The impossible finally happened: Supergiant Games have made something that I unambiguously like.
To be fair their games have always had a lot going for them; their art and music are consistently some of the best in the industry, and even as far back as Bastion there’s always been something interesting to be found at the core of the gameplay. Also consistent, though, are the flaws in structure or design that have ensured each previous attempt has been no more than the sum of its parts. Bastion’s problem was that it had the makings of a deep combat system married to a linear, one-shot game that offered next to no incentive for repeat runs. Transistor was Supergiant’s worst excesses working against them, with a repeated reliance on a single world-weary narrator to constantly tell me what was happening in the game which quickly became overbearing and ensured I gave short shrift to the rest of it. Pyre fixed that problem by adding a whole cast of voiced characters, but even though I played it all the way to the end I never fully understood its take on Magical Fantasy Basketball, which felt considerably less polished than the more conventional combat systems found in the prior two titles. Each game has had something to like about it — several things to like about it, in fact — but there’s always been something else holding it back.
Not so with Hades, though. This is down to some very intelligent decisions made by Supergiant, first and foremost of which was to do Early Access right; they’ve constantly engaged with player feedback, which has served to roll back some of the more boneheaded design decisions that might otherwise have blossomed into exactly the kind of irritations which blighted their previous games1, and they’ve also kept within scope and on schedule, resisting the temptation to waste months endlessly tinkering or to keep cramming more and more into the game than they really should do. The 1.0 version of Hades is an incredibly polished piece of work as a result, with one or two systems that end up having weird side-effects but nothing that actively works against the rest of the game. Hades is Supergiant firing on all cylinders, turning in the superb music and artwork that has become their hallmark, marrying it with gameplay that incorporates all the best elements of their previous work, and leaving very little bloat to mar what is an almost perfectly-formed game.
Hades chucks you directly into the middle of a set of strained relationships in one of the most dysfunctional families in history: the classical Greek pantheon of gods. You play Zagreus, firstborn son of Hades, god of the Underworld, and Zagreus and his father do not get along, to the point where Zagreus has taken it upon himself to try and break out of the Underworld to the surface. On Zagreus’ side are the rest of the Olympian gods, who had a falling out with Hades some time ago and are more than happy to help his estranged son in his quest by granting him a selection of godly powers during each escape attempt, and a few minor Underworld gods and shades who Zagreus has complicated — but not completely antagonistic — relationships with. Against him is the entire rest of the Underworld led by Hades himself, who takes great pride in no-one ever having escaped from his domain before; he is not keen on Zagreus being the first, and sends all sorts of ghosts, skeletons, demons, and even a few mythological creatures to apprehend Zagreus before he can reach the surface. Zagreus must therefore hack his way out with a variety of destructive weaponry and spells, or die trying.
That’s the surface-level sales pitch, anyway. Under the hood, Hades is an impeccably well-constructed action roguelike that takes a fair chunk of inspiration from the action-arcade gameplay and room-based structure of The Binding Of Isaac. The set of basic moves available to Zagreus have been kept deliberately lean: he has a regular attack (e.g. stab with the sword), Special attack (usually an area or ranged attack), a ranged Cast attack that uses a very limited amount of ammo, and a Dash move with some extremely generous invincibility frames. Each escape attempt is made up of a series of rooms, some of which contain non-combat encounters with helpful NPCs, but most of which contain baddies who must all be slain using these basic abilities before you can proceed to the next room; enemies usually spawn in in several waves, with each new wave starting the moment you finish the previous one. Upon clearing a room you’ll receive a reward of some kind — a godly Boon that increases your power, a Centaur Heart that increases your health, a lump sum of money that can be spent in one of the shops run by the boatman, Charon, some of the metagame currency that can be used outside of each run to increase your overall power, and so on. There are six weapons in the game — sword, spear, shield, bow, fists, and what appears to be an ancient Greek AK-47 — and you get to select which one you’ll use prior to each run but are locked into that choice for the duration of it, so much of your strategy is based around making the most of your chosen weapon’s strengths by searching for and picking the right Boons.
The Boons are, more than anything else, the beating heart of what makes Hades such a compulsively satisfying experience. A Boon is the first thing you see on dropping down from a window of the House of Hades and commencing each escape attempt. Each Boon is associated with one of eight Olympian gods, and each god has an appropriate theme – Zeus’s Boons are nearly all lightning-based, Poseidon is all about surging waves knocking enemies back and slamming them into walls to deal bonus damage, while Athena’s Boons deflect enemies’ attacks back at them or grant damage resistance. If you interact with the Boon to pick it up you’ll get a short snippet of conversation from the relevant god — and the characters in this game are one of the most charming bits of Hades, so it’s always welcome — and then be offered a choice of one of three Boons, drawn from a pool of around 15-20 Boons per god. The Boons have a range of effects, either boosting one of Zagreus’s existing abilities by increasing its damage and/or inflicting a status ailment on enemies, or else providing passive bonuses such as increasing life gain from Centaur Hearts, healing you to a minimum HP threshold whenever you enter a new room, or increasing your innate damage resistance or dodge chance. Some Boons amplify the effect of other Boons — so once you have an Ares Boon that grants Blade Rift (for example), you can pick up supporting Boons that increase the size and damage of your Blade Rift effects, and even suck enemies into them. There are even special Duo Boons which have two gods teaming up to offer you something very powerful that often completely changes the way you play the game.
Understanding the Boon system and how to manipulate it is the key to really enjoying Hades on a mechanical level, I feel. At first this seems like a tall order, since there are eight gods and 150-ish Boons and if they’re being offered to you randomly as rewards for clearing a room then how can you possibly build towards a specific end goal? For that matter, if there’s 150 Boons in the game how can you even remember them all to come up with a target build in the first place? But there’s method to Hades’ madness here, as only a few gods will appear in each run. The game will keep adding new gods to the mix until you have Boons from four of them (plus Hermes, who is a special case) and then it’ll continue to offer you Boons from those four gods only for the rest of the run. If you take full advantage of Trials, Charon shops and the optional Infernal Gates you can pick up around 5-6 Boon picks per god on a full clear, which means that you can be presented with up to 18 different Boons for a god on any given run, which is pretty much their entire selection. In practice each Boon pick can offer you unpicked Boons from previous picks so the available range of Boons is smaller than that, but if you have a specific Boon from a god in mind for your build then the chances are you will be offered it at some point during your run, especially after you unlock the ability to reroll the pick pool a limited number of times per run.
The next step is to force specific gods to appear in your run, which can be done using special Keepsake items; there are around forty of these, and many of them have powerful combat effects, but there’s a subset of them which are each associated with a single god. Hades is made up of four Underworld regions – Tartarus, Asphodel, Elysium and Styx — and entering a region with a god’s Keepsake equipped guarantees that the next Boon to spawn will be one of theirs. Once a god is present in a run they become part of the god pool for that run just as if they’d spawned naturally, so forcing the first Boon spawn guarantees that you will be offered further Boons from that god throughout the run. So if you really want Athena’s Dash Deflect move — one of the best Boons in the game — all you need to do is take Athena’s Keepsake into Tartarus, and if you don’t get it on the first forced Boon spawn you’ll probably get it on one of the future natural ones.
Being able to force Boon spawns like this is potentially very powerful. Say you’ve gone into a run with the Twin Fists of Malphon selected as your weapon — these are a pair of oversized metal gauntlets that allow Zagreus to beat the crap out of his enemies with a flurry of quick jabs as his standard attack before finishing them with a more powerful uppercut attack on the Special. The base damage on the standard attack for the Twin Fists is very low, but to compensate they have the fastest hit rate in the game. Because the base damage is so low standard attack-boosting Boons won’t be that helpful since they’re just going to apply a multiplier to a number that was very small to begin with, but the Zeus attack Boon is different; this causes you to emit a burst of chain lightning which does a fixed amount of damage to everything nearby every single time you attack. Since the Twin Fists attack so quickly this is a much, much larger damage boost than it would be on any other weapon, and you can further increase the damage of the chain lightning effect by picking up additional Zeus Boons that increase lightning radius and apply a status debuff called Jolted which damages them if they try to attack you. If you really wanted something that was properly, ridiculously overpowered then you could also add Artemis to your run, as she has a Boon called Support Fire that fires a seeking arrow projectile every time you attack, use your special or cast — pulling this is slightly harder than the Zeus attack Boon as Hades seems to prioritise those to begin with, but if you get it you can turn every single room into a bullet hell for your enemies.
And that’s just one build. There are countless more possible, especially once you add Weapon Aspects, Daedalus Hammers and the Mirror of Night into the mix. Weapon Aspects are sub-variants of each weapon that fundamentally change its behaviour, like the special attack on the bow firing fewer projectiles but automatically seeking the last enemy hit by your standard attack, or the first shot from the Adamant Rail doing massively boosted damage after you manually reload it. Daedalus Hammers are sort of like special weapon Boons that you can pick up during a run to further alter how it behaves and which can make you change your planning mid-run — for example, you might get a Hammer which causes your sword’s Dash-Strike to hit twice, at which point it might be worth seeding Artemis into your run since her Dash powerup increases the damage of each individual Dash-Strike attack. And then there’s the Mirror of Night, which allows you to permanently power up Zagreus between each run by investing a metagame currency called Darkness, boosting his starting health pool, adding more Dash moves and even allowing him to cheat death a limited number of times per run; each talent from the Mirror has two versions that you can switch between prior to a run, allowing you to stack dodge chance at the expense of additional Dash moves, or to forgo a lump sum of gold at the start of your run in favour of interest payments each time you clear an Underworld region, and which you can use to further tailor Zagreus’s abilities to your taste.
If it wasn’t already completely clear it’s the metagame side of Hades which I find most fascinating about it. I genuinely, truly admire the consistency of the game — knowing that I’ll be offered two Daedalus Hammers and two Hermes Boons per run, and that there’ll be a Charon shop prior to each Underworld region’s boss where I can likely purchase some healing or another health boost, and that I need to get my build at least partially online by Elysium since that whole region is basically just a big DPS check to see if you know what you’re doing — that allows me to plan runs out to the point where the actual room battles themselves (i.e. what most people would think of as actually playing Hades) are reduced to an almost technical exercise. Don’t get me wrong, because the combat in Hades is still really really good; all of the weapons feel great to use2, there’s a fantastic variety of enemies, and the Dash move is one of the best dash moves I’ve seen in an action game, with very generous iframe windows that let you repeatedly dash through enemy attacks whilst remaining in attack range yourself. Those enemy attack patterns need to be learned, of course, and there’s a certain time investment required to train up your pattern recognition to the point where you can effortlessly avoid traps and poison while dancing around enemies, but the hard skill requirement to be successful at the combat side of things is surprisingly low — or at least, it’ll seem that way once you understand how to put together a winning build. Hades runs aren’t won by fast reactions or attack accuracy, they’re won by your understanding of the underlying structure governing each run. That’s an unusual emphasis for an action roguelike, but it’s one that I like very much.
And now, the catch: all of that stuff that I just described? All of those cool features and items and options that you can use as levers to tweak a run exactly to your liking? That’s endgame Hades. That’s Hades after you’ve sunk 15-20 hours into it. None of these things are available to you on a fresh save, which throws you into your first run with the basic starting sword and 50 health. Most of the game features are locked during your first run; you won’t get any Daedalus Hammers or Hermes Boons, and the god spawns are scripted and unalterable. And because so many of what you later come to consider basic features are locked off to begin with, you will die during this first run. I’m not going to say it’s impossible to finish the game on your first attempt because some insane person will do it and put it on Youtube and prove me wrong, but I have 80 clears of Hades under my belt, some at very high levels of difficulty, and I could not clear the game on my first run on a fresh save. I just didn’t have the tools to do it; my healing was wretched and I only had a single Dash move and the starting sword is one of the more underwhelming weapons that the game will offer you and I couldn’t force Boon spawns since I didn’t have any Keepsakes yet — and even if I did, the ability to switch between Keepsakes during a run is also locked at the start of the game. My experience and knowledge of the game dragged me to the start of Elysium, but without most of the interesting game features unlocked I eventually, inevitably died.
This is entirely intentional. Death is a core part of Hades. The whole game takes place in the Underworld, where everyone is already dead, and anyway Zagreus is the son of a god — what does it really mean for him to die? In Hades it means that he’s claimed by the blood-red waters of the river Styx and, eventually, washes up right back where he started: in his father’s house, the House of Hades. The House is a colourful hub full of colourful characters, most of whom are minor Underworld gods and famous shades who have entered into Hades’ service. There’s Achilles, the weapon trainer; Thanatos, the angel of death; Nyx, the goddess of night; Maegara, the Fury; Orpheus, the House musician; and even Cerberus, the infamous Hound of Hell who is getting on in years and so has grown to appreciate the value of a good pet behind the ears. Oh, and there’s Hades himself, of course, who holds court from his desk in the centre of the House and who greets each of Zagreus’ deaths with an appropriately smug and/or barbed comment.
That goes for all of the characters in the House, as every time you die you’ll get a new snippet of conversation from each of them, learning more about their own personal stories and also about how things in the House got to the point where Zagreus is willing to repeatedly kill himself attempting to escape it. If you die enough times, and talk to people enough times after being prematurely returned to the House, you can progress these relationships to the point where you unlock side quests which will grant bonus items or House features once completed, but most of the time the conversations are their own reward. The voice acting and character and environment art is, as always for Supergiant games, impeccably well-performed and crafted, and so the House is a very pleasant environment to spend a few minutes in between each run wandering around chatting to people. It’s also where you get to spend the metagame currency you’ve picked up on each run; there’s Darkness, which is spent on upgrading stats in the Mirror of Night; Chthonic Keys, which unlock new weapons and Mirror talents; and Gemstones, which have two uses. First, you can spend them to permanently unlock critical features in Underworld rooms that massively help you on each run — pots that you can smash for bonus gold, extra healing fountain spawns, Infernal Troves that can grant lump sums of gold, Darkness, Gemstones or health, a cabinet that appears between Underworld regions that lets you swap out your Keepsakes, and so on. Second is upgrading the House of Hades itself with a vast range of cosmetic items, which is worth doing just to hear Hades’ waspish responses every time you swap out the rugs in the main hall.
And so the core loop of Hades becomes clear: you embark on an escape attempt, get as far as you can, and then when you die you return to the House to advance all of the character storylines and to spend the loot you’ve acquired to become a little stronger on your next run. Hades demands that you die in order to tell its story, but it takes the sting out of the death by rewarding you with permanent power increases each time you die. As a result you never feel like you’ve wasted your time on a run through Hades; even if you haven’t managed to pilfer enough Darkness for your next Mirror upgrade on this particular run it all goes into the bank for next time, and meanwhile you get to take five minutes of downtime uncovering more of Hades’ backstory. One nice thing that struck me about the various character storylines in Hades is that most of the House staff start the game in various states of distress, and Zagreus spends a considerable amount of time and effort attempting to help them fix things, so that each time he leaps out of his window into the Underworld he leaves the House a little better than when he returned to it. The general theme behind Hades is that there’s no hurt that can’t be healed, and no relationship that can’t be patched up provided both parties are willing to forgive prior transgressions, overcome their fears and move forwards into the future instead of wasting time brooding on the past. For something that kills you over and over again, Hades is a surprisingly upbeat game with a very positive message.
It won’t kill you forever, though, thanks to those permanent power increases you get after every run. Eventually you have all of the levers you need to beat the game, and more besides; more weapons that allow you to tailor your playstyle to your liking, a doubled health pool, a limited number of extra lives, far more sources of healing scattered throughout each Underworld region — it’s slow attrition that’ll kill you on your first few runs, as you have almost none — all of which ensure that you will, eventually, beat the game. I somewhat dislike that you’re set up to fail on your first few runs, but recent experiences with Spelunky 2 have made me question the elegance of games that can in theory be cleared on your first time through. After a considerable amount of time spent thinking about it, I think I much prefer the newer breed of roguelikes such as Hades which offer this kind of metagame progression, as it effectively tunes the difficulty level to the player’s skill: every time you die, the game gets a little easier. Someone with instant reaction times and deep game knowledge would clear Hades on their third or fourth run, while it took an old man like myself until run seventeen to get my first clear, and I’ve seen people talking about having to make forty or fifty attempts until they finally managed to beat the final boss. The key thing here, though, is that despite massively varying levels of player skill we all cleared it in the end, and I’m much more in favour of this kind of accessibility than I am the exclusivity imposed by the hard skill bars of Spelunky 23.
Now, that being said, there’s a certain type of player who will be reacting with horror at the statement “I cleared Hades on my seventeenth run” because that translates to maybe twelve hours of gameplay — perfectly fine for most games, but not for a roguelike whose whole gimmick is that it’s supposed to be endlessly replayable. The good news is that clearing Hades once isn’t remotely the end of the game — even in pure story terms it’s simply the midpoint, and in terms of mechanics it’s the point where you finally get access to your full set of tools, as you unlock both Weapon Aspects and the Pact of Punishment after your first full clear. The Weapon Aspects are, as previously mentioned, powerful variants of each of the six basic weapons which you can upgrade further with yet another type of metagame currency called Titan Blood, which you get from beating Hades’ bosses. The catch is that you only get Titan Blood the first time you beat a boss on a given difficulty setting, which is where the Pact of Punishment comes in; this is a set of mutators that can be turned on or off to increase or decrease the difficulty of the game. Each condition in the Pact is worth a certain amount of Heat, which is a numerical representation of the difficulty. Turning every single Pact condition up to maximum would make Hades literally impossible, but you’re not supposed to use all of them at once (and in fact the Heat Gauge actively complains at you if you do this); instead you’re supposed to pick the ones that you think you can best cope with in order to incrementally ratchet up the Heat level.
At its most boring the Pact conditions simply increase enemy health or numbers or damage, but I tended to avoid these in favour of some of the more spicy options: you can set a time limit on clearing each Underworld region, after which Zagreus’s health will start to deplete at an alarming rate; you can grant armoured enemies Diablo-style random Elite properties that can make them far more dangerous; and there are four different levels of Extreme Measures, each of which turns the boss for a given Underworld region into a much harder variant of the same fight by changing their behaviour and giving them a much wider range of attack abilities. These are genuinely fun problems to deal with, especially since the bosses acknowledge the new powers that have been granted to them with special snippets of dialogue, and since the game further encourages variety by tracking Heat levels separately for each of the six weapons (meaning you swap between them more frequently) the Pact of Punishment has managed to keep the basic gameplay loop of Hades feeling fresh and vibrant even after I’ve cleared it eighty times. It won’t last forever, but I’m perfectly fine with a game that lasts a mere hundred hours instead of a thousand.
If Hades has a flaw, it is one that springs from one of its greatest strengths: there is a lot of dialogue in this game. A lot of dialogue. Even leaving aside the critical story dialogue and the conversations required to advance each character’s relationships, there is so much incidental conversation in this game — from Dionysus and Zagreus conspiring to fool Orpheus into thinking they’re the same person, to Zagreus’s attempts to find out the true identity of his mysterious combat trainer Skelly (which requires some fact-checking with the Elysium boss, of all people) — that I’m tempted to say you’ll never hear it all. Even after 110 runs I’m still hearing new dialogue. That the Hades cast will never shut up is a broadly positive thing that lends the game a hell of a lot of flavour, and a very impressive achievement considering it never gets overbearing or grating the way some of Supergiant’s previous work has done. However, since listening to dialogue is also the way that you advance all of the game’s various storylines, I encountered something in Hades that I’m not sure I’ve seen before in a game: dialogue congestion. The problem is that every time you go back to the House after a run you get to listen to a maximum of one snippet of dialogue per character. Since side stories can involve talking to multiple people in order to progress them, and since Hades will always prioritise conversations required to advance the main story, this means that you can spend multiple runs waiting for a specific piece of dialogue to fire because it keeps getting shunted to the back of the queue by new dialogue prompts for the main story.
A particularly bad example of this is Nyx, who is required to complete no less than three side stories, plus her own side story, plus she’s heavily involved in the main story, plus she has a ton of incidental dialogue with literally everyone else in the House, and you have no way of controlling which of these dialogues will appear at any given time. All you can do is repeatedly do runs to try and cycle through all of her available dialogue prompts, and this is another area where Hades is a victim of its own success: because it puts the emphasis on understanding the systems underlying each run rather than pure mechanical skill you can consistently win at Hades, as once you understand how to do it it’s easy to repeat the process. I like this consistency, but even if you’re taking advantage of the Pact conditions to increase the difficulty level Hades actively discourages incrementing it by more than a single point of Heat at a time, as you’ll get the same reward for clearing it on five Heat as you will at twenty-five Heat — all that matters is that you’re doing it at a higher Heat level than you did previously, not by how much. This meant that I wasn’t increasing Heat by anywhere near enough to pose a challenge to my still-increasing powers, which in turn meant I went on a ridiculous 47-clear streak until I finally got the Heat up to a point where it killed me again, each of which took thirty to forty minutes of game time. Because my returns to the House were comparatively infrequent it felt like I was cycling through the dialogue there far more slowly than was intended, and so waiting for specific dialogues to appear was something that occasionally became actively frustrating.
(This didn’t necessarily have to be a problem; for the purposes of cycling dialogue that isn’t linked to the main story Hades doesn’t care if you clear a run or not, just that you’ve left and returned to the House, and so I could have just killed myself in the first room in Tartarus to achieve the same overall effect as a forty minute clear. Fortunately the basic gameplay of Hades is more than fun enough that I never felt like circumventing it like this just to advance its storylines, making this more of an annoying side effect than it is a genuine flaw.)
So Hades isn’t quite perfect. There are a couple of other complaints I could level at it, like how the lack of a stat summary screen on each run obfuscates how your Boons are interacting with each other — for example, anything that increases Dash-Strike damage is an additional bonus that will be applied on top of any regular Attack damage-boosting Boon that you might have, but it’s impossible to figure this out without some active experimentation — but they’re quite minor and I all but forgot about them within hours of booting the game for the first time. Hades does that to you; it’s such glorious fun to play, to engage in its loop of battle, death and conversation, that it seems churlish to point out the very few things it is doing that aren’t quite to my tastes when the rest of the game is catering to them so well. Possibly the best compliment I can pay Hades is this: it is one of only two games in my Steam library that I have bothered to 100%, in so far as you can actually do that for Hades, and even after completing every progression milestone available and exhausting most of the major dialogue chains I’m still booting it up for the odd run here and there. Hades is that good. Try it if you can.
- In particular I’m thinking of one balance change they made just after Christmas that increased shop prices and amped up the poison damage inflicted by certain enemies in the final region of the game, which only served to make runs slower and more annoying. Players took to Discord and Steam to tell them as much, and the change was rolled back within 48 hours. ↩
- Except certain aspects of the Shield, but you can just ignore those. ↩
- Which I will be talking about in more detail next week, probably. ↩