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BLOOD AND DARKNESS, THIS IS GOOD!
This year has been notoriously terrible, and for the past month or so, I’ve been in Hell. Quite literally. Supergiant Games’ growing list of excellent games has now been joined by their recent addition, Hades, a charming and engaging rogue-like that I’ve barely been able to stop playing. It is easily my game of 2020 and if you have a Nintendo Switch or a PC on hand, you should seriously consider buying it.
So here’s the pitch: you play Zagreus, a moody dude who is sick to death of his overbearing father and wants to abandon his job for something better. Each time you try to escape you start from scratch – save some carried over abilities – and you have to fight through a series of randomised chambers and eventually overcome four bosses in four regions on the way out. Each attempt to escape is in isolation, so if you die and don’t have extra lives saved, you are sent back to where you began.
Oh, and by the way, you are also immortal and everyone in the game is too – be it: the Gods from Greek mythology such as the courteous but blood-thirsty Ares and the flirty Aphrodite who give you a hand; the doomed souls forced to be tortured for their living deeds; the champions and bards who exist in service of those they worship; your Dad, the Lord Hades.
Gathering sympathy from distant family members, you can choose gameplay changing powers and stat-boosts to help you on your way out – selected from a cast of 9 Godly relatives. You may choose to have Zeus’s lightning strike nearby enemies when you make a quick dash out of harm’s way, or stack poison arrow damage via Dionysus, the God of wine. Each of your main attacks can be spec’ed out and each ability mingles with others, opening up different ways to play. As you progress through each zone you can choose to upgrade these “boons” and by the time you arrive at the final boss against [redacted], you have a unique combat class that has been designed on the fly.
But what’s outside is arguably not even the best part of the game. When you eventually fall to an enemy you return to Hades, and that’s where a lot of the narrative heavy lifting picks up.
The House of Hades proper may seem hellish at first glance, but this is the tranquil hub world to check in with characters who are cheering you on from back home. It’s a chance to rest, sure, but it’s also an opportunity to invest money and darkness (the game’s ability skill currency) to improve your chances of succeeding in your next run. With enough coin on hand, you can invest in cosmetic changes to each part of the house and unlock useful additions to the game that either resolves character bond quests or add handy items like chests during randomised chambers that help you in a pinch.
The Hades hub makes progression feel very accessible because even if you aren’t good at fighting enemies or are unfamiliar with combat, it blunts the punishment of death by allowing you to improve your abilities and strategise for future efforts, while also pushing the story along. Hades never penalises you for being bad at the game, and if you have struggled to escape the underworld or want to continue the story without feeling cheap, you can toggle on a God mode that increases your damage resistance cumulatively when you die, making the game more manageable. Inversely, you can add difficulty increases to each run for additional rewards later on in the game, meaning those who want a challenge also have something available.
Using keys you have picked up during each escape attempt, you can invest in new weaponry from six defined classes: sword, shield, bow, spear, fists and the railgun. Each class plays differently, ranging from the Captain America-like shield that ricochets between enemies before returning, to the bruising fists that flurry between uppercuts and jabs as you zip around enemies. Each weapon has a normal & heavy attack, a short dash that can be chained with a move for quick damage and a powerful cast shot that can be recovered after a certain amount of time. Rewards from bosses can be later used to drastically change the appearance and feel of each weapon, essentially adding three extra weapons to each group.
Before you leave the House of Hades once again, you may need to consider what Godly keepsake you may equip to carry on your journey. Each character in the game – in the house and out in the combat areas – can be bribed with nectar to gift you with equip-able buffs that nudge you along in your quest to escape. For example, one trinket rewards you with a cumulative attack increase when you finish a room without taking damage, gradually but potently increasing your damage output. Another provides you with extra gold to use at frequent shop stops on the route out. With time, if you stick with one keepsake over a series of encounters, it gradually upgrades to become more potent.
Refining The Wheel
A lot of Hades is very great rogue-like fair, working within the constraints of the genre. Primarily it is designed for each game to be played for tens to hundreds of runs due to the randomisation of rooms, with each time designed to force you into making incrementally more difficult choices to make each attempt different and more interesting. There is some element of competitiveness in this game too, making each trip out of Hades a sort of experiment to see what ingredients make the best build and how quickly/effectively you can finish each run. The brevity of each run makes pushing on for further attempts really manageable. At most, an attempt could last 30 minutes if you are experienced, and if you fail, you can continue parts of the story back in Hades. The typical punishment for failure has been greatly lightened and it’s probably the most freeing feature of the game to me, having failed to get into the genre in the past.
As much as Hades is typical, there are some elements that Super Giant games have attempted that set this apart from most in the genre.
For one, the story and dialogue.
Due to the replayability of levels in this genre, dialogue, especially narratively driven spoken dialogue, is hard to pull off because you need to account for different outcomes from attempts, figuring out an appropriate drip feed of story beats to keep a player returning without feeling stale. Hades somehow designed a system to make this mostly work. Multiple hundreds of thousands of lines have been written by Greg Kasavin’s team and fully voiced by a tight cast of frequent SG collaborators. Each of these lines are broken up into bite-size chunks that flesh out the world piece by piece. Micro-crumb storylines accumulate through each return and that can be fattened up as each bond between characters become more intense. Overtime characters like Nyx, the Goddess of the night, or Achilles, legendary warrior of Greece, reveal their secrets to you and you can develop relationships with them by completing quests.
The only issues that I have with the game stem from the tuning of this drip-feed. In comparable genres like the RPG, you have the option to delve into specific storylines when you hit a story beat with a choice of dialogue lines, you also get to learn more about the backstories of characters if there is an option. Hades will often randomise story chunks unless they are crucial to the main storyline, and that makes pursuing a specific line of dialogue to a quest somewhat frustrating if you don’t land on the right roll of the dice. This leads to sometimes multiple suicide runs to push the story along; ramming the character blindly into danger immediately to get back to the hub. Each dialogue line provides something interesting to the story, but the lack of choice in story lines probably hinders and helps progression in the game.
Also, as much as I had some familiarity with Greek mythology, Hades assumes you know some of the familial drama and only hints at some elements when necessary. It’s less a flaw but a gripe where I felt I had to google some of the backstory instead of being hand-fed this information.
This version of Megaera is not a damsel in distress
What shocks me about this game, having finished the main storyline is that I am still hearing new conversations and reactions that I haven’t encountered before.
If you die by being bitten by a poisonous rat, best believe you are getting an earful about it from allies when you get back. If you romance a character, they will slyly hint at their support as they watch you progress on the battlefield. Gods bitch about their siblings to you if you have decided to accept someone else’s assistance in a run; Cerberus, the guard-dog of Hades, reassuringly woofs and whines when you speak to him and lets you give him scritches because he’s a good dog and Super Giant know their target audience; one character – a boss you face further down the road – is a dick and his smarmy face won’t change any dialogue that comes out of his mouth.
The ability to hone this game through constant early access feedback has clearly benefited the gameplay and the game as a whole and there are many things that I still need to mention briefly (as much as they are all crucial) before I finish up. So here’s a quick rundown:
- Music? Darren Korb has written absolute slaps, and the variety of his instrumental music is eclectic and consistent throughout. The multi-instrumentalists flits between somewhat Mediterranean strings and metal riffs when the need is required. Both Ashleigh Barrett and Korb have clearly developed a working chemistry over the games Super Giant have previously produced, and it’s here where arguably they sound the best. Stumbling into solo and duet performances are a real treat and a highlight (I won’t tell you when or where you’ll find them but it’s worth the reward).
- Voice acting? I touched on it, but it’s also very good. They have injected a lot of personality into each character in the game, defining to some extent the tropes and images that I had accumulated over the years of them. I quickly found favourites not only for what they gave me (Artemis), but also for the connection I grew over time with them (Poseidon but I also liked Athena and Megaera). I really have to underline this though, Logan Cunningham is really earning his money as the frequent collaborator of the studio voiced SIX characters in this game and fully deserves his award nominations.
- Art and design? Every region feels specific to each biome and every pixel of every mosaic and blood waterfall is lushly hand drawn by Jen Zee and her team. If you have played any of their previous games, you will know what to expect in terms of the cell shaded signature design they have become known for at such a high bar. Designed as a fast paced game and always on the move, every character design remains readable at first glance and varied as I progressed through the game.
- Enemies? There are challenging but mostly fair. The latter stages of Styx and Elysium have probably the most annoying enemies and the sharpest difficulty curve. With the end getting close, the foes you face are a harsh test designed to challenge your knowledge of movement and prepare you for the final battle. The main boss battles and mini-boss fights are well designed but at first refuse to reveal their tells to help you win. What at first seems difficult gradually melts away as you get to grips with each combat move – in some ways, this combat loop feels akin to it’s hellish cousin, Doom .
I remember when I first booted up the game, promptly dropping down from the house on my escape with the minimum amount of health and a basic sword, frazzled by all of the information I needed to take in. Zeus gave me my first boon and I ventured out into Tartarus, awkwardly dying as I entered my fourth room of enemies. The armoured thug that clobbered me on my first go would soon feel my sharp sword as I hacked my way out of that chamber on my second attempt, methodically dodging out of the way this time. After further attempts I upgraded my health, added an additional life via a keepsake I earned from a character and started deploying a multi-arrow bow to spray enemies from afar. I started to consistently gain progress through each biome after my 10th attempt until I again met a stumbling block.
The key is though, is that this game is not difficult for the sake of it but it does reward those that pay attention to make things easier for you. When you fall at the hands of an enemy, it rarely felt like it was cheap, it was only because I didn’t study or dodge properly. I didn’t understand the range of moves I had to make things easier and I didn’t have the knowledge of a boss’s arena to swiftly dispatch my foe. This progression in combat knowledge and narrative is what made me return each time to this game over any other in my queue. By the end of the campaign, the feeling of accomplishment felt earned as I rapidly dispatched rooms that I previously had difficulty with.
If you hadn’t guessed by now, I really enjoyed this game. Writing this review, even in the epilogue part of the story, I am still finding new things to try and more narrative strands to pull at. Hades feels like heaven to play and makes dying a joy. If anything in this review that I described chimed with you, go and pick up the game on sale right now and support a stellar video game studio.