Supergiant Games has made a name for themselves over the last decade for combining great gameplay with imaginative stories and storytelling. Their breakout hit Bastion brought a level of craftsmanship and artistic care to the action genre. With Hades, the team tries their hand at making an action roguelike and gives us one of the best aesthetically and narrative pleasing examples on the market.
The story follows the demigod son of Hades Zagreus (or Zag for short) trying to escape from Hades, both the place and his father. Aiding him on his escape is the full litany of Greek gods and mythological figures. Right off the bat, you can see Supergiant’s penchant for storytelling come through with Hades. You’re playing as a demigod, aka someone who is immortal. The writing of the world leans into the fact that everyone you come across can’t be killed, and they constantly reference previous battles and experiences each time you meet them.
There is a great sense of dry humor throughout Hades as Zag grows in power (more on that in a minute) while still trying to convince bosses that maybe they should just let him pass this time for free. The narrative framework fits the roguelike atmosphere perfectly: as new characters, events, and stories, become available the more you play. This kind of carryover also works in the game’s favor with an extensive list of persistent elements.
Traveling Through Tartarus
The designers of Hades know that roguelikes live or die on their replayability, and the game is set up for continued growth and changes during runs and after them. Combat in Hades is entirely real-time, with a heavy focus on dodging and setting up enemies for increased damage by hitting them in the back or knocking them into the environment. The rooms in the game are handmade but randomly chosen as you play through each biome. You are free to choose which path to go down based on the reward earned for beating that room.
Before you start a run, you’ll choose a weapon that remains with you until the run is over. Even though the weapon itself doesn’t change after starting, the variance of play comes in with the appearance of the Greek gods. When you find a god boon, the game will give you a random list of possible perks to choose from. These perks vary greatly — from super moves, to changing the properties of your attacks, and more. Further still, there are special duo powers that unlock if you have the right combination from two different gods. There are further rewards that can be found during a run that levels up perks or allow you to change an aspect of your weapon.
The four biomes of the game don’t change as much compared to other action roguelikes, and you’ll be largely fighting the same enemies and bosses on each run. To make up for that, Hades features one of the best uses of progressive difficulty and persistent systems.
A lot of the growth of Hades occurs in-between each run instead of during it. There are different resources that can drop during a run that can be used back at the starting area. Gems and diamonds can unlock new items and services that can appear in future runs. By giving nectar to all the named characters, you can unlock trinkets that provide passive buffs that can be further upgraded by using them. Shadow fragments are used to permanently upgrade Zag’s stats and unlock more passive buffs. While keys are used to unlock more options for shadow fragments and an assortment of weapons.
The story of the game also grows as you play through it. New dialogue and story scenes unlock that delve into the personalities of the various characters. As you make progress and begin winning, the game starts to throw new and different events at you. These include new boss variants, new god buffs, and new features that you can unlock. Unlike other action roguelikes that their story ends after you finish a run, Hades is just getting started, and I won’t spoil the twist that happens when you beat the game.
To keep the challenge growing, the game introduces the pact of punishment. Before each run, you can “raise the heat” by turning on various modifiers that make the game harder. From increasing enemy strength, to turning off invincibility frames after getting hit, and so much more. Individually, these modifiers don’t sound all that difficult, but trust me, going from heat 16 to heat 32 was an ordeal.
At each heat threshold, you’ll unlock special bounty rewards for beating the game’s biomes that can be used to further enhance and unlock new content. The catch is that the bounties are tied to your weapons, which means to get everything, you’re going to have to get good with every weapon in the game. However, the game makes it clear that these challenges are just optional, and you can see everything from a story perspective without them.
The balance between story and gameplay is one of the best aspects of Hades and makes it one of the most accessible and approachable action roguelikes on the market.
Redying The Story
A lot of care has been done to make Hades enjoyable to play regardless of the player’s skill level. We already talked about the pact of punishment, but the game also has a mode for newer players called “God mode.” Every time you die, Zag gets a permanent damage resist buff while the mode is on. It’s completely optional but gives players who just want to learn more about the amazing story a chance to see it through. I do have to give praise to Supergiant for how well they integrated the roguelike aspects into the game’s design.
All progress in the game is handled on a run-by-run basis. Win, or lose, you’re going to move something forward: maybe you unlocked a new weapon, or new cosmetics back at home, or you get another story vignette with the game’s amazing cast of characters. Hades has been expertly crafted and only leaves me with a few nitpicks to bring up.
When we look at other action roguelikes like The Binding of Isaac or Enter the Gungeon, the variance generated by what items can appear can give runs a certain “spike” in terms of how they play out. One good item at the right time can easily change the dynamic of the playthrough. Hades, despite all the buffs that can drop, doesn’t quite get there in my opinion.
Like Rogue Legacy, your main form of damage (aka your weapon) is chosen before you start the run. While the boons are major in terms of defining a strategy, they’re still being added on to a default weapon. The only exception is the Daedalus hammers that radically change the performance but are far rarer (normally only 2 appear in a run). From a gameplay standpoint, the game began to get a little samey after about 10 runs, and this is where the pact of punishment comes in. The pact is designed to provide more challenge and is layered onto the base experience.
In terms of combat, I do have a complaint.
Hades commits the action game infraction that many melee-focused enemies have attacks with explicit pattern tells, while other attacks have no tells and are used immediately. Melee weapons in Hades feel harder than they should be and there are a few tough spots if you are going melee only in the back half of the run. Elysium will be the difficulty spike for a lot of players starting out. Another reason for this difficulty is getting used to the feel of dashing. Dashing is your primary means of avoiding damage and grants invincibility frames while you are in motion.
My problem is that I felt the dash was at odds with the hurtbox for certain attacks. There were times where I dodged and still got hit; other times it looked like I got hit and didn’t take damage. I think part of this problem is how the hurtbox is generated on attacks and may count before the actual graphic is there. This is compounded by the sheer number of graphical effects that can be on screen at one time — making it difficult to focus on enemies or their incoming projectiles.
Progression also feels slower than it should be for players who get good at combat. You can only have one conversation with a character after a run, story elements move at the same rate. Even the pact of punishment will punish (pun intended) skilled players who want to go for harder challenges early by only rewarding them one ranking at a time no matter how high they go. The reason why this is an issue is that I feel like I’m going through the motions of moving the story along and inching the difficulty needle up bit by bit.
Despite the complaints, I seem to be a broken record every year with finding one amazing new example from the roguelike genre to fall in love with, and Hades easily takes that spot. The combination of storytelling, characterization, and gameplay easily makes this one of Supergiant Game’s best. This is a world that I would love to keep coming back to with new content or revisit these characters again in the future. Supergiant is not known for post-release support, but I do hope this isn’t going to be our only visit to Hades. Hades is one of the most forward-thinking action roguelikes on the market in terms of gameplay and storytelling and is easily the best introduction to newcomers to the otherwise brutal nature of roguelike design.
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