Zag Out Of Hell
HIGH Zeus’ chain-lightning boons.
LOW The fourth biome is less interesting than the preceding three.
WTF Surely I’ll hit repeat dialogue eventually, right…?
Since roguelikes are repetitive by nature, the best ones tend to do one of two things – they either provide enough variables to make each run exciting, or grant the player permanent upgrades to accelerate their progress over time. Hades is an exemplar of its genre because it does both.
Hades centers on Zagreus, here depicted as a rebellious teenager who’s desperate to escape from the dreary Underworld and ditch the responsibilities that come with being the son of the god of the dead.
To keep would-be runaways contained, the layout of the Underworld is constantly shifting, and its chambers are full of guards and traps. However, since gods can’t die, Zagreus simply pulls himself out of the River Styx when he’s defeated, gets a scolding from his father, and tries again.
This is the fourth release from Supergiant Games, an indie studio known for dazzling presentation values. The wonderful visuals and charismatic voice work are here in full form, but following two titles with innovative battle systems (Transistor and Pyre) one could be forgiven for initially thinking that the combat in Hades is disappointingly generic hack-and-slash fare. However, this is where the hook of “boons” comes into play.
The gods on Mount Olympus want to help Zagreus escape, and so they’re constantly sending him gifts that boost his capabilities in combat, applying passive effects to his standard moves or swapping out his abilities for new ones. Each god holds a number of possible boons, from which the player always gets a choice of three, and they all revolve around a theme. Hermes tends to grant Zagreus various speed boosts, for example, while Athena’s shield can help him deflect projectiles.
While not every chamber will contain a new boon, the player will accumulate enough of them over the course of a run – granting a wide variety of bonuses – that each escape attempt gives Zagreus a radically new and exciting build. For example, by the time I’m a couple of levels in on a given run, my basic attacks might have a knockback effect thanks to Poseidon, my dash leaves a spinning blade in my wake courtesy of Ares, and Artemis has gifted me a homing arrow. It turns out that the combat needs to be inherently simplistic to serve as a keystone for all of the wild forms Zagreus can take.
Whenever a chamber is cleared of enemies and its prize is claimed, an icon over the door will inform the player what the next reward will be. In cases where the player is given two options, they can prioritize whatever they’re in the market for. I always got a kick out of the chain-lightning effects granted by Zeus’s boons, for example, so whenever I saw his insignia over a door, that would be my route.
Rooms that don’t offer boons will instead feature shops, character encounters, or a wide variety of currencies. While gold must be spent within the run in which it is claimed, everything else contributes to permanent changes. Pellets of darkness are used to upgrade Zagreus’s stats. Gems can be spent on renovating structures that will aid the player on subsequent attempts. Keys unlock upgrade tiers and weapons. Ambrosia can be given to other characters in exchange for equippable items.
Where the inherent repetition would drag a lesser title down, Hades has an ever-expanding web of systems that makes the campaign deeper and more engaging as it goes. The secret ingredient in Hades, however, is the same one present in all of Supergiant’s titles – sharp dialogue, believable characterization, and a focus on world-building unusual for a game of this type.
Hades doesn’t have ‘villains’ in the regular sense. Zagreus can’t die and no one wants to kill him anyway — his father simply views him as a layabout and seeks to reprimand him. The other inhabitants of the Underworld either root for him on the down-low or view him as a nuisance because it’s their responsibility to send him back (and thus they endure repeated beatdowns when he becomes strong enough to consistently defeat them in battle). Grudges formed over the course of Hades aren’t born of philosophical disputes or life-or-death circumstances – they just come with the job.
Hades certainly isn’t the first roguelike to make its run-based structure an integral part of its narrative, but I’ve never seen one put so much effort into keeping its story content fresh throughout. Supergiant was able to record a frankly ludicrous amount of dialogue for Hades, ensuring that the player’s repeated escape attempts feel like one continuous, flowing arc. In the couple dozen hours I’ve spent with Hades, I’m not confident that I’ve ever heard the same line twice.
Given that this is a Supergiant game, it probably goes without saying that the 2D art in Hades ranks among the best in the business. What consistently amazes me about this developer’s work is that it often features a lot happening on-screen at a given time, all extremely colorful and exquisitely detailed, yet it’s never difficult to read. If the action becomes overwhelming at times, it’s only by design because defeat is baked into the core of Hades. The designers want players to try again and again so they can see all that their game has to offer.
I’ve enjoyed many roguelikes over the years, and yet that label always makes me wary. Repetition may be a core component of the genre, but too many developers seem to believe that this excuses them from having to consistently find new ways to engage players before the credits roll. Hades, in contrast, feels like the apex of what run-based, procedurally-generated games are capable of. It’s a staggering effort and the best title to date from an already decorated studio.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Supergiant Games. It is currently available on PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 23 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Blood and Violence. There’s a big stylized splash of blood whenever Zagreus or a boss dies, but otherwise, the violence is fairly mild. There’s some PG-level profanity here and there, one or two suggestively-dressed characters, and occasional references to alcohol (including a status effect called “hangover”) but it’s altogether a pretty tame experience.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled, and audio cues never played a vital role that I could discern. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.