Hades was an altogether different kind of thing for Supergiant Games, who has, at this point, made a habit of exploring new spaces with each outing. The studio is no stranger to isometric and stylized games though, but where Pyre was a sort of sports story, Transister was RPG intensive, and Bastion was a action with a singular route, Hades is a shifting and contorting roguelike. Despite the nature of difficulty and randomness of these games, Supergiant has found a way to tell an engrossing narrative filled to the brim with good music, enjoyable progression, and vividly enjoyable depictions of the ancient Greek pantheon and its heroes and villains.
Get the heck out
No, it’s true. Hades is a roguelike with a good story to tell. As Zagreus, son of Hades who was born and raised in the Underworld, you’ve had enough of your life in the Halls of the Dead. And so Zagreus plots to escape. Hades doesn’t exactly try to stop his son because he’s a busy man with countless souls of the deceased to judge. Also, the Underworld is a shifting series of realms full of angry souls that will go out of their way to kill anyone who tries to leave. And if Zagreus dies… well, where is he going to go? Florida? Nope, he spawns right back in his old man’s home to begin the journey again.
What sets Hades apart immediately from other roguelikes like it is that death has context to push the story forward just a little bit each time. Your home base of sorts in Hades’ home is filled to the brim with an expanding cast of characters that share unique conversation with Zagreus every time he returns. Among them are the Underworld lord Hades himself, three-headed-heck-guard-doggo-turned-best-boy Cerberus (yes, Cerberus has dialogue and will let you give him pets, the almost-immortal warrior and teacher Achilles, the motherly Nyx, and more. Everyone has something new to share with Zagreus if (when) he comes home.
It’s not confined to Hades’ hall either. Out in the battlefields of Tartarus, Asphodel, and more, the other Greek gods of Olympus will send Zagreus messages and aid to empower him on his journey. He can also run into rooms where mythological figures like the boulder-rolling Sisyphus and the tragic nymph Eurydice await to speak with and aid him as well. Even the bosses in Hades are characters with ongoing narrative with the prince each time he meets them. And perhaps even more interesting is that the narrative with all of these characters can sometimes depend on whether you’ve defeated them, been killed by them, brought a certain weapon with you, taken the aid of a certain deity, and more. It all comes together to make Hades one of the most story-rich roguelikes I have ever seen, and often satisfying even in my continuous bouts of dying and trying again.
It has to be said that this is all set to Supergiant Games’ arguably best soundtrack yet. Composer Darren Korb has put together an awesome arrangement of music that adapts to the players situation, feels mellow or chill when it needs to be, and hair-raising intense and dramatic when in the throes of a battle to the death. It moves back and forth between these situations well and also features some haunting lyrical melodies set to unique situations. Supergiant Games have always had good music and Hades’ soundtrack is no exception
Godly armaments and battle
Story-hefty nature aside, Hades is still functionally a roguelike. What that means is that you’ll go through a randomized series of rooms on your way to a boss fight in a region before moving up to the next region. Each room has a different reward associated with it that you’ll gain if you defeat its conditions (or its just a lucky room with no danger). These rewards will be seen in orbs over the doors leading to that room for you to strategically choose. They can be upgrades for your weapon, messages and aid from a certain god (called boons), upgrades for your godly boons, dark gems to boost Zagreus’ stats, coins to spend at a shop run by Charon, and more.
The boons and weapon upgrades are probably the most important. There are up to six different weapons you can unlock in the game, but you can only take one with you when you begin a run. Daedalus Hammers are the weapon upgrades and they offer you a choice of bonuses, such as making the Stygian Blade break armor faster with its regular attack or making the Aegis shield bounce between and hit targets when thrown before returning. Each weapon has a large list of upgrades that can come from the Daedalus Hammer to make it more versatile.
Much like the Daedalus Hammer and the various weapons, each god found in your journey has a series of power-ups associated with them if you find their messages. For instance, Poseidon’s boons can grant water powers that knock enemies away or increase your treasures where Athena’s boons will grant defensive traits such as resistance to damage or reflecting attacks back at enemies.
Each boon will be associated with your basic attack, special attack, projectile, or dash, or a passive that affects them all, and mix and matching the gods’ abilities with those of your weapon upgrades makes for countless possibilities that can lead to easier conquests out of Hades’ domain. I tended to enjoy the Aegis shield or Varatha spear with Ares’ Doom boons, which cause enemies to take a burst of damage shortly after being attacked and marked, mixed with a projectile reflection dash from Athena, and a chained lightning projectile attack from Zeus. That said, there’s also a degree of randomness to it, you take what you can get from the choices you’re given, and there are a ton of viable combinations to explore.
Mercy & madness from the gods
As a roguelike, many players should know there is a certain level of difficulty associated with a game like Hades. If you lose, you don’t just go back to a checkpoint. You go back to the very start of the journey, meaning if you made it to the final boss (which can take about 30 to 50 minutes to do) and fall right at the finish line… tough luck, chump. Go back to the beginning. The advancing narrative as you go makes it easier to deal with, but it can still be frustrating to start all over again. At the same time, you get stronger constantly and the journey becomes naturally easier with enough runs. In this regard, Supergiant Games adds something that I highly appreciate and many other players will too: options to both soften and toughen the difficulty of the game.
Hades has a God Mode that makes the game easier and a Hell Mode that makes the game harder. God Mode isn’t what you might think from something like Doom. It doesn’t make you invincible because then you would miss out on a lot of Hades’ narrative. Instead, every time you die, the game adds a stack of damage resistance to Zagreus that makes enemy attacks hit a little less hard each time. Die enough, and they’ll be barely scratching you where they once maimed you, making for an altogether easier run. God Mode can also be toggled off and on at any time through a normal save, allowing you to use it at your leisure.
Conversely, Hell Mode makes use of the Pact of Punishment that can be gained after players defeat a run. In normal games, the Pact of Punishment can be used to set different conditions like enemies doing more damage, making more enemies appear, and raising the prices of Charon’s shop, with the benefit of better rewards. In Hell Mode, the Pact of Punishment is available from the start and there are difficulties selected from the list that are mandatory, including one unique to Hell Mode that removes the temporary damage invincibility upon being hit, essentially allowing Zagreus to be struck again immediately. A Hell Mode save also disables the ability to activate God Mode, which is smart and cheeky. Where Pact of Punishment is cool as a new game plus, it’s also cool that players looking for a challenge can go all-in with Hell Mode from the get-go.
An alluring underworld escapade
Hades is another banger from Supergiant Games. That’s a fact. Throughout the entire journey there was little I could find to be mad at other than failing in my quest close to the finish line or getting a bad combination of power-ups that didn't work well together, but God Mode was there for me to soften the quest if I so desired. The game’s performance slowed a bit in rooms where there were a lot of enemies at once, but otherwise it was buttery smooth throughout. The mix of boons and upgrades provides delightful flexibility, the advancing and adapting narrative upon dying or succeeding keeps things interesting throughout, and the soundtrack is something I will continue to listen to inside and outside the game for just how ridiculously good it is. Whether you’re looking for a challenging action game or just want to enjoy a beautifully illustrated and orchestrated story, Hades might be my preferred recommendation for romps through Hell.
This review was based on a digital Nintendo Switch copy provided by the publisher. Hades is available now on Nintendo Switch, as well as on PC through Steam and the Epic Games Store.
- Adapting narrative that advances even as you lose
- Fun takes on Greek pantheon & mythology
- Massively flexible list of weapons and power-ups
- Gorgeous & adaptive soundtrack througout
- God Mode to soften the difficulty
- Hell Mode to make the difficulty more challenging
- It's still a roguelike with luck elements
- RNG on a bad combo of power-ups can cut a run short
- Slight performance stutter with lots of enemies
TJ Denzer posted a new article, Hades review: Godlike roguelike