Greek on a leash.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Whoever said this, there is an element of truth to it, especially when playing video games. Mario collects coins, Sonic collects rings and Crash Bandicoot collects wumpa fruit…
My point is that the majority of video games have some degree of repetition, whether it be traversal, combat or exploration. It could be argued that the roguelike/ roguelite genre (I really can’t be arsed to differentiate between the two) flaunts and relies on this grind, yet falls victim to its conventions and limitations easily.
Harking back to the philosophy of the quarter- guzzling arcade era, roguelites can provide an immediate shot of action, combined with pick up and play mechanics veiled in front of farming for loot, weapons upgrades and ability systems, all the while balancing familiarity with variety- usually in the form of procedurally generated environments and a risk reward gameplay loop to increase your success in some way and more significantly, what you carry over from run to run.
There are some rougelites I really like, especially Flinthook, Neurovoider and Downwell. My main issue with all three, though, is progression and momentum.
While there have been many attempts at the perfect recipe for a roguelike using different thematic ingredients plus taking all of the various mechanical conventions and components to make an addictive, challenging, satisfying micro and macro experience, Hades nails it better than any other in the genre I have played. It is that simple. There is however, more to it. So much more.
I’ll go in to as much detail as I can- suffice to say that a fair chunk of the enjoyment of Hades is discovering its depth by yourself. Also, If you are expecting a slew of Greek mythology in jokes to prove I know my shit, I apologize. Disclaimer- I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Hades comes from studio Supergiant games, particularly famed for the beautiful action RPGs Bastion and Transistor.
Keeping the premise short and sweet, you play as Zagreus, the cocky, rebellious son of Hades- god of the dead and king of the underworld. Zagreus wants to escape said underworld, and Hades is incredibly pissed off. Everyone else seems to want to help Zagreus, including mythological A listers such as Achilles, Zeus and Poseidon.
Supergiant here are essentially refining the notion of procedural storytelling they explored in their previous title, sports fantasy action RPG Pyre. Taking the try, die, try again concept and applying it to the incrementally progressing narrative really gives Hades its heightened sense of engagement. Just when you feel like you’ve got in to a rut, not only will a new combat scenario arise but also a new character or narrative thread will appear. It makes the experience fresh and interesting every time.
Weapon of choice.
You’ll initially have access to one of the weapons when you first start. To unlock more, you can collect keys as you go from room to room as well as upgrade twice in any given run, but I’ll get to that in a bit. One little wrinkle of the game is that sometimes you’ll receive a bonus if you use a certain weapon on a certain run (indicated by a purple glow) which will give you a currency boost in addition to more standard upgrading, and therefore encouraging experimentation as well as practice. Whether it’s close quarters combat such as the sword or shield, or longer range like the bow and arrow or some fist gun things. They all have a magic cast and dash combo, but generally suit the hack and slash combat well, and look spectacular when taking on a large horde of enemies.
You’ll start off in Tartarus, beating room after room of enemies before meeting a boss and progressing upwards until escape. Sound pretty familiar so far?
I make no secret that while I have played the game for what I consider a sufficient amount of time to review it, I’m still unlocking and discovering layer upon layer of the different upgrades, abilities and systems to progress, and I’m still learning the intricacies of resource management which is a significant part of the experience, especially as you earn more cash that carries over, so I won’t be encyclopedic here.
There are a few elements to Hades that are essential for success.
1- boons. These are rewards received for clearing a room, based on the Olympian god that they represent. Dionysus The god of wine for example will give the enemy a “hangover”, and chip away a tiny bit of health, or various other themed attacks, which stun or slow over a period of time. Zeus boons, on the other hand, are centred around lightning strikes. As the run progresses, you’ll often have a choice based on the icon before to enter the next arena. So, you can opt to go for another key, more currency or a specific ability for instance. Sometimes though you might have the option to encounter a mini boss, adding to the element of risk/ reward. Timed challenges, such as survival or killing a group of foes quickly are also thrown in to the mix.
2- Keepsakes. These are obtained by giving nectar to a particular god, which are then stored in a cabinet at the beginning of a run and can even be exchanged later on between areas. Achilles’ keepsake (everyone knows him, right?) will reduce the amount of damage you take from the front BUT increase from the back. (See?!)
Both boons and keepsakes can be upgraded and there are a lot of stats regarding attack and damage numbers, but paying attention to resource management is both satisfying and rewarding to navigate.
Then there a few different currencies but basically they are used either during a run and lost when you die (coins, used in shops, or between areas to buy and sell) or can be accumulated and used in between runs to permanently upgrade, like darkness (purple tear drops used at the Mirror of the Night in Zagreus’ room).
I’d guess you’re unlikely to learn a guitar chord by reading a paragraph about it, so all the nooks and crannies are yours to fully get to grips with. Suffice to say that while I am by no means an expert, I am always assessing my previous experience and planning my next move. Not all runs have to be about beating enemies. Find the right character at the right time with a nectar and their keepsake is yours to… erm… keep and upgrade. Don’t have a nectar to get a keepsake or run out of cash to get that extra health before a mini boss? It’s an introspective experience. Kind of like thinking about when and in what order to sharpen a Swiss Army knife rather than an axe (I guess?).
Battle out of hell.
This is going to be a random comparison, but bear with me. Like Celeste, The Last of Us and (dare I say this) it’s sequel (in some respects), Hades is enhanced dramatically due to its narrative and its accessibility. Celeste not only made the difficulty, effort and therefore success an essential element of understanding its protagonist, but it also allowed the experience to be tailored by its player. The last of us has been criticized for being another cover action survival game, but its story and particularly characters were incredibly constructed, layered and complex. TLOU2 just had a lot of accessibility options catering to gamers with disabilities, which is very commendable. Doesn’t change what I think about the game, though… anyway, back to Hades.
Is it hard? Yes. Its often relentless and frustratingly so, but I always felt like I was improving or being rewarded in a tangible way. You also get the opportunity to chop and change certain attributes either before you start a run, or between areas. A gruelling boss battle would go from hopelessly out of reach to agonizingly close to an eventual triumphant victory.
“That’s what you get!” Exclaimed the dreamy, witty yet almost defeated Zagreus. “Damn fu*king right!” I screamed, holding my switch aloft like a WWE championship belt.
Furthermore, how the story and dialogue opens up even makes spectacular failure a valuable learning tool. The exchanges upon returning to the house of Hades, from surly punching bag Skelly to the bosses you beat to the less common interactions with characters you encounter on your journey, they all add purpose and meaning to a gameplay loop and genre that is either lauded or scrutinized for its monotony, depending on who you talk to. Some swear by it, others find it a niche mine field of quirks, perks and limitations.
Skip to the end.
Hades has become my “Chocolate Hob Nob” game. Reassuringly familiar yet still decadently exciting. I found myself having “water cooler conversations” for the first time since I played BOTW. Gloriously verbose in building the skills and collectible abilities, yet brazenly upfront in hitting the satisfying action rhythms, melodies and harmonies. It’s fluid yet tactile flow. It’s almost effortless ability to add layer upon layer of its trifecta of skills, gear and story. It’s lovely hand drawn art style, from lush greenery to hellish, bone covered death pits. The incredible broody yet crunchy soundtrack, flamboyant voice acting and sharp dialogue. Oh, and while there are ever so slight frame rate dips on Switch, taking your adventure with you is a damn joy.
Marvelously more than the sum of its parts, Supergiant has created a gorgeous, polished, addictive and fun package. Even if you are experienced but especially if you are new to the genre, intrigued by the lore or just up for some intense balls to the wall action, I’m certain Hades will not disappoint.