A Masterpiece in What Roguelites Are and Still Can Be
Reviewer’s Note: This was reviewed on the Mac version of the game, primarily using keyboard/mouse. It is also available on Windows and Nintendo Switch.
Hades is Supergiant Games’s take on a Roguelite, and features all the trappings one might expect with that label: a challenging run-based game that features some degree of permanent progression aimed at making your runs more manageable as time goes on. It hits all aspects of that formula, but it also does a few things that are totally new for the genre.
The core loop of Hades follows Zagreus, an actual if very minor character in Greek mythology, as he attempts to escape from the underworld and his father Hades by fighting through hordes of horrors to reach the surface. Helping him are a host of mythological figures: Olympian gods who will grant him temporary powers to aid in his escape or underworld residents such as Charon and Sisyphus who help you in their own ways. Upon your nearly inevitable defeat, you will end up back at the House of Hades. The game slowly shapes the reasons that you are attempting to escape over time, but the loop remains largely the same.
Anyone familiar with roguelites will see nothing new in the gameplay here, Olympians give you power over the course of the run in the form of Boons while you earn various currencies to be spent on permanent upgrades at the House of Hades. It does all these things very well however. The combat feels extremely responsive and smooth, on either controller or keyboard, and every weapon you get feels great. The way boons interact with each other makes crafting a build on the fly feel very rewarding. Every god has signature mechanics tied to their boons and make it a lot easier to predict what kind of boon you will receive. Each run is well paced, the gradual climb of power as you accrue more and more boons from the Olympians feels perfect. The game never felt like I was dealing with an insurmountable challenge because I was dealt a bad hand by RNG. Even when you die, you get just enough permanent currency that you always feel like you are making progress towards something. The one critique I will make of the gameplay is that it can be a little overwhelming as a new player to remember what every reward icon actually means without any text description; I learned quickly enough but had to keep a wiki open for my first few runs. In terms of gameplay polish this puts Hades in line with other roguelites like Dead Cells, but isn’t where it really shines.
What truly sets the game apart is the way it has approached narrative and characters. The characters are fantastic and every deity has a distinct personality that will draw you to them. Each one feels true to the source material that Greg Kasavin, the lead writer, very obviously has a lot of respect for. At the same time, each one feels like they have been adapted for modern sensibilities. Roguelites are not something ever known for their story, because by their nature they are meant to be played again and again for hundreds of hours. Hades turns that on its head by not only making the game have a compelling story, but actually tying the cyclical nature of roguelites into the story. Sure it is a very good story, but it is actually a story that can only work in a run-based game. When you finally hit credits for the game, and it takes quite a while, it will feel like an absolutely brilliant way to tell the story that simply wouldn’t have worked in any other genre.
The sheer amount of story-based content in this game is staggering as well. At the time of writing, I have played this game for 80 hours. Despite actively speaking to every character every chance I get, I have not heard a single line of repeated dialogue. At all. Not all of it are important story beats, but the amount that Supergiant has prepared for every eventuality is extremely impressive. Whatever combination of powers or challenges you have set for yourself, they have probably thought about it already and written unique dialogue referencing it. Die on a specific enemy? That will be referenced during your walk of shame back home. Beat that same enemy the next time you fight it? More special dialogue, and if that enemy was a boss they will acknowledge it too.
Supergiant is one of those developers that constantly tries to approach new genres, with varying degrees of success. Hades is, without a doubt, their crowning achievement thus far. It has all the Supergiant hallmarks: impeccable voice work, amazing soundtrack, and fantastic 2D hand-drawn art. Couple that with fantastic addictive gameplay and a deep narrative, and there really is no fault I can find with this game outside of not wanting to play any other games anymore.