out his messy room. Each line is crafted so lovingly that it all just sounds so godly and almighty dripping into my earholes. It’s great to hear the gods all talk a big game, sounding grandiose whilst also being typically petty and I’m especially a fan of Poseidon’s aquatic puns.
All of this excellent writing would mean nothing though with shoddy voice acting to deliver it. Once again, Super Giant knocks it out of the park, each performance is delivered in such a way that it is hard to really dislike any characters. Even Hades himself, who is a bit of a jerk, still commands the scenes in the way you would expect and is a joy to encounter. Some people might say that it is a little “hammy” at times, but I think it fits in the world they have built and personally can do with a bit of levity in today’s climate. If you had to make me choose my favourite god, it’d probably be Dionysus, the god of wine who allows you to inflict hangover on your foes, but it is a tough call, trust me.
The Herculean task
From a gameplay structure, Hades follows a rogue-like formula, but isn’t as punishing as you would first expect. You embark out to escape the depths of the Underworld and reach the mortal surface and on your journey you will meet several bosses across various biomes. These encounters do change over time, with additional dialogue based on previous attempts, but they largely remain the same in structure. What this allows Zagreus to do is create loads of different interactions with each boss and they will become characters in and of themselves, for example Theseus and The Minotaur. Each run you will gain resources for performing various tasks, there is loads to keep track of, but it all carries over into your next run, with the exception of money. This allows for the game to be far more approachable as each run is constantly rewarded and your odds of escaping alive keep getting better.
Each death, of which there will be many, then sends you back the House of Hades. Where you can speak to the residents, some of whom you may have fought on your last outings which prompts some lovely dialogue and spend resources on permanent upgrades to make Zagreus stronger. From there, you head out again, fighting through the same areas with the same goal in mind. Rinse and repeat. So, whilst it is a rogue-like by definition, it never really feels that way as the rewards come thick and fast. This might put some hardcore rogue-like fans off, but it was the perfect encouragement I needed to just give it one more go. Or several.
The view from the top
The first thing to notice about Hades is that despite being a third-person action game, it is all presented from an isometric perspective. This had me a little worried from the start. Initial fears about this perspective being imprecise soon melted away in a crimson mist thanks to a generous soft-lock-on system and razor tight controls. This makes the action totally frantic and an absolute blast, I don’t normally like isometric games all that much, other than in tactics titles (Invisible Inc, Final Fantasy Tactics, etc.) but this perspective really worked for me.
Again, you have to praise Super Giant for their presentation, all the gods are designed to look awesome and the soundtrack is something else. Oh yeah, the soundtrack rocks, in the dictionary sense. If you like metal music, you’re going to dig this, no doubt. I especially like how the boss theme song is interwoven in the preceding areas, just to build the tension to a wild finale. The Theseus track is my favourite, and provides the most entertaining boss battle of the game in my opinion. If you liked any of Darren Korb’s previous work, this one will not disappoint.
The other high praise I have, and it is extremely hard to explain – it makes pressing buttons fun. As you progress you come across random gods, like I mentioned before, these bestow gifts known as boons which grant special abilities. These are your power-ups like other rogue-like titles. This can be anything from applying status effects to your attacks, changing the form of your special or cast, increasing resistance to traps, etc. The beauty of this, the same as something like The Binding of Isaac is how these power-ups can stack and interact with one another. It makes you feel utterly untouchable when you can melt your way through a boss which previously caused you grief thanks to a unique combination of skills. Each power is punctuated with a bright flourish and grants feedback that just hit in all the right places, it just feels good when you see a combination of high numbers and bright colours in your eye balls.
As I have stated, the combat is fast and flashy, to the point where I’ve been asked “do you even know what is happening?” – truth be told, I think? It just feels so good you don’t mind hammering the ‘X’ button over and over again. It looks how I see League of Legends, there’s a lot going on but none of it means anything to me. The beauty in Hades’ visual design is that despite there is so much going on, it is all clear to the player. The deflectable hazards all glow purple, your attacks all flash a colour depending on your boons and armour always glows yellow. These consistent rules keep the combat from devolving into an incomprehensible mess.
That doesn’t mean it lacks depth though, there are plenty of skills to sink your teeth into, and there is a build for every play style. If you like to keep a distance from your foes, pick up a bow or the assault rifle (yes, you read that right), if you prefer to be up-close and personal, you’ll opt for the sword or demonic boxing gloves.
Regardless of which weapon you choose to start your escape attempt with, you need to keep moving. If you’re stood still in Hades, chances are you’re either dead, or so powerful you can wipe out the entire room with a single strike.
Greater than the sum of it’s parts
With each run being peppered with story and exposition from various bosses and gods, it makes every run feel worthwhile and consequential – this could be the one where Zagreus actually makes it. Best of all, once you do get out, the real game is only just beginning. It took me about 23 attempts for my first successful escape, but there is so much more to uncover and I can’t wait to dive in and lay the smack-down to many hundreds more undead souls.
This is only touching on the raw gameplay side, there are also relationships to maintain which provide their own boosts, ‘darkness’ that you can collect to permanently upgrade Zagreus and specialise him to your liking. There are even house customisation options for the House of Hades, and fishing, there is also fishing in here, because of course. All of this harmonises with the other boons you pick up on each run too. Hades is layers upon layers of great stuff, which when combined creates something truly special. Not unlike the many layers of hell you will battle through, it just keeps getting better the more you uncover.
If any of this sounds fun to you, I implore you to stop reading this and go buy it immediately.
This game is fun as hell. Seriously. I cannot stop playing this. Experimenting with the different boons feels awesome, the weapons are all fun in their own ways, the dialogue is a pleasure to listen to, I have so much praise. Hades truly is the sum of more than its parts. I know I talked up Dead Cells quite a lot in that review, but this absolutely blows it of the water. If you are in want for a rogue-like, do not hesitate to pick this up.