Video Game Review: Hades
Who knew Hades would be so hot?
While some developers and publishers pump out content as quickly as possible, others take a decidedly more deliberate approach. One such purveyor of “quality over quantity” is Supergiant Games, which put itself on the map with 2011’s Bastion, followed that in 2014 with the excellent Transistor and then released Pyre in 2017. That three-year gap seems to be the sweet spot for development as now PC and Nintendo Switch gamers are getting to play its fourth title, Hades, a roguelike ARPG.
In football you’ll sometimes hear the phrase “illusion of complexity,” and in a sense that’s an apt description for the way Hades handles combat. For as much ass as you’ll be kicking, you only really employ four moves: a standard attack, a special attack, a ranged “cast” and a dash. And yet from those humble roots spawns a game that never feels simple or repetitive. It’s a neat trick, and one that Supergiant deftly pulls off by incorporating roguelike elements.
Each run begins with a random god bestowing a handful of possible gifts upon you and allowing you to select one. For example, you might be offered a more powerful standard attack, a special that inflicts a status effect and a unique dash (such as one that deflects incoming projectiles or one that leaves behind a damaging flurry in its wake). As you go forward you’ll get more chances to receive new gifts or replace/enhance existing ones. By doing this your basic set of moves is altered with interesting traits on each run.
You’re sure to have your favourites, and getting the ones you like is clearly beneficial to having longer runs, but we never felt like we were given poor gifts that set us back. Instead it might simply force you to alter your tactics, which helps keep the game fresh. There is a little awkwardness now and then with the default control layout, but that can be remapped.
Viewed on a full-sized HDTV, Hades is a colourful and visually arresting game as you ascend through various levels of the underworld. There are also visual effects aplenty as you dash across rooms, dodging attacks and striking down your enemies. In fact, things are so busy that we had trouble tracking everything on Switch screen — others may not find it an issue, but after only a couple of runs we decided to stick with the docked version.
One of the more interesting hooks at play here is that there’s a lot of story to be meted out via conversations with the various gods and other personalities from Greek mythology. Each one is fully voiced by steady performances that help stave off any frustration from your umpteenth failed attempt. The soundtrack accompanies the action effectively.
On its surface, Hades offers up a very simple tale. You play as Zagreus, the son of Hades, and you want to escape the underworld. While your father dismisses the notion as impossible, others are willing to aid in the quest, bestowing gifts upon you. However, there’s far more to the story, which you’ll unlock with each failed, and eventually successful, escape attempt.
It’s here that Hades is able to elevate itself above most roguelike titles, in essence rewarding your failures by providing pieces of your past through conversations with heroes and gods. Each time we were struck down trying to flee the underworld, our frustration was minimized by knowing that more of Zagreus’ tale was about to be revealed. It’s very well done.
Of course, in roguelikes, creating a compelling, repeatable experience is how success or failure is ultimately judged. Thankfully, Supergiant Games has that covered as well, tossing out something that feels challenging but never unfair. The rush from defeating bosses for the first time and edging ever closer to the inevitable escape is great, and the way the game makes adjustments as you grow stronger to maintain the challenge are smartly implemented.
Each run begins with you selecting a primary weapon and then receiving a starting gift from a random god. From there, things are randomized, and each cleared room will earn you a reward: another gift, an upgrade, more health, currency and so on. Most items will only stick with you until your death, but there is also persistent loot like keys (used to unlock new items) and darkness (used to purchase permanent upgrades). It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s still effective.
Hades is an excellent roguelike, featuring a satisfying and sustainable gameplay loop while also providing enough narrative incentive to make deaths not feel like failures. If you hold any affinity for the genre this is a must own.