In the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, a poor soul is doomed to forever push a boulder uphill without rest. Each time he’d push it up, it would roll back down again and he’d have to start anew. But what if that Herculean climb uphill was actually awesome combat against a randomized variety of enemies as you fight your way out of Hell, with a wide range of godly powers that grow and combine in interesting ways as you progress? And what if, instead of going back to zero, you got a little stronger each time with some help from a colorful cast of allies and enemies who remember each of your attempts? That’s Hades’ premise, and the Greek mythology-themed rogue-lite that developer Supergiant has built around it makes going to Hell a joy.
The journey of Zagreus, son of Hades, through the labyrinthine Underworld toward the freedom of the mortal realm unfolds from an isometric perspective as you take on hordes of colorfully animated undead that fill the screen with danger in every randomly ordered room you pass through. Fortunately, Zag is a skilled warrior capable of wielding six different weapons, each with four different variants. Each of these Infernal Arms is geared to complement a certain playstyle. Want to get in the thick of it and wreck some demons? Then consider the straightforward Stygian Blade. Prefer to peck at foes from a safe distance? Then channel your inner Artemis and use the bow. Later you’ll unlock a bashing shield, a spear, and more, and each plays significantly differently, creating one of many layers of replayability for Hades.Regardless of your weapon of choice, Zag can use a dash to dart out of trouble or to get into a more advantageous position. And let me tell you — few things in life are as satisfying as a successful last-second dodge that sets you up for stabbing an enemy in the back for bonus damage.
The final mechanic in Zag’s moveset is the cast: a skill-shot based projectile that fires a red jewel into an enemy for a quick burst of damage. The jewel embeds itself into a target, disqualifying you from firing another cast until you kill the enemy and retrieve your ammunition, so shooting it at the biggest, meanest enemy in the room isn’t always the best idea. As with each one of Zag’s moves, using it well involves a delicate balance between risk and reward.
Almost inevitably, though, the forces of Hades will overwhelm you eventually, and every death sends Zag back home to start over from scratch, save for persistent currencies and progress in relationships with the wonderful cast of characters who inhabit the Underworld, from lord Hades himself all the way down. So you’re going to be spending a lot of time getting to know everyone — and it’s time very well spent.Zag is a rebellious heartthrob trying to find his place in the world between Hades and Mount Olympus. His sympathetic coming-of-age story brought me in, but I fell in love with his tongue-in-cheek musings on the world around him and snarky back-and-forth with the disembodied voice of the Narrator.
But the heart and soul of Hades, outside of its combat, lies in Zag’s interaction with various deities and mythic figures from Greek myth, like Achilles, Orpheus, and more. It turns out that adding a dash of dating simulator mechanics to a rogue-lite was the secret sauce in making good use of a large cast of interesting characters. Each personality feels like an authentic reinterpretation of a classic Greek myth, and they’re all a joy to behold. For instance, instead of painting Sisyphus as a tragic character, he’s an optimist who you encounter on a break while the gods aren’t watching. Even his boulder (affectionately known as Bouldy) sports a carved smile that reacts in silence upon interaction. Investing in Zag’s relationships with each character paves the way for interesting backstory reveals, world-building, new sidequests, or even items to assist on your future escape attempts.
Not only are conversations and side stories actively engaging — attempting to reunite Achilles with his life-long partner, Patroclus, or Orpheus with his long-lost muse Euridice, are genuinely moving and hearken back to the kind of melodrama the ancient Greeks were so good at — there are also gameplay benefits! Advancing these relationships far enough grants you persistent keepsakes and companions, which are both invaluable tools in aiding Zag’s quest to run away from home. Of course, not all keepsakes are as useful as others; given the choice between the Lucky Tooth that grants you an additional chance at life if you’re killed or Olympic keepsakes that increase your chance at better drops, I’m going with a second life every time.
Something that’s truly special and unusual about Hades is that Supergiant Games uses these persistent relationships to travel the difficult path of marrying story to gameplay, and in doing so elevates the simple loop of Zag’s escape into something more than the sum of its parts. Within the world of most rogue-lites, a failed run is not typically seen as part of the story (with apologies to Rogue Legacy). But in Hades, a death leads to Zag returning home to mockery (usually from Papa Hades). This transforms something as fundamental as death from a video game-y failure state into in-game world building. Characters remember your triumphs and failures with a staggering amount of incidental dialogue that made me feel like I was constantly chipping away at new content within Zagreus’ story even when I failed. After a while I no longer feared death, I embraced it as an opportunity to learn and revist friends back in the House of Hades to see if they have something new to say.
Losing the fear of death is important, because you’re going to do a lot of dying. I didn’t manage a successful escape until attempt 31 (which I hear is roughly the average…I hope). Fortunately, while things with the citizens of the Underworld might be complicated, Zag’s aunts, uncles, and cousins up on Olympus are eager to assist his rebellion thanks in equal part to genuine familial care and wanting to rub Lord Hades’ nose in it if you eventually succeed. Their aid comes in the form of boons (run-specific tokens from the gods that grant Zag godly power-ups) that modify to Zag’s abilities, making every run feel new and unique. Some are smaller, min-max stat-worthy benefits that often feel like a daily vitamin — you’re not sure you notice the difference they make as you play, but they stack up over time and make all the behind-the-scenes numbers larger in your favor, so it’s probably a good thing.
And of course, during each run you also build your relationships with the Gods of Olympus by offering them tokens of appreciation in the form of nectar and ambrosia that you collect, which also grant you access to their own collection of keepsakes and up the chances of receiving rare, epic, and heroic variants of their boons with progressively better stats.
Those familiar with Greek myth are already aware of the fickle nature of the gods.Every now and then, treks through Hades present Zag with a Trial of the Gods, a chamber that allows you to select one of two different deities to commune with. Poseidon may be your bestie early on in your quest, but choose Dionysus over him in a later Trial and he won’t hesitate to make your life a living hell in this particular chamber. Your reward, should you survive, is possessing two different boons at once as opposed to the typical one.
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Sometimes the gods play nice together. Say, for example, you have the Curse of Agony from Ares, a boon that allows you to inflict doom status (which inflicts an additional burst of damage after a brief period of time) on an enemy with normal attacks. But if, upon clearing another chamber you find Athena’s Divine Dash (which upgrades your dash move to deflect incoming attacks) a rare duo boon will activate, combining the strengths of both into one convenient package. In this case it creates Merciful End, which inflicts any enemy hit with a deflected attack with doom status. These combinations of powers are wonderful surprises.
And let me tell you, that rabbit hole runs deep. There are a ton of different boons and combinations to earn, and you’ll still be seeing new ones after dozens of runs. Like any good roguelike, Hades forces you to make difficult decisions that either complement your current build or throw caution to the wind and attempt a riskier build that could pay off four chambers down the line…if you survive long enough and luck into the boon you’re hoping for.
All of that feeds into Hades’ impressive replayability. Once again, I’m blown away by the staggering amount of content within Hades. While you may face the same bosses over and over again, they too will adapt to your increase in power level. Whether it be in the form of Street Fighter-style assists from siblings, sprouting new heads, or fancy new armor, repeated encounters with bosses felt fresh because of these clever modifications to how they fight. It makes sense within the fiction as well, considering the bosses remember their past failures and successes against you. Each fight is like a rematch between rivals rather than a repeat.
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Like me, after a couple of successful escapes you may find yourself thinking, “How can I make subsequent attempts harder?” Enter the Pacts of Punishment, a challenge board that allows you to activate a number of modifiers to make Hades even more challenging. Toggling one on adds allows you to earn new rewards, making every playthrough fresh and exciting. You’re constantly given incentive to shake up your playstyle, whether it be through rewarding you with a currency buff for using weapons you don’t normally use, or completing objectives within a scroll known as the “Fated List of Minor Prophecies.” (Get it? The optional objectives known as prophecies will eventually come true, it’s just a matter of time.)
I rolled credits on Hades at approximately 48 hours and I’m still met with new storylines, challenges, and side stories to tackle — and a peak at the achievement list teases an epilogue I’ve yet to discover how to unlock.
At the same time, Hades’ score is decidedly understated relative to Supergiant’s previous games, but it all comes together to serve the tone and characters of the underworld. I think the highest compliment I can pay to the Hades soundtrack is that it simply belongs. I didn’t know what Euridice the Muse sounded like, but hearing her sing a lonely tune in an alcove of Asphodel just felt right.
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