True to their name, Supergiant Games has been one of the big boys of the indie gaming scene since their very inception. Their debut title Bastion remains one of my all-time favorite games of all time, and I have heard nothing but praise for both Pyre and Transistor. Supergiant’s talent was then proven once again in 2020 when their mythological roguelike Hades became the award-winning darling of the year. Being a fan of roguelikes myself, I just had to check it out.
Players take on the role Zagreus, the rebellious son of the Underworld’s supreme ruler Hades. In spite of being literal Gods, their relationship is basically that of a conservative boomer dad and his jobless, millennial son. Constant arguments, repeated demands for Zagreus to clean his room, and constant reminders that he lives under Hades’ roof so he better damn well follow his rules.
Zagreus has long since grown tired of being demeaned like this and now seeks to run away from The Underworld entirely. A mission that his adoptive mother Nyx and the Olympian pantheon are willing to help out with.
The game plays out as an isometric hack & slash action game. You can pick between a handful of different weapons at the start, each of which has its own playstyle. Your sword has a basic combo and an area-of-effect blast for example, whereas the shield lets you do a charge attack or can be thrown at enemies Captain America-style.
Like most roguelike games, progression through Hades is room-to-room. You enter a new arena filled with traps and enemies, defeat them all, then receive your reward. You then pick the next door to go through, which shows you what kind of loot you’ll receive for going that way. There’s no backtracking or exploration in Hades like with The Binding of Isaac, so choices are actually final the moment you make them. Do you want to get some money in the hopes of finding a shop to spend it in or do you go for a special power-up?
The most interesting rewards are the boons bestowed upon you by Zagreus’ family on Olympus. You find tokens representing various Greek deities, which give you an option between 3 different, randomly-selected perks appropriate to that God. Hermes might give you a boost to your attack speed or let you dash more often in a row, Dionysus might give your enemies nasty status effects, and Athena’s boon often increase your defensive options. Additionally, you might find Daedalus Hammers, which upgrade the functionality of your current weapon, or Poms of Power that level up perks that you already have.
While these boons and hammers certainly help you increase your damage output, they also fundamentally alter the feel of each run. In one session I picked up a powerful perk that drastically reduced my health, but gave me back HP with each successful strike. A very useful upgrade indeed in a game that only rarely gives you the opportunity to heal at all. I combined that a bunch of offensive boons and Athena’s “Call” ability, which let me use a special resource to briefly become invulnerable. By comparison, in another run I used the bow and went all-in on critical hit chance and damage.
This variety in movesets, boons, and choices give Hades a strong core gameplay loop that is satisfying to keep coming back to. Something that is essential for a roguelike game to be enduring. Additionally, Hades has all kinds of rare events that can liven up a run, such as chance encounter with NPCs, treasure chests that have you battle an extra wave of enemies for a bonus reward, or wells where you can exchange money for temporary boosts.
After each (failed) run you return to the “House of Hades”. This is a HUB where you can talk with numerous characters about your quest, progress storylines, and invest your earned resources into cosmetic enhancements or upgrades that make future runs progressively easier. There’s a lot to do and it’s all made entertaining by the game’s sharp writing and voice acting, as well as its ability to adjust the content to what you experienced in the game. Hypnos, for example, has countless different lines of dialogue for every conceivable way in which you can die, many of which got a chuckle out of me. Over the course of your many visits you’ll see all kinds of storylines play out in The House and learn more about the characters as your relationships with them deepens.
While all this helps alleviate the frustration that comes with losing, it does have to be said that there’s a limit to how much the game can do. It took me nearly 30 runs to finally beat the game, at which point I’d already unlocked all the upgrades I wanted and story beats were beginning to dry up. There wasn’t much left for me to work towards, unless I was truly willing to commit to a lengthy grind for the game’s rarest resources.
As an alternative, I recommend feeling the game out for a while and then deciding early on whether you want to use “God Mode” early on. It’s not really an easy mode, rather it makes Zagreus a tad more resilient and increases his defense gradually with each subsequent failed run. By switching this on early on, you’re likely to at least beat the game in a timely manner without needing to grind or fully master its systems.
I avoided God Mode for a long time and ended up regretting that. Seeing the same 3 levels over and over again, fighting the same handful of enemies and bosses each time, it certainly got discouraging. Hades is a beautiful game and I adored its story, but it got incredibly repetitive. On my last few runs I was doing most of the fights basically on auto-pilot, which isn’t fun in any game really.
Though I wish I could’ve ended this review on a more positive note, I do want to emphasize that I got far more enjoyment out of Hades than annoyance. It’s a finely-crafted game with intelligent systems, a well-written story, lovable characters, and solid art direction. It frustrated me in the end, but I was voluntarily hooked on it for hours before reaching that point.