The game follows Zagreus, prince of the underworld and generally chill dude, who is on a mission to escape the underworld and find his birth mother. Unfortunately, Hades—Zagreus’s Father—has forbidden him from leaving and ordered all the souls within the underworld to stop the prince’s escape. So, Zagreus takes up his sword and begins slashing his way to the surface.
I’ve been playing a lot of procedurally-generated roguelike games recently, like Returnal and Enter the Gungeon, and was worried that I would be too inundated with the genre to really give Hades a fair shake.
[I cant take much more of this wonka gif]
It turns out that, to me, Hades—like Hollow Knight—is a nearly perfect iteration of its genre.
This game is amazing.
I know I’m showing my hand right at the beginning of this review, but I think it’s worth mentioning early on. It’s been a while since I was suitably impressed with a game straight out of the gate, but Hades really does deserve the praise that has been heaped atop it.
With that out of the way, I’ll get down to the details of what makes this game so freaking good. That way, people who are on the fence (if there are any left) or who are interested but need more information can make an informed decision.
Death Becomes Him
One of the strongest aspects of Hades is the way death is handled in game.
When Zagreus dies while trying to escape the underworld, the game does not restart like it does in Enter the Gungeon, or take you back to the beginning of a time-loop like Returnal. Instead, the story —and time—moves forward. The denizens of Hades’s palace know that you failed to escape and will talk to you about it.
Now, death is not the ideal outcome. You need to escape to further the main story. But dying will give you opportunities to do other things, such as:
- Further the individual storylines of the characters in the underworld
- Buy new skills and abilities
- Change out your weapon
- Redecorate the palace interior
- Learn to play the lute (later in the game)
- Deepen your relationship with certain characters
- Buy upgrades for the various regions of Hades to aid in your escape attempts
So, the more you die, the more you can do. This doesn’t mean you should aim for a death, but some of the best dialog is hidden behind many, many deaths.
‘Tis a Boon
Now, I mentioned that dying allows you to buy new skills and abilities to further aid you in your escape attempts. There is, however, another game mechanic that allows you to power up each run, but is lost upon death (or success):
You see, the gods of Olympus have heard of Zagreus’s plight, and have been moved to action. So, as you make your way through the underworld, the gods will occasionally lend you a modicum of their power to help you fight your way to the surface.
What makes the boons so powerful is the way they stack and synergize. For example, Zeus’s boons focus on lightning damage. So, you might find a boon that allows your attack to hit nearby enemies with a bolt of lightning. If you find a secondary boon from Zeus, it might allow your lightning to strike twice, or to cause a secondary status effect called “Jolted.”
By the time you’ve gotten through a couple of bosses, you might have over a dozen boons making you stronger and augmenting the way you play.
This makes each run almost entirely unique. This is especially true when you add in the different weapon types, which can further differentiate a playthrough since some boons are much more effective on certain types of weapons.
Unfortunately, this random boon generation can lead to some lackluster runs, but—if you die—you can start over and see what the fates have in store for you.
Life After Death
Most of the characters in Hades are either gods, monsters, or shades (the spirits of those who have died). This means that they are all essentially immortal, and have been trapped in the underworld for aeons.
This also means that Zagreus’s repeated escape attempts are upsetting the status quo, and each character has a different opinion about what is transpiring.
Some characters are rooting—albeit mostly in secret—for Zagreus to succeed. Some want him to stop, and others are either indifferent or don’t really understand what’s going on.
It’s these characters, and your interactions with them, that are the backbone of the entire game. Sure, the gameplay is satisfying, and the mechanics are nearly flawless, but coming back to Hades’s palace and getting to talk to everyone was the highlight of the game.
You see, the more you play through the game, the more you learn about everyone. And as we all know, the more you learn…
…and the more you know, the better the story becomes.
When you first meet some of the characters, they might feel flat. However, if you make sure to talk to everyone, you’ll start to see that each and every one of them…most of them… have a much more involved story than you would have originally thought.
I will admit that most of these interactions are short but sweet, but if you’ve played through several dozen times, it adds up to a serious amount of dialog and story.
Death By Degrees
As a game where death is a part of the story, both figuratively and literally, it has a lot of replayability right out of the gate. You could probably play the game from now until the end of time and be hard pressed to see two identical runs. However, the developers at Supergiant Games took things a step further.
When you finally do manage to succeed in escaping from the underworld, you can start over again with something called the “The Pact of Punishment.” This essentially allows you to make the game more difficult on subsequent playthroughs. What makes the pact mechanic so interesting is that you can choose how much harder you would like the game to be.
Think that the prices in the store are too low? You can up them by 40% to start with. Getting bored with the boss fights? You can give them an extra move set. Are the enemies feeling too easy? Well you can give them extra armor, or have them deal more damage, or even give the tougher enemies unique abilities.
These adjustments, along with different weapon aspects and keepsakes (little trinkets that give you special passive abilities) ensure that Hades has a hard time overstaying its welcome.
Overall, Hades is an amazing game. The gameplay and mechanics are some of the best I’ve ever seen. The level design, while repetitive, never feels stale. The characters stand out in all the right ways and are easy to sympathize with. And the story, while given in small bites, is extremely well done.
My only gripe with the game is it’s menus. I’m not a huge fan of how they were laid out, and navigating them can be kind of a pain. Though you honestly don’t spend a lot of time in them, so it’s not a big deal.
I’m giving Hades a divine 9.5/10. It hits all the right notes, at exactly the right time, and manages to exceed any and all of my expectations (menus notwithstanding).
With all that said, I’m looking forward to whatever Supergiant Games does next, and I’ll try very hard not to condemn it for not being Hades.