This article has been incredibly difficult to write, mostly because it requires me to actually put the game down long enough to form a coherent thought. And let me tell you, with Hades, that’s a real challenge. I feel like I should put a disclaimer that I’m a fan of Supergiant ever since experiencing their first game, Bastion. But Hades is an experience that stands on its own and doesn’t require me to close my eyes to its faults, because as many reviewers that try to stay objective can confirm, there are few to none. I hope that you will enjoy my thoughts on it.
Understanding Hades will make a lot more sense if I try to put a little bit of the immense number of things going on into context first. You play as Zagreus, legitimate son of the god Hades, on a quest to escape the Underworld (also named Hades, confusing, I know) to search for a mother he never knew existed. Helping you on your quest is a cast of very well written, unique characters, that make each of your many runs through the 4 areas of the Underworld feel alive and unique. Whether you die or make it all the way, each of the runs will advance the main story, your relationships, or shed light on the complex lore.
Hades is at its core a roguelite dungeon runner. For those unfamiliar with the terms, you go through a series of arenas fighting either swarms of enemies, or bosses and sub-bosses, trying to make it all the way to the end. You will collect a vast array of boons from the gods of Olympus, upgrades specific to each of your 6 mythic weapons, and Obols to trade with the boatman Charon, should you find him in your runs. As well as permanent resources that you can use to upgrade your stats, renovate the House of Hades, a hub that you visit between death and your next run, or to grow closer to either your old friends and family, as well as your new extended family of Olympus.
Your control over Zagreus consists of an attack, a special move (both depending on the weapon you choose at the start of your run), a cast that starts as a one-use single-target projectile that gets stuck in your enemies which have to be killed to recover it, or you have to wait for it to fall out on its own (which is mostly the case only for bosses), and a single dash move that gives you invincibility frames and lets you reposition.
While the assortment is weak at first, permanent upgrades will add an extra dash, extra casts (or change the system to a cooldown based one), give benefits for an enemy having a cast charge stuck in them, while the boons collected from the many gods of Olympus will either add effects and/or stat boosts to your actions, or in the case of the cast, it will change the action so dramatically that it might be a new move altogether.
Your weapon can get the same treatment as the cast, but instead of boons, it requires a specific item called a Daedalus Hammer. This allows you to pick an upgrade that will change the regular mechanics of your weapon. There’s a lot of variety to each run, and thanks to this and the character interactions, I have never felt fatigued even after doing over 70 runs so far. In fact, I’m just as excited to do another run as I was when I began.
Fortunately, the game throws all this information at you in easy to understand and wonderfully paced tidbits. Every boon collected will give you a short respite as you receive a voice-acted message from its god, and will allow you to choose from one of 3 upgrades. Whether you choose from the chain lightning and jolts of Zeus, the stacking DPS of Dionysus, or the delayed damage curse of Ares (and many others), each of them has a number of specific mechanics that characterize their upgrades, and they all feel impactful and useful.
One of my favorite builds (that will not spoil the experience too much for you), is using Athena’s deflect, which makes your blessed action return projectiles back to their source, to punch the enemies’ attacks back at them. Added to this is that each weapon has two extra aspects that moderately change your playstyle, or a legendary aspect that makes it feel like a different weapon altogether.
Hades is split between 4 areas, from lowest to highest. Each area has a specific design, specific lore, and specific enemies and bosses that you meet along the way. Tartarus is the lowest level, where sinful souls receive their punishment, and has a dungeon theme. you can expect spike traps, ‘arrow’ traps, and general unpleasantness. In the Asphodel meadows, souls await their judgment, but it’s currently flooded with magma and you fight on islands of various sizes that are separated by it, which will also spit out on you on occasion.
What follows are the fields of Elysium, where humanity’s greatest warriors experience bliss and fight for glory (and against you) for all eternity. If you make it even further, you will reach the Temple of Styx, the entrance, or exit, as Zagreus would want it, to the Underworld, where I’ll give no further details as not to spoil you. Suffice it to say, the closer you get to your goal, the stronger and more mechanically intensive your foes get, but with few exceptions (which you can pay obols to get rid of), they do not become frustrating. Rather, they are proof of wonderful game design, as everything feels fair, predictable, which coupled with the intuitive and responsive controls, make your slightly inevitable death feel well deserved.
Sound and Visuals
Even though Supergiant already has a track record of beautiful, aesthetic art styles, and legendary level sound design and memorable songs, I believe Hades somehow managed to find its way above their previous titles. The design of the Zagreus and the other gods is faithful to Greek legend, but also a strange blend of serious and cartoony. The characters feel alive, thanks in no small part to the great voice actors that have recorded thousands, if not tens of thousands of lines of dialogue – because ALL dialogue in Hades is fully voiced.
The color palette feels very vivid and the contrasts play well into the gameplay: for the crazy number of things happening on-screen, you never feel overwhelmed, nor do you lose track of enemies, projectiles, or your position on the map, which is something that I feel isn’t getting the praise it should. It’s not easy to blend in aesthetics with clarity, but Hades makes it look easy, a testament to the passion and experience of its creators.
The sound is very well married to the action. After several runs, I realized I knew if the map had a fishing point, if my bow was about to be drawn to a perfect length before firing an arrow, if an enemy was spawning, and several other audio queues that sound and feel great. And whose only fault is that they run over the soundtrack which is also the best that Darren Korb, whom I’ll unapologetically name my favorite video game composer (and also the voice of Zagreus, Skelly, and the singing voice of Orpheus), has put out so far.
Not only does the blend of Greek, oriental and electronic effects sound amazing and epic, it’s a part of the story. The theme of Hades is remixed several times, but it manages to sound unique and feel perfect and fitting every time you hear it. I wish I could say more, I wish I could, but I think it should be experienced blind, and listened to at the music stand back at the House. A house that you can pay to upgrade to suit your taste, play the music you want, and a ton of other details that will blow you away.
It’s hard to write a conclusion for a game that I’ve finished several times, but feels like it’s not over. Even after concluding my main task, the show goes on, and there is more content to do, more aspects to upgrade, and using more and more of the game’s modular (and lore integrated) difficulty system, which unlocks after your first victory and continues to give me both enjoyment and purpose.
I can say that Hades is my favorite indie of 2020, and since I got my hands on the release, it hasn’t stopped haunting me, and I can’t wait to see what else Supergiant Games have in store for us. I hope this review will also inspire you to pick it up, or at least inspires you to pick up the amazing soundtracks of Darren Korb.