We here at Gaming Purists are no strangers to indie dev Supergiant Games’ works of passion and creativity. When the California based studio announced back in 2018 that they’re working on a brand new game based on Greek mythology, I HAD to get my hands on it. First released under the Early Access banner on Epic Games Store and later on Steam in December last year, Hades is yet another successful entry in Supergiant’s repertoire that impresses at what it accomplishes – both as a game and as an evolution of the genre.
For the uninitiated, Hades is a roguelite – a game where it’s areas and elements within them (eg. loot and enemy spawns) are randomly generated. More importantly, if the player dies, their progression is reset (minus permanent bonuses/items acquired) and they have to start over again from the very first level. While I do like rogues, I wouldn’t say I’m a fan; its an acquired taste for sure, especially if someone doesn’t mind the endless grind of repeated scenery for hours on end on the journey to become stronger.
However this is one game I would recommend everyone – even those who hate the genre – to try out. Why? Not just because the game is actually fun but it also cohesively marries narrative with gameplay, and this in turn is carried by a solid progression system which plays a role in keeping at bay any tedium the genre’s design introduces.
To elaborate: as mentioned previously, this game is Supergiant’s own take on the popular Greek mythos. Fed up with being cooped up with his stoic father Lord Hades, who’s being reluctant to answer any and all queries regarding his past, young prince Zagreus takes it upon himself to seek answers – but first, he must get out of Tartarus (Greek depiction of hell) and back to the mortal realm. All the while battling the evil across the Underworld’s nightmarish landscapes as well as his own paternal ruler of the dead, in a conflict of relationship and interests.
With Hades, one of the elements the developer aimed to primarily portray was family tension and they’ve done so wonderfully: it’s clear from the start how the son and father each believe they’re in the right – with Zagreus demanding that he deserves to know more about his real mother while Hades deems it appropriate to keep things hidden under the carpet for his son’s own good. This drama is topped with a hefty dose of spice when the other gods (also relatives to Zagreus), from his daily companions in Tartarus, like the “unofficial” mother and Night incarnate Nyx to the higher-ups at Mount Olympus promise to aid Zagreus on his escape attempts.
Speaking of which, getting out of the Underworld is nothing short of a Herculean task. Outside of the House of Hades (main hub featuring a few areas of interest alongside several other residents of the palace), Zagreus must climb his way up to the surface, going through different sections of hell, that are literally stacked on top of one another like a wedding cake.
Each layer of Hades’ realm is distinctly named and themed, with unique enemy and hazard types, like the fiery, lava-soaked plains of Asphodel crawling with hellish fiends or the peaceful, lush environments of Elysium guarded by aggressive warriors called the Exalted. Each area is beautiful, accentuated by the game’s use of vibrant, hand drawn sprite-work for most assets – in typical Supergiant fashion of course.
Their signature artwork is on show in all it’s elegant glory, especially with the detailed character portraits, from Zeus’ regal bearded form brandishing a thunderbolt, to the House-cleaner gorgon Dusa, an expression of eternal shyness visible on her face everytime you encounter her. All of these characters are not just fully voiced but they also have unique personalities; say, the purple-drenched, laid-back god of wine, Dionysus or the boatman/vendor Charon with his ghoulish features and zombie-esque growling – but all of them share the common trait of being entertaining and full of life, despite brief interactions.
However it’s only the deities from the pantheon that will actively help Zagreus in surviving the horrors he will face during his escapes; this help comes in the form of “boons”, special power-ups that grant the prince new abilities associated with that god – like Athena’s shield boon allowing one of his movesets to deflect enemy attacks. Each boon is also easily distinguishable from another, like Poseidon’s familiar, blueish-green trident or Aphrodite’s pink heart symbol. On a related note, the world building is surprisingly solid too, with gods sometimes acknowledging Zagreus carrying boons from another Olympian relative, and even bosses remarking on the young prince having turned up yet again for another impalement through the chest.
Oh we haven’t yet touched on the gameplay, have we?
The devs have combined everything from their previous efforts into one big package – Hades boasts an evolution of Bastion’s robust-but-simple hack & slash format, with the power-up combo potential of Transistor and the lightning fast pace of Pyre. The result is some of the most intense combat I’ve seen to date in a game, especially when augmented with boons. Zagreus also has a variety of weapons to avail of, each with their unique playstyles – however all weapons, besides the sword you start off with, must be unlocked via progression. In addition, Zagreus can also throw a shard (called a Cast) at an enemy to debuff them and you’ll find yourself relying on it more and more with experience to eek out every little ounce of damage you can throw at the game’s ruthless bosses.
Solidifying your weapon choice and the kind of boons you’ll go with is key to making it through to the end; certain weapons play better with a type of boon than another. My personal favorite has to be Aegis, the Shield of Chaos: it has a normal attack, shield throw, and a sort of dash called the Bull Rush which lets the prince ram through hordes in a pinch. Being a close-ranged weapon, the Shield is more than competent at making mincemeat of enemies huddled together and enhancing it with something like Ares’ boons can further improve damage output as the god of war’s abilities deal damage over time status effects. Or if you’d rather go with Coronacht, the Heart-Seeker Bow for long-ranged kills, check out Hermes’ movement and dodge boosting upgrades to swiftly flit across the battlefield.
Your gameplay can be slightly augmented by equipping Keepsakes, unique objects handed over to you by all NPCs Zagreus gifts Nectar to. These trinkets have unique properties, like guaranteeing the next boon to belong to a specific god or even negating damage from bosses for the first few hits. Bear in mind that they can only be swapped out once during downtime between major areas.
There’s a lot of build-variety here but unfortunately, you’ll be at the mercy of RNG as to which boons you get, as this is a roguelite; after all randomness is the name of the game. Case in point: each biome is fixed and so is the number and type of chambers you’ll encounter, and the game is generous enough to mark the upcoming chamber doors with an icon of the type of encounter – ranging from boon/item to unique NPC/vendor, even boss rooms.
Besides that, everything else poses an element of surprise, like which chamber contains a fishing pond (offers 1 try to catch a fish that can be traded in for one of the in-game currencies, Gemstones) or which mini-boss you might face. This unpredictable aspect might make one of your runs pretty exciting, finding boons that suit your style, while other times you’ll have to make do with whatever you find. Experimentation is key and the design, facilitates that – bringing me to the next point:
As is normal for this genre, you’ll die a lot while coming to grips with how the gameplay systems work – and I mean A LOT. Death means a return trip back to the House of Hades, your starting point of the journey – where I was poked fun of by sleep-personified Hypnos for dying to something as petty as a “rodent”. Anyways, don’t fret, you’ll retain whatever items you picked up on your last run – that includes Nectar, Chthonic Keys, Darkness shards, Gemstones and boss drops like Ambrosia, Titan Blood or Diamonds. All of them have unique uses; take the keys for example, which can unlock more upgrades in the Mirror of Night, Hades’ main progression system accessible via the prince’s chambers.
The Mirror aids in making each consequent run a little easier by allowing you to spend Darkness for various stat upgrades, like more base health. Additionally, besides the NPCs you can interact with, the House also hosts other means of progression like a contractor (for constructing new chamber properties and cosmetic furnishing), a vendor (to trade items of one kind for another) and something called Fated List Of Minor Prophecies – basically an in-game reward system that gives goodies like Gemstones or Darkness for satisfying specified conditions. For masochists, there’s also a Pact of Punishment (accessible during the next run after beating the final boss for the first time) which lets you choose different difficulty modifiers, like increased enemy spawns or lesser health perks for the player as you progress through an escape attempt; in turn, rewards include some of the rarer items. On the other hand, there also exists a Godmode toggle in the Options menu of the game; contrary to what it might seem at first glance, its not an invincibility cheat but rather increases Zagreus’ damage resistance to all sources of damage by 2% every time you die, up to a maximum of 80% – great way to ease newcomers into the genre and it can be turned off anytime.
Regardless of the choices you make throughout your journey, one thing stays constant – if you want to see the complete story, repetition in the form of DOZENS of runs will be necessary as each run progresses the main plot further. At the same time, if you wish to know more about a particular NPC, you’ll need to interact with them as much as possible and even cater to their needs for enhancing your relationship with them – something similar to Persona 3’s Social Ranks but with hearts instead. Hades provides a neat codex to keep track of all this.
Overall, Supergiant has employed a smart approach to tell the story in a pretty unorthodox manner which also rewards those who spend the time and effort by presenting them with new plot branches – all the while not compromising even one bit on its narrative-gameplay loop. It sets a new standard for using gameplay as a means for storytelling and world-building, in addition to raising the bar by a high margin for the rogue genre.
I do have ONE nitpick with the game though and it concerns one of the biomes in the game, namely Temple of Styx; it’s structurally a tad different to whatever comes before. Most chambers here are not just much smaller in size but many of them are also teeming with more traps than normal – now this would have been fine if not for the green poison puddles that certain enemies can create at will. Stepping into the goop makes Zagreus take continuous damage over time and the only way to cure it is to interact with a mandrake fountain located in fixed spots in the chamber – this not just restricts mobility (making you easy target for enemies who can attack from a distance) but also breaks the flow of the amazing, zen-like gameplay as you have to stop what you’re doing and rush for the closest concoction stand. The chaotic combat, with bursts of pink, flashes of blue and glares of red doesn’t help either when you’re surrounded by a pool of poison. A minor but noticeable dent in an otherwise magnificent gem.
And of course it would be a sin to not talk about the soundtrack of a Supergiant Games’ title – as expected, it’s beautifully orchestrated with that electric guitar the devs seem to love so much making a return. Though as well crafted as this is, Bastion still is my favorite OST from the publisher.
For fans of the company, this is a must buy without a shadow of a doubt. For those of you new to the world of Supergiant or just seeking something different to your usual palette, this is an easy recommend. Quality games, and more importantly quality developers are a rarity these days and the squeaky clean polish of just the Early Access experience was further proof to the studio’s dedication to their passion. The lore is engrossing, the characters are endearing, the combat is amazing, the mechanics are engaging and the replay value is just mindboggling. In fact, I’m positive that the Underworld still hides more than a few secrets I’ve yet to uncover; given how fun it is, I’m only happy to oblige and lose myself in its world of an endless cycle of rebirth – for, on your path to ultimate truth, death is but a minor inconvenience in the world of Hades.
The game is available for purchase on Steam and Epic Games Store – 20% off on both platforms at the time of publishing. Want to play it on the go? Buy the Nintendo Switch version from the Nintendo eShop.