Greetings, friend! Tell me: do you like roguelikes? Do you like Greek mythology? And do you have debilitating emotional trauma from crippling daddy issues? Then boy do I have a game for you.
Hades is the latest title from indie studio Supergiant Games. Founded in 2009, the San Francisco-based team has released a string of critically acclaimed titles: Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre. A bit like your favourite band, there’s a tendency to worry with each new release they’ll finally hit the “difficult album”. Is Hades that album? Spoiler alert. No.
Pyre had been the studio’s first attempt at creating a branching narrative. But they found players wouldn’t complete the game over and over, missing out on all the extra content they’d created. Clearly if they wanted to continue exploring the idea of open-ended gameplay, something needed to change. In retrospect, the choice was obvious: Hades should be a roguelike. This structure is perfectly suited to telling branching stories over the course of multiple runs. By which I, uh, mean you dying. Again and again and again. Fun!
The setting is a stroke of genius. Greek mythos is a rich seam of characters and stories, and Supergiant has mined it for everything it’s worth with Hades. You play Zagreus, son of titular Dad-God Hades, a brooding parental figure who looms large in his offspring's life. Zag has grown tired of the endless drudgery and expectations foisted upon a son of hell, and yearns to explore the world beyond the Styx. Dad is at first dismissive, and eventually outright hostile towards his son’s dream. It’s not the anger that hurts; it’s the disappointment. I genuinely found the relationship quite painful, and it’s a brilliant motivator to keep on trying, no matter how many times you fail.
While the interaction between father and son drives most of the narrative, there is a dizzying cast of other characters to meet. Cool and distant Megaera, ditzy gatekeeper Hypnos, taciturn boatman Charon, floating gorgon head Dusa (who is so painfully adorable that I cannot even)... And that’s only some of the Chthonic characters. You’ll also encounter residents of Olympus — Zeus, Athena, Hermes, and others — while you attempt to escape. All have distinct personalities and interactions with Zag and even each other. Greg Kasavin, lead writer, compared the cast of characters to “a big dysfunctional family we see ourselves in”. Truly, it’s an extravaganza of characters and Supergiant has absolutely nailed it.
But how does it play? Hades doesn’t disappoint. It’s presented in a gorgeous isometric style, and the colours, animation, and atmosphere jump out of the screen. It’s like a well-seasoned meal; everything is expertly balanced, and you never lose a sense of what’s happening. This is especially important for combat which is, simply put, superb.
On the surface, fighting seems simple. You have a main attack, a stronger secondary attack, and a “cast” (a sort of ranged spell). You can also dash. That’s it. But it’s put together with such deft subtlety it truly shines. For example, hit an enemy and you get the tiniest smidgen of slow-mo, not enough to be super noticeable, but just enough to let you feel the hit and have a split-second to plan your next move. Unlike some roguelikes, where you start super weak and gradually become more and more powerful, Zag is the son of a freaking God. You can zip around levels at warp speed, nonchalantly destroying your enemies. But with power comes vulnerability; it only takes a few missteps and you’ll be dragging yourself out of the blood pool to try once more. Yup. A blood pool. Even the rebirth mechanic is a part of the wider story and setting.
It’s easy to find yourself getting exhausted with some roguelikes. Because you’ll be trying over and over again, the core gameplay loop is absolutely key to keep players engaged. In Hades death is less failure, more learning experience. The further you ascend from the depths of hell, the more challenging enemies become. The first time you meet something new is an exciting opportunity to die horribly, only to make it back and kick that boss's ass second, third, or fourth time around. You’ll also continually bump into friendly characters over and over, gradually uncovering more and more about the world, like a paleontologist brushing dirt off a hip bone.
Of course, you can’t talk about a Supergiant game without mentioning the sound design. Darren Korb, well known for his previous work with the studio, has once again put his midas touch onto Hades. He’s crafted a soundtrack which elevates every aspect of the game. The tunes are Greek-ish, but they never slip into farce. It’s a carefully crafted selection of ultra-listenable tracks, and I still get goosebumps every time the boss music kicks in. I highly recommend checking out his Bandcamp page, which is chock full of auditory goodness.
The voice acting is also superb, as you’d expect with such a rich casting of characters. Logan Cunningham, of gravelly voiced Bastion fame, returns again voicing multiple characters. The quality is just as high with all of the other characters, and the performances are full of nuanced emotion and humour.
Hades has a dizzying array of weapons, boons, trinkets, hammers, armchairs, and sheet music to unlock. At the time of review I’ve played around forty hours and still have plenty left to do and see. I don’t know what else to say: this game presses all of my buttons so expertly that I’m left in awe of what Supergiant has achieved. Even if you’re not a fan of the roguelike genre, you owe it to yourself to try out this title.
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