Every once in a while, a game comes around and completely takes you by surprise. For me, that game was Hades, the newest title from Bastion developer, Supergiant Games. We admit to being late with this one, as it came out in September, and started Early Access at the end of 2018. Even so, we felt it was necessary to review it before the year was over. In short, this rogue-like title is a real masterpiece in just about every way.
Hades is a fictional story based on the mythology of Greek Gods. You play as Zagreus, the stubborn son of Hades himself as you try to escape the Underworld. Zagreus being immortal, death doesn’t keep him down for too long. In repeated attempts, he seeks to reach the surface to get answers, despite the obstacles his father puts in the way. With the help of those in his inner circle and even the Gods of Olympus themselves, he gets closer and closer to his goal. The beauty of this game is the way the story unfolds, as players are expected to experience death multiple times. With each escape attempt, more story becomes available, with some even providing more to Zagreus’ motivation.
While not based on any particular story in Greek mythology, Hades does a great job in interpreting these iconic Gods. Each God represents themselves as a boon for Zagreus to collect, granting him some of their power. These boons are randomly generated, and each God offers roughly a dozen different abilities. They also offer their sagely wisdom, family drama, or even their own wrath if you manage to piss them off. All the Gods provide a lot of charm to the game, their personalities fully fleshed out and their relationships a good representation of the craziness in Greek mythology.
Getting to the gameplay, Hades takes players through four levels of the Underworld in randomly generated branching paths. Each level has a unique look and feel, and their own unique enemies as well. As players progress, they’ll gain access to six different weapons, each with their own style. The sword Stygius offers balanced melee combat while the Coronacht bow provides power from a distance. Of all the weapons, I found myself enjoying the defensive and versatile properties of the Aegis shield. It honestly feels great to throw it around, and its combination with boons made it my weapon of choice. They even offer variations with different aspects, allowing players to upgrade and adjust the way the weapon works.
As you take your weapon into the underworld, you’ll use regular attacks, special attacks, casts, and dashes to overcome your foes. Combat might not go as deep as various action titles, but it still has several layers here. Options like backstabs to deal more damage from behind, cornering or wall bouncing enemies with knockback, and even using traps give the game a ton of strategy. It goes even further when using boons, altering the way your attacks work. One boon might have Artemis’ arrows shooting out for every attack while Athena’s boons will deflect enemy projectiles. It takes experimenting to find what works, and the random generation guarantees you’ll try different options.
As you deal with each encounter, there will be a reward, whether it be new boons, money, treasures, and more. As you collect your reward, you’ll often have the option to choose the next room on your path. This helps to cater each escape attempt to the player, allowing them choices for their journey. Some rooms will throw you a bone and give you no enemies, shops, or other special events with great rewards. Of course, many of these encounters comes with a challenge, sometimes even challenging players with a mini boss. If you can overcome these trials without taking too much damage, you’ll increase your chances of escaping. If you’re struggling, you can activate God Mode, which increases your damage resistance with each death.
As far as challenges go, the biggest challenges tend to come from the bosses. Working your way through Tartarus, Asphodel, Elysium and the Temple of Styx, each will end with a worthy boss battle. Making it so that your escape attempts don’t grow stale, the bosses often switch things up. Megaera, one of the Furies, will be the first boss you face. Over time, her place will be taken by another foe. Some bosses will even adjust their skillset and use new abilities for a new challenge to the player. These encounters help to keep things fresh and interesting, ensuring that things don’t get too repetitive.
As mentioned earlier, death is encouraged here, and it’s unlikely you’ll escape on your first run. So much of the story, tools, boons and more open up only after facing death. In fact, one such situation that opens up is literally facing Death in a game of skill. You’ll also discover calls, which allow Zagreus to summon the full might of a God in battle. Honestly, the design is pretty ingenious, as most rogue-like titles don’t give this same sense of purpose or importance to repeated attempts. The dialogue options that appear in the game continue to change, even after you make your first escape. It’s incorporated into the story and the execution is practically flawless.
To be fair, the story wouldn’t be nearly as great if not for the excellent performances throughout the game. Supergiant Games composer Darren Korb takes the reigns as Zagreus, making for a charming protagonist that’s easy to connect with. You also have Logan Cunningham doing some heavy lifting with multiple roles, including the titular Hades himself. All the other Gods and characters have fantastic voice acting as well, indicating some great direction. I was constantly finding myself looking forward to conversations just to hear more of these character performances.
Darren Korb also takes on the task of composing the music for the game. Like much of his previous work on Supergiant Games titles, it’s a truly superb soundtrack. The instrument selection really gives it a rock opera vibe and makes for some of the best background music this year. String instruments go together well with siren-like wails as the energy pushes you to each new encounter. A handful of vocal tracks also provide some story context using tragically haunting hymns and mesmerizing melodies. I often found myself just staying in the room to listen to Ashley Barrett sing “Good Riddance” in it’s entirety.
One thing that definitely deserves recognition is the art direction in Hades. Taking a pseudo-cel shaded approach, the game feels almost like a high profile animation piece. It honestly made the Netflix series Blood of Zeus that much more enjoyable as I was making my escape attempts. The game uses vibrant colors that truly pop with excellent use of contrast while maintaining a consistent style. All of the character designs are spectacular and give everyone a unique flavor to each personality. Utilizing all of these elements, it’s rather pleasing to the eyes and makes for a memorable look. It also helps that the game performs exceptionally well, even when the action gets intense.
If you’ve only been hearing about Hades, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not playing it. The gameplay is addicting and full of variety, and the Greek mythology theme is incredibly enticing. With great performances, fantastic music and an incredible art style, Hades easily ranks high among the best of 2020. It’s clear that many critics agree, but we still feel we need to emphasize this. If you’re going to play one rogue-like game out there, it should really be this one.
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