An entertaining romp through the underworld
It's been nine years since Supergiant Games released their debut title, Bastion, as part of the 2011 Xbox Summer of Arcade; but after a nearly decade-long sojourn, the studio has finally released their next truly great game. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed Transistor and Pyre - two games that saw Supergiant stretch their legs and explore a much different kind of gameplay from their landmark debut title. Many developers experiment after making their initial splash, but Transistor and Pyre felt truly original. They were strange and divisive. Hades is a much simpler concept - in gameplay, structure, and its world. Roguelikes have been a dime a dozen in recent years, and the world of Greek mythology has been thoroughly explored in all kinds of media. In fact, Hades is so simple, it almost feels like a reaction to the last two Supergiant titles, like the studio needed to return to its action roots - a re-centering designed to remind people just how talented this team is. Paul Hollywood of The Great British Baking Show will often tell contestants, it's not bad to make something that's simple, but it has to be perfect - Hades isn't perfect, but its simplicity certainly allows for an exceptional game.
In Hades, you play as Zagreus, the son of Hades who is attempting to flee his father's kingdom and ostensibly reach his extended family of deities on Mount Olympus. His father isn't thrilled with the idea and sends underworld minions to stop his only son. Zagreus battles the hordes and is constantly killed, being forced to respawn in his father's house time and time again. Roguelikes are notorious for weak plots - usually using hand-wavy storytelling to explain why you're being forced to repeat the same dungeons over and over. Hades uses Zagreus' immortality and his never-ending attempts to escape his father's dominion as context for the gameplay. There's not enough actual plot to make this work - just a lot of world-building and exposition, but it works well enough.
The world of Hades is perhaps what's most interesting. Zagreus treats the halls of his father like a high school senior eager to put their old hometown behind them and head to college. He doesn't hate his home, he has some friends, an ex-girlfriend, an ex-boyfriend, an old hangout, and a supportive mother figure whom he appreciates, but he's outgrown this place and is ready to move on. The relationships do get a little tired at times; Hades and Zagreus banter back and forth with a dynamic that rarely changes. The story especially runs into pacing issues in the end game. Not only do you have to beat Hades, but you have to beat it about a half-dozen times to get the “real” ending - which isn't all that impressive.
What is impressive is how Hades plays. This is the closest Supergiant has come to making a successor to Bastion and it feels great. Each run offers a limited heath pool that can only regenerate at certain points, and enemies grow stronger the further you get. As Zagreus battles the underworld, he'll have a handful of different weapons he can choose at the beginning of his run, but all of them have an attack, a special attack, a cast (a projectile magic attack), a dodge, and a call (an ultimate attack). The standard moveset makes it easy to switch between weapons, mastering each one. The game finds other ways to incentivize changing up weapons, like giving you bonus rewards when you defeat bosses with a different weapon each time or bonus items you can use to purchase upgrades. Still, as I was dying over and over, I found that I tended to favor the bow weapon more than anything else, appreciating the range it gave me. So while Hades wants you to change things up, you'll probably find a favorite weapon to stick with. The moveset feels powerful, yet nimble, the appropriate balance for a young godling like Zagreus. It's a fine-tuned gameplay experience, that is probably one of the best you'll find this year.
As I've said, in Hades you'll die again and again. Progression is best-measured through the upgrades you can obtain - and there are a lot of them. As you battle through each dungeon, you'll receive boons which are special abilities given to you from the gods of Olympus. The specific buffs being tied to the gods themselves - for instance, Zeus will likely give you the ability to chain lightning to your attacks or have enemies struck by lightning when you dodge. You'll also collect multiple kinds of currency, some that can be used to purchase temporary boons or other upgrades to help your current run, and some currency for upgrades that are permanent. Those permanent upgrades are what you rely on to keep getting further and further away from home with each run attempt.
The temporary boon system is often a lot of fun. The game constantly is giving you hard choices about what gods to favor and gambling on what boons to accept. You may want a health upgrade to keep you up longer, but it'll be difficult to pass up that Athena boon that may grant you a deflection ability. These tricky choices are the best part of a good run, constantly tweaking your Zagreus to give you the best possible chance at defeating your father and escaping Hades. That said, sometimes I would get frustrated at the options being given to me or annoyed I couldn't get the items I was looking for. Such is the plight of the procedurally generated game - the randomness can be a point of frustration.
The game looks fantastic. If you've played any of Supergiant's other titles, you won't be surprised. The gang's all back together for the same look, style, and sound that the studio is so well known for. The playful, colorful, yet striking character design meshes seamlessly with the pantheon of Greek gods, almost as if artist Jen Zee was made to take on the challenge. The voice cast is incredible with composer Darren Korb lending his talents to the main character Zagreus and (a personal favorite) the punching bag character, Skelly. That would be impressive if Supergiant veteran, Logan Cunningham, wasn't showing off his vocal range by voicing the titular Hades, Poseidon, and sad-sack Achilles. The characters all are memorable and well-developed, with great performances all around. Yet, the true star of the game is Korb's score that is a mix of his signature soft and gentle ballads and furious guitar riffs that wouldn't be out of place on a heavy metal rock album - I got some major System of a Down/Breaking Benjamin vibes. This team has been working together for so long, their style has become so refined, you'd think that it'd be a little boring by now. Yet, taking something as familiar as Greek mythology and adding the well-honed Supergiant spin to it, is enough to keep things fresh.
Hades doesn't have many technical issues and saves your progress after every room - which is great. I did have the game crash once while playing on my Nintendo Switch, but when I loaded it back up I was back in the exact same room, losing no progress at all. Playing so tightly, being so exacting, it's good to know that you won't run into any frustrations with losing progress. The game also loads quickly and runs quite smoothly even when undocked.
Hades isn't perfect - the story kind of putters out quickly and I did find myself grumbling about the randomness of the dungeons, meaning that I couldn't always get a build I was happy with. That said, it plays so tightly and paces out the progression of each run so intelligently, it's an absolute delight to play. If you thought Dead Cells was a devilishly enjoyable experience, Hades is a game you're going to salivate over. The design of the dungeons, the way the sections of the game change to challenge you in different ways, the way you debate between short-term advantages and long-term goals - it's a brilliant mix of game design and refined gameplay. Then you bring in that Supergiant aesthetic with its vivid colors and distinct art-style, the brilliant voice acting, and thunderous rock-opera soundtrack - what more do you need?