Favoured by the gods…
Rogue-lite games have never been my bread and butter – their sporadic and random nature seldom appealed to my acquired tastes of strategic learning and understanding. Rogue-lite titles rely on your ability to endure and adapt to foreign, yet familiar situations, which provide an idiosyncratic sense of allure and satisfaction. From exceptionally charming Rogue Legacy to the incredibly addicting Dead Cells, I have only skimmed the surface of the gargantuan depths of the rogue-lite genre. Supergiant Games’ illustrious foray into the rogue-lite genre is the first to truly resonate with me. From its remarkable display of non-linear story progression and narrative exposition, to its relentless yet satisfying approach to difficulty and player progression, Hades is a formidable experience that impeccably harmonizes its gameplay and narrative structure with its rogue-lite foundation. Tantalizing narrative pieces are unveiled through each attempt at escaping the Underworld, and the player will also retain any collected treasure upon death, which can be used to permanently improve a bevy of attributes, in expected rogue-lite fashion. Its combat is exceptionally robust and satisfying, its innovative Boon system exudes a pristine sense of novelty and differentiation for each playthrough, and its encompassing foundation of rewarding challenge is exceptionally engaging and addicting. Hades is a such a methodical experience that kept me coming back for its addictive gameplay loop and its procedural narrative storytelling. A single, successful escape will not suffice as each instance of completion provides further narrative exposition and understanding to the established lore and the wonderful cast of characters. There is an insurmountable level of care and dedication that was conspicuously poured into the development of this gem; Supergiant Games should be commended for this impeccable masterpiece, especially given their studio size of 20 employees. Hades is indisputably the most fun I have had with any of the 2020 releases.
Hades, unsurprisingly, is deeply layered in Greek Mythology as you control Zagreus, the son of the titular God of the Dead. Your goal is logically simple, to escape your Father’s realm in the Underworld and to reach the surface of Mount Olympus. The journey is exceptionally arduous and layered in danger, with a copious number of nefarious monstrosities desperately trying to stop you at your father’s behest. You are not only provided aid from your adoptive mother, Nyx – who provides the Mirror of Night which empowers Zagreus with collected Darkness – but also the Olympian Gods, who provide various gifts that enhance Zagreus’ current abilities. Hades is one of the most compelling and intricately written video games of all-time; there is an astronomical amount of fully-voiced dialogue that exudes exceptional quality and is intricately woven into its procedural narrative structure. The obscene number of narrative and/or gameplay variables that need to be met in order to trigger certain dialogue instances is absurdly impressive. Through each escape attempt, I could not recall a single instance of repeated dialogue delivered by any character. Each character is also impeccably written and masterfully personified by their respective voice talent, some of which happen to be staff members at Supergiant Games. From the charmingly calm and adventuresome Artemis to the stoic and collected demeanor of Athena, each notorious character is appropriately presented and brought to life in such spectacular fashion. I also love how Hades always refers to Zagreus as “Boy”, I sincerely hope that is a nod to 2018’s God of War. As I previously mentioned, with each escape attempt and eventual success, you unravel fragments of the narrative, piece by piece. You slowly unveil facets of Zagreus’ relationships and eventually come to understand the true reason for his never-ending quest. A prominent sense of world building is established with each attempt as the characters around you appropriately react to and acknowledge your triumphs and hardships: death is no longer a video game commodity, it is a vessel for further narrative delivery and developed exposition. Through your inevitable success, you are rewarded with marginal answers and realizations, leaving tantalizing room and encouragement for subsequent attempts. Hades’ visual and graphical prowess is a delightful treat as its art design is lavishly crisp and vivaciously gorgeous. The vibrant and warm landscapes of Elysium mirror the poignant imagery in pastel paintings while the fiery depths of Asphodel is the visual personification of Hell itself. With only around four regions to explore, I would have enjoyed a little more environmental diversity as many chambers can feel familiar despite their procedurally generated nature. Aside from occasionally minor frame drops, Hades’ performance is impeccable, easily retaining an illustrious 60 frames that translates remarkably well for silky smooth gameplay. The musical score is also a notable highlight, boasting metallic melodies that rival Mick Gordon’s psychedelic headbangers. From the sadistically aggressive riffs orchestrated during heavy action chambers to the elegantly tranquil essence imbued when entering Charon’s item shop or encountering Eurdice’s private corner in Asphodel, Hades’ auditory aptitude is blissfully entrancing and heightens all of its respective elements.
At the epicenter of Hades’ established loop of addiction and satisfaction is its robust gameplay structure. Its isometric combat is relatively easy-to-grasp, with no excessive combos or other irrelevant intricacies to overcomplicate its systems. Through the use of the Infernal Arms (an exceptional display of visceral weaponry) and the generous gifts (Boons) provided by the Olympian Gods, Hades’ combat is exceptionally adaptive and caters to a profound sense of player progression. From the swift slices of the Stygian Blade to the empowering, Captain America-like, Shield of Chaos, with attacks and abilities further enhanced by a respective God’s Boon, your abilities are established and built from the ground up and develop in the direction you chose. A gift from Zeus can increase your attack or special damage while providing additional lightning damage effects. Accepting a gift from Dionysus can add a Hangover effect to your dash, which deals considerable damage overtime when you dash into enemies. Boons from Poseidon apply a knockback effect to your attacks and abilities, which send your enemies flying into obstacles and traps, delivering extra wall slam and trap damage. You are also equipped with a ranged magic ability that drastically transforms based on the respective Olympian Boon. Lastly, with the respective Boon equipped, you can summon the destructive wrath of an Olympian God, delivering a tremendous amount of damage to any foe that crosses your path. You can utilize this ability when one charge of your “God gauge” has been filled or you can save up to five charges to unleash a “Greater Call”, which is an astronomically powerful display of decimation. With a copious number of permutations, combat is exhilaratingly sporadic and exceptionally adaptive, exuding a prominent sense of novelty and differentiation with no two attempt feeling the same. Hades’ enemy design is also exceptionally diverse and intricately constructed, with each devilish fiend requiring adaptive strategy to efficiently decimate. Despite the procedurally generated chambers, each realm’s final chamber contains a preordained boss fight; granted character dialogue and enemy move sets will vary depending on the player’s current set of abilities, established narrative position, and previous triumphs. Boss fights are intricately designed and exceptionally challenging, enforcing a deliberate notion in strategic analysis and adaptive reaction. These formidable foes are almost guaranteed to prematurely end your quest for the surface; while Olympian Boons and Charon’s Obol (currency) are lost upon death, acquired treasures and artifacts are retained and can be used to permanently increase Zagreus’ attributes. From acquired Darkness that is used to unlock various abilities such as additional lives to using Chthonic Keys to unlock additional Infernal Arms, valuable items attained throughout your many attempts at escape will strengthen your capability and longevity, further enhancing your probability of success. With a tantalizing sense of growth exhibited through its robust upgrade system and its layered implementation of residual narrative exposition, each escape attempt feels significant and purposeful as there is always an underlying display of progression and development. The inevitable itch to progress further and further with each attempt, slowly accumulating strength and knowledge is an evocative and empowering sensation that harmonizes brilliantly with intricately layered, moment-to-moment combat. Each chamber is structurally defined in its level design, however the order at which it’s presented and explored is procedural. Upon clearing a chamber, you will be presented with up to three exit options for the next chamber which will visually inform you which artifact or item you will receive in each respective chamber. While your rewards are relatively sporadic and procedural, this semblance of choice further cements Hades’ foundation on carving your own path and adaptively shaping the outlook of your escape.
Another artifact you can procure through clearing a chamber is Nectar, which can be gifted to other characters to strengthen your bond with them, similar to the Confidant system in Persona 5. Gifting Nectar to one of the many whimsical characters in Hades with reward you with a Keepsake, a personalized item of their respective giver that provides various attribute enhancements for Zagreus when equipped. This character relationship system lacks the required depth and development to reach the meteoric heights established by the Persona series. These brief character interactions result in minimal dialogue which is only achieved when a certain number of gifts have been presented to the respective character. While its rather shallow implementation is an undeniable disappointment, the exceptionally well-written dialogue and direct enhancements to gameplay make up for its unachieved potential. Contributing to Hades’ established persuasion for multiple escape attempts, upon the instance of a successful clear, you will be presented with the Pact of Punishment, a contract provided by Hades that significantly ups the ante in difficulty but provides essential rewards for further upgrading. Each contractual condition affects that specific escape attempt, with each condition having a level range in difficulty, allowing the player to tailor the respective degree of risk and reward. From enemies dealing an increased amount of damage to deactivating certain abilities acquired from the Mirror of Night, conditions notably shift your established playstyle and further cement Hades’ encompassing themes of adaptiveness and gratification. Additionally, collected Artifacts can be used to enhance certain attributes of your Infernal Arms or unlock an entirely new aspect of the weapon – which will give a varied form of functionality. Gemstones and Diamonds, when provided to the House Contractor, are used to renovate the Underworld and the House of Hades. Renovations include anything from adding a Fountain Chamber with healing properties to a specified region of the Underworld to treasure troves randomly spawning in procedural chambers. Through the House Contractor, you can even unlock a fishing rod to catch various aquatic creatures throughout your ventures in the Underworld. Delivering your obtuse catches to the chef in the House of Hades will reward you with additional artifacts such as Nectar, Gemstones, and Chthonic Keys. In an effort to alleviate repetition and reward players for venturing outside their comfort zone, the Fated List of Minor Prophecies acts as an achievement system of sorts and rewards players handsomely for fulfilling a listed objective (prophecy). From completing an escape with a specific Infernal Arm to accepting every available Boon from a specific Olympian god, the Fated List of Minor Prophecies allows Hades’ structure to retain a modicum of novelty as it encourages players to stray from the sense of familiarity. Any Boon related prophecy is appropriately tracked, so when the choice of which Boon to select is presented, there will be an indicator letting you know the respective Boon has never been selected and will fulfil a minor prophecy.
Hades is a rich and engrossing experience from both a narrative and gameplay perspective; its sporadic and addictive qualities are delivered to the player in tantalizing doses and its cohesive display of narrative and gameplay progression is masterfully executed. With its branching narrative and procedural structure, each narrative fragment obtained through subsequent escape attempts hold resounding purpose and residual growth. Hades’ robust gameplay implementation also mirrors this thematic notion in growth and development, from the diverse set of fantastical weapon and ability combinations to its exceptional upgrade systems and consistently rewarding structure. With the idiosyncratic display of the Infernal Arms, combat functions in a similar manner between the many variants but each weapon of destruction – and their respective aspects – feel unique to one another. Its profound emphasis on residual player growth and satisfaction is notably palpable, resulting in one of the engaging and addictive gameplay experiences of the generation. The level of commitment, dedication, and TLC conspicuously displayed throughout Hades’ intrinsic foundation is remarkably impressive and simply unrivaled. Hades is pure joyous entertainment in the most unadulterated form, an absolute masterclass in rewarding game design and non-linear storytelling. From the essence of a tantalizing mystery to the exceptionally well-written and personified cast of characters, Hades exudes an immaculate level of charm and personality that is equally as compelling as its gameplay counterpart. Aside from the shallow, yet very functional character bonding system, Hades is a near-masterpiece that exudes an illustrious sense of quality that is seldom matched in the rogue-lite genre. It took a little over 15 hours to complete my first escape, and despite the novelty and sense of accomplishment that ensued, my journey through the Underworld was far from over. With further pieces of the narrative to unfold and the Pact of Punishment to utilize, there are a multitude of alluring reasons to continue your never-ending quest for freedom. The road out of hell is exceptionally arduous, but remarkably rewarding.