Living during a pandemic is hard and stressful, so a lot of us have turned to entertainment to escape the current harsh realities. I’ve been playing a lot of games recently, both of the tabletop and video varieties. But no videogame has grabbed me quite like Supergiant Games’ latest release: Hades.
The premise is simple: you are Zagreus, prince of the Greek Underworld and son of Hades. Your mission in life is to escape from your father’s oppressive regime and join the rest of your family up in Olympus. To do this you have to fight your way out of the Underworld using special infernal weapons, growing more powerful after each attempt as you become more skilled at the game and unlock new passive bonuses. This is a rogue-like game where frequent deaths are part of the experience. But you will get better, and you’ll also get rewarded for your perseverance.
I typically don’t like rogue-likes very much. I played a bunch of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth but never really got very far. I played some Rogue Legacy but didn’t really get along with it. And FTL mostly just stressed me out so I didn’t play that one very much. But I’ve played Hades for about 12 hours since starting it in February and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.
What really fascinates me about Hades is its novel approach to narrative in rogue-like game design. You see, character upgrades and unlocks are not the only things you get as rewards for making progress in the game. After every failed escape attempt you get to go around the palace of Hades and talk to a variety of people. They’re usually in the same places as usual, but sometimes they’ll have moved. Heck, sometimes they’ll be absent altogether. They’ll also frequently have something new to tell you, giving you new information about Zagreus and his circumstances. Sometimes they’ll let an interesting factoid about themselves slip as well. It’s these little snippets of story and character-building that make Hades feel so rewarding to play.
Gameplay-wise Hades is a greatest hits combination of Bastion and Transistor, taking the twitch-reflexes and agility from the former and careful planning and tactics from the latter. Combat is in real-time, requiring liberal use of the Dash to avoid attacks and environmental hazards. You can get relatively far just spamming the Attack button but to really get to the higher echelons you need to plan your moves properly. Strategic use of your Cast ranged attack and clever positioning to use the hazards against enemies becomes vital in later areas of the Underworld.
There is a degree of randomness to Hades of course. It wouldn’t be a rogue-like if it was the same in every run. The general look and feel of areas remains consistent with each attempt but the exact configurations of the levels varies wildly. The rewards you get for beating a room are also different every time, but this is another thing that Hades does in an interesting way: the doors to each room are labelled with what kind of reward you’ll get for completing it. This adds an extra level of strategy to what kind of build you want for each run. Will this be one for farming Darkness (the currency used for permanent character upgrades)? Maybe you want to get a bunch of Boons from a variety of gods and have a lot of options for your run? Or you can try to visit as many shops as possible to preserve your health for the boss fights.
I think I finally understand the appeal of rogue-likes now. This isn’t the kind of thing you knock out over the course of a couple of days and forget about. No, Hades is a project: something you chip away at over a long time. It’s a massive wall you have to tear down with nothing but a hammer and chisel. Every time you try, you get a little further and grow a little stronger so you can tear down more of the wall per session. Combining the growth of the character with that of the player makes for a powerful sense of accomplishment when you get further than you ever have before.
What makes Hades work for me where Rogue Legacy didn’t is its emphasis on its writing. The characters are all distinctive and the more runs you do, the more you learn about them. A wonderful touch is that they’ll remember previous interactions you had with them. Megaera will taunt you for losing to her or challenge you with extra determination depending on how your previous encounter with her went. When you die and return to Hades’ palace, Hypnos will sometimes fire off a quip or piece of profoundly useless advice about the thing that did you in. It’s little touches like these that make the game feel less like beating your head against a wall and more like a process you’re taking step by step, and that’s exactly what I need right now.
Hades is still in Early Access with new content being added in the form of major updates but it’s honestly already good enough to play all the way through in its current state. Supergiant Games have once again made a top-notch game that I absolutely love and will keep playing until I finish it. It filled me with the determination to accomplish something big and it might do the same for you, so I highly recommend you give it a shot!