Hades spent two years in Early Access before it finally launched proper around a month back. Those two years stand as an example of how Early Access should be done. Developer Supergiant used that time to to create a culmination of all their previous work on Bastion, Pyre and Transistor. They took their excellent combat design, unique visual style and their storytelling chops and decided to try a rogue-like, and the results are spectacular. During those two years, Supergiant constantly updated the game and talked to their players. As a result, Hades is absolutely outstanding. It’s one of the best games of the year. So grab a beer, maybe a snack and park your butt on the chair, because I’m going to tell you why Hades is awesome.
First, let’s define what Hades actually is. It calls itself a rogue-like, but the meaning of that term is hazy at best. Here’s the setup: you are Prince Zagreus, and unfortunately Zag’s father is none other than Hades himself, the God of the Dead and ruler of the underworld. In true Greek fashion Zag has complex family full of strife, and his relationship with his dad is about as fraught as they come. And so the charming, cocky Prince Zag sets out to battle through the four levels of the underworld and escape in search of his long-lost mother. Along the way, Zag’s family on Mt. Olympus lend him a hand in the form of powerful Boons, and so you might wield the lightening of Zeus or the potent hangover effects of the God of Wine and, like, partying a lot, man. And as a God in his own right, Zag can’t actually die, instead he’s simply sent by to the House of Hades where his father scoffs at his attempts and Hypnos barely stays awake long-enough to greet the shades of the dead as they shuffle out of the pool of blood.
Got it? No? Basically, you die over and over while slowly powering yourself up and learning the delightfully crunchy combat mechanics. Each of the four levels of Hades is a series of randomly generated rooms and rewards, all packed with enemies and the occasional boss fight. Zagreus being a God is the perfect plot excuse for a game about dying repeatedly, and Supergiant deftly weaves both success and failure into the story, slowly drip-feeding you both important plot points but also a whole swathe of smaller, character-driven stuff, too. There’s the destroyed relationship of Orpheus and his lost love, the tragedy of Achilles, Zag’s relationship with Thenatos (God of Death) and so many more little tales to investigate and love. That’s not even touching on Zag’s relationship with the Gods on Olympus.
It took me just under 30 attempts to beat Hades. And then it became clear: escaping Hades the first time is far from the end. To actually see the conclusion proper you need to beat the game 10 times, a feat that took me well over 30+ hours. Even then, there are still legendary boons to chase, prophecies to fulfill, Heat levels to beat, relationships to max out and more And arguably you haven’t actually beaten the game proper until you get to the epilogue. It’s insane value for money. Hades costs about £16, and yet the addictive loop and engrossing characters will keep you playing far longer than most triple-A behemoths manage, despite being more repetitive by design.
One of the things I didn’t like about recent rogue-like Bullets Per Minute was how a failed run was depressing. You’d die, and it felt like your entire run was worth nothing. In a genre where repeatedly bashing your head off a wall is the entire concept, it’s important to feel like some progress is being made, even if its just a little shower of concrete dust. In Hades, failure is as welcome as success, a chance to slouch around the House of Hades and chat with its inhabitants. It’s a chance to power yourself up. It’s a chance to hand out a few gifts. And then you tool up and head out for just one more run at 3am, having said it would be your last about 3-hours ago. Yup, dying in Hades was something I looked forward to just as much as everything else.
That’s largely thanks to the fact that Hades uses story progression as a reward just as much as it uses gameplay and character progression. There’s no rule which says rogue-like games can’t have a good story, but for the most part it’s rare to see a truly compelling narrative. More often than not, the plot is a justifaction for repeatedly dying. Hell, I still don’t really have a clue what was going on in Dead Cells, despite loving that game.
Great voice acting, solid writing and a frankly ludicrous amount of available dialogue support this compelling story of Zagreus, of broken families, of friendships and never giving up, even when your dad is literally Hades himself. The highest compliment I can gives Hades is that I kept playing, not for the gameplay, though I was still enjoying the hell out of that, but just to see what would happen with all the characters I had grown to love. And, of course, there’s Cerberus, objectively the goodest boy because he has three heads.
To tell the story Supergiant keep a tight leash on how you progress. It’s not exactly guaranteed that you’ll die at least the first few times, but the game is certainly weighted so that getting your Godly ass beaten is the likely outcome. Story beats and character developements are all tied to achieving certain things, so there can and likely will be times when it feels like the story is too spread out. During these you’ll talk to characters and get mostly filler dialogue. Its impressive that none of these repeat and its all voiced, but it’s still clear that you’re mostly listening to stuff that doesn’t matter much.
Still, the way Supergiant have designed the game means that success is almost guaranteed. Each time you head back to the House of Hades you can spend Darkness in a special mirror to buff up basic stats, the most important of which is easily Death Defiance, or basically extra lives. Unlocked Keepsakes that you’ve earned by gifting characters Ambrosia also help give you new effects like health boosts or ensuring that the next Boon you see is from a specific God. Beating a run goes from a real challenge to quite likely as you earn new ways to tweak the RNG system and buff up Zag. And even if you still totally suck at the game, there’s an optional God mode in case you want to experience the whole story without worrying about what Boon and weapon combinations work best.
The combat itself is built around the six Infernal Arms (weapons) that Zagreus has at his disposal. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but each one handles so wildly different to the others that it doesn’t matter. Take Aegis, the shield. Naturally it can be used to fend off attacks, but it can also be hurled at foes, turning you into Captain Ancient Greece. Meanwhile, the bow makes you use your dashes to get some distance, and its special attack unleashes a volley of arrows in a wide arc. On the other end of the spectrum, the Fists means using those dashes to get up close and personal for some punching action. You’ll quickly develop favourites, but what I found impressive is that throughout my time with Hades my opinions on each weapon changed as I found new builds and tricks. For a while I favoured Artemis, the gun, but I think now the shield is my weapon of choice because it combines so well with the Boons offered by Zeus and Hades.
On top of the six weapons, each one eventually winds up with four different forms, and each of those heavily alters how they feel. For example, one aspect of the Spear changes it so now when you hurl it, you can tap Y to teleport to the Spear and get a major damage buff in the process. This brings in a host of positional options. The bouncing shield? Well, that can be turned into a slow-moving buzzsaw of death, if you prefer.
Along the way there are also special Daedalus Hammers you might stumble across that again alter your chosen weapon, although only for that run. These are huge upgrades that once again tweak how a weapon feels.
Outside of Zag’s normal attack and special, there’s also a move called Cast. By default this throws out a gem which lodges in enemies, but its effects can be modified in a load of different ways by Boons from the Olympian Gods. A personal favourite variation comes from Demeter, who turns your Cast into a static laser turret.
The main things that effect how a run plays out are the various Boons the Gods of Olympus will bestow on Zagreus. If Aphrodite pops in then you might get a choice of Boons that apply the Weaken effect to foes when you smack them, while Ares, the God of War, favours Doom effects that inflict delayed damage. He also does a fabulous line in whirling blades of death that spawn on the point you dash from. There’s also the likes of Zeus whose lightening is a stupendous for fast-attacking weapons like the shield. On a run these Boons are typically limited to four Gods from the whole Pantheon, but that gives you a lot of potential choice in how you’ll be playing, with some Boons combining better than others. Some Gods can even combine powers into special Duo Boons, or you can chase Legendary Boons. The insane amount of potential Boon combinations is staggering, so even after 30+ hours I’m still finding new builds that I like.
As you pick up Boons you also get to learn a little more about the Gods as they cheer Zagreus on. If you know anything about Greek mythology then you know the Gods of Olympus have a…complicated family life. Supergiant use this to their advantage, and learning about each God is a lot of fun.
There’s plenty of other things to find along the way to help out, including Gold to spend at Charon’s shop, Darkness to buff up Zag back at the house, Gems that can be spent to decorate the House of Hades, mini-bosses, treasure troves and more. Most rooms offer two or more paths out of them with a preview of your reward, so you do get a bit of choice in how you’ll progress. Plus, there are some characters to find out in the world that offer up big benefits if you happen to run into them.
The moment to moment combat feels excellent. It’s fast, responsive and wholly satisfying. It’s difficult to describe exactly why it works so well, but as soon as you play Hades it feels right. Dashing through crowds of foes, dodging damage, dishing out attacks, it all ticks every box for rewarding combat. With that said, it isn’t a deep combat system, and does feel more button-mashy the further you get. But there’s still some tactical decisions to be made in positioning, learning how enemies attack and so on.
The basic gameplay loop of heading out with your weapon and collecting Boons is immensely addictive, and it hits the same kind of loot-a-thon thrills as Borderlands and Diablo for me. Each run feels nicely paced, making it easy to jump in and do just one quick playthrough whenever you have the time or to spend hours and hours on in a single session.
In terms of late-game content, there is, and I kid you not, a shit-load of stuff to do, all of it optional. None of it is radically different to what you’ve been doing, but if you’re still finding the fighting fun and want to see where all the characters end up there’s plenty of stuff to keep you entertained. The Heat menu adds in a bunch of difficulty modifiers, too.
I’ve heaped praise upon praise on Hades and stand by all of it, but nothing is ever perfect and Zagreus’ quest certainly does have a couple of niggles. First, I’d say the combat becomes too visually cluttered, especially when certain weapons and boons are mixed together. It’s like looking at a fireworks display going off, and in the middle of it all you’re trying to watch out for a projectile. I don’t think it’s enough to really impact your enjoyment of the otherwise slick action, though, I just think a little more visual clarity would have been great.
The other thing isn’t necessarily a criticism because it depends on the type of game you’re after. Hades is more curated than other games in the genre, keeping a strict hold of when certain things happen. Being awesome at the game will certainly let you progress faster, but upgrades, certain abilities and more aren’t all given to you from the start. Supergiant keep Hades ticking along at the pace they set, so if you prefer more free-form rogue-like games where you have all the tools from the very start, Hades may not click with you quite as well.
My final complaint is also up for debate. I’d like more variety in terms of location and maybe even a couple more bosses. The four environments that make up your runs through Hades are gorgeous to behold, but after just a few runs you’ve seen it all. The basic rooms that get slotted together repeat over and over, and after a dozen runs or so I was already starting to notice it all blur together. Likewise, as awesome as the bosses are to fight, battling them time and time again does grow old. An extra challenge you can select later adds new moves and tricks into the bosses arsenal which helps, but it doesn’t eliminate the complaint.
However, by keeping it to four environments and a small roster of boss battles, Supergiant also keep the experience feeling lean and mean. I was generally completing runs in about 20-minutes, which felt like a nice balance. And because I knew the bosses so well, there was a comforting familiarity when fighting them. You could definitely argue that too much variety on environment and rooms and enemies could make the core loop of doing run after run after run more annoying, not less.
And out of the four environments, the Temple of Styx is easily the worst as it ditches the more open levels in favour of tiny rooms flooded with enemies. In here the issues with visual messiness are at their most pronounced.
I can’t rightly do a review of Hades without commenting on the spectacular art-style or the killer soundtrack. As best as I can tell, the stunning visuals are courtesy of art director Jen Zee, environmental artist Joanne Tran and 3D artist Paige Carter. Their work is gorgeous, with excellent use of color and heavy, black shadows. Meanwhile, Darren Korb kills it with the music which is a mixture of thumping rock for the big fights and some haunting songs that feature lovely vocals.
The only glitch that I found during my time with the game was an enemy getting stuck outside a wall, but I was able to attack it and thus it didn’t stop me from progressing. Apart from that, I haven’t ran into a single issue, and the performance has been flawless. Take notes, developers.
Thinking on it, perhaps the most complimentary thing I can say about Hades is that it essentially cocked up my life for a couple of weeks. I ended up playing Hades when I was supposed to be writing the review for it. And then I played more Hades when I should have been playing other games that were in for review. I’d sneak in a quick 20-minute run whenever I could. I haven’t been this properly addicted to a game in a long while.
I got hooked on Hades for its intense, fast, fun combat but I stayed for the story and the characters. This is a game that ingeniously weaves its gameplay and narrative together, not only justifying the repeated runs but making them a fundamental part of how and why the story works. Supergiant have outdone themselves with Hades, crafting something truly special that easily stands as not only one of the best games in the genre, but one of the best games of the year. Is it the game of the year? Well, there’s still a lot of games to come out yet, but undoubtedly Hades is going to be in the conversation. Truly, truly remarkable, and only the second game to get a full five star rating on this site.