Review written by Ben Parry
Indie developer Supergiant have made a name for themselves by developing a series of titles diverse in genre but consistent in their striking art design, mechanical depth and distinctive utilisation of voice acting. Although their first rogue-like, Hades makes for a strong argument that this genre is Supergiant’s snuggest fit yet.
Tasked with escaping from the shifting, labyrinthine chambers of the underworld, Zagreus, son of Hades, must contend with scores of demons as he struggles upwards towards Mount Olympus, where the Olympians eagerly await his arrival. These Olympians imbue Zagreus with ‘boons’ to aid in his efforts to break free. The sheer number of upgrades, bonuses and buffs contained within these boons is astonishing, and contribute enormously to Hades’ most undeniable asset; its sheer replayability.
At its core, Hades is an action game. Before each escape attempt, Zagreus must choose between one of six weapons. These range from a simple sword to a rapid-fire railgun, and all afford a decent range of approaches to combat. The close range weapons typically result in a series of brutish melee encounters, with the long-range ones allowing for slightly more strategic but still thoroughly frenzied fights. All but the first weapon must be unlocked, and a wisecracking skeleton offers up their body as practice for the techniques required to take on the oncoming hordes. A reward bonus will also cycle between the weapons, offering a small incentive to try all of them out.
Once in the underworld chambers, Zagreus’ arsenal consists of a regular attack, a special (similar to a secondary fire mode), a cast and a call. Zagreus’ call summons the aid of an Olympian for a fleeting few seconds, and requires the charging of a gauge to use. Calls are best saved for a pinch that requires a sudden burst of localised damage, and though utilising a call with a full gauge boosts its effect, most encounters end before the gauge fills. The cast technique meanwhile is a projectile attack Zagreus can use not only to inflict basic damage, but also to trigger debuffs in targets hit with the projectiles. The diamond-type bullets launched by cast stay lodged inside enemies they connect with until they are defeated. This means that they’re useful not only on weaker demons (who die soon and relinquish the projectiles lodged inside them), but also on boss enemies, who can be debuffed to take more damage or move more slowly as long as they have a cast bullet stuck in them. The combat is snappy, and everything at Zagreus’ disposal must be taken advantage of to outlast the enclosing ghouls.
Despite the frequency at which Zagreus’ weapons and abilities upgrade, the overwhelming nature of later battles requires that care be taken to reinforce Zagreus’ arsenal with bonuses that complement one another, lest he falter before the waves of enemies and savage bosses lying ahead. That bosses are pulse-pounding even after dozens of escape attempts is a by-product of the randomised nature of upgrades. Getting comfortable or complacent with any one set-up simply isn’t feasible because the probability of getting the same set-up twice is massively low. Rather than this unpredictability feeling frustrating due to a lack of exact control on the player’s part, it actually instils both an undying curiosity as to which forks the game will place in the road ahead, and a steady flow of tough decisions as to which path to take when you reach these forks. It never gets easier to choose between a railgun special that deals 600% damage across a wider area or one that launches 5 times as many shells but for 30% less damage each.
Similarly, the agency that’s granted is more than enough to ensure a worthy build is always within reach, albeit a unique one for every run. As progress is made through chambers in the underworld, symbols above doors provide direction as to what sort of rewards lie beyond them, allowing for tactical tailoring of weapons, skills, and the chambers themselves. If Zagreus is running low on funds to buy items, a door with a coin above it will lead to riches, while other doors with symbols corresponding to the Olympians ensure particular buffs can be prioritised. The God of Wine, Dionysus, is an Olympian whose alcohol-related buffs (symbolised by a glass of wine) I often leaned towards. One of which, a status ailment named Hangover, causes demons inflicted with it to take continuous damage from alcohol poisoning.
For as varied as the cast and the upgrades are, a little more variety in terms of opponents might have helped stave off any semblance of monotony. The chambers themselves are exquisitely drawn, replete with ghostly spectators, enormous shifting cogs and crumbling architecture. This is as vivid an interpretation of the underworld as there has ever been. Though the combat is often so intense as to draw attention away from the limited range of environments, a more varied roster of bosses would be welcome. Reaching the end of the first region, Tartarus, can result in a fight against one of three sisters, each with distinct attack patterns. The climaxes of the following regions, however, put Zagreus up against the same bosses every time. That this only became a quibble after 35 plus runs is perhaps testament to the myriad combination of boons ensuring that the fights feel fresh, regardless.
Another aspect of Hades that stays fresh is the mythological cast that lend Zagreus their aid in his struggles. It’s a thrill to see what enhancements they have in store, and a joy to simply bask in their gorgeous designs. During my first few runs I found myself taking screenshots upon the appearance of every new Olympian, only to realise that there was scarcely a character in the game that didn’t warrant a capture. The clouds that form Zeus’ beard and the tree sitting atop Eurydice’s head are just a couple of examples of how the artwork manages to be detailed without becoming excessively intricate; and the subtle animations make the cast livelier still.
As you might expect from Supergiant, the performances are uniformly solid and refreshingly diverse. Dionysus’ aggressively casual intonation and the otherworldly timbre of Chaos’ voice are especially pleasing to the ear. Interacting with one Olympian after having recently spoken to another also tends to trigger specific dialogue, with the elaborate social network of the characters, and their deadpan line deliveries, serving up consistent chuckles. All this said, the piecemeal nature of the storytelling means that anyone hoping for a narrative as involved (and closely narrated) as Supergiant’s past games might be left wanting. An overarching story is hinted at throughout, but it takes substantially more endurance than Supergiant’s past games to obtain a tighter grasp of it. Thankfully, a ‘god mode’ is included to ease this process. It works by granting ‘resistance’ that grows the more Zagreus dies, meaning that deaths render him stronger. Although Zagreus emerges unscathed after every escape attempt, I can’t say the same for my wrists. Particular buffs allow for ‘turbo mode’ style adjustments to the controls, but these feel so natural that it’s a shame to lose them upon death, and have to go back to mashing buttons.
Hades’ underworld antics are scored by an appropriately atmospheric soundtrack suffused with a melange of instruments that blend into an eerie but driving accompaniment to your slayings. Many tracks are moodier than they are motivating but a handful, like God is Dead, and the ballad that plays over the credits, make a deeper impression.
The prospect of being stuck forever in an unknowable maze of traps and monsters is ostensibly oppressive but Hades’ tone is consistently breezy, and the drip-feed of improvements that can be made to Zagreus, his weapons, and even the ‘house’ in which downtime is spent mean that no escape attempt feels futile as each one bestows plenty to show for it. The regular appearances of the brilliantly designed Olympians and their endearingly natural voices lighten the mood, and the world itself is so lushly constructed that no amount of dying will diminish the desire to dive back into it for another run.
In terms of gameplay, Hades is a genuinely tough title, but it’s bursting with customization that encourages experimentation and perseverance. Impressions are rife with people struggling to tear themselves away from it, and for good reason. Newcomers to the genre might be displeased with how often they’ll be revisiting the same areas and fighting the same battles, but this is a polished and absorbing experience with outstanding replay value for anyone with even a passing interest in action titles.