Hades review: there’s no easy way out

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Much has already been said and written about Hades, the critically acclaimed rogue-lite hack and slash by Supergiant Games that has captivated audiences and critics alike. If you’re not one of the many who dipped in during its two year long period in Early Access or among those who picked it up last year when it received its v1.0 release on PC and Nintendo Switch, then you’re in for a treat.

Supergiant Games takes a familiar and well worn genre — the roguelike adventure — and gives Hades everything within its power to truly shine. Hades is the logical outcome of the studios previous works — Bastion, Transistor and Pyre — layering satisfying combat mechanics with a unique narrative oomph. Hades uses the roguelike structure to tell an emotionally complicated story about family and regret.

Hades is suffused with style and polish, and while it’s easy to chalk that up to the Early Access period, it’s actually a testament to Supergiant Games’ signature commitment to the audiovisual experience. Their games are easily identified by eye-popping art direction from a team led by Jen Zee and a clever genre cocktail of musical direction and stellar sound design by in-house audio designer Darren Korb.

Unlike other modern action games, Hades doesn’t layer your experience with scads of randomly generated murder treasures to make your numbers go up. Instead it marries hack and slash action with well-thought out weapons, boons and aspects.

It’s all tied up with some deeply engrossing mechanics and combat. Unlike so many other modern action games, Hades doesn’t layer your experience with scads of randomly generated murder treasures to make your numbers go up. Instead it marries some impressive hack and slash action with well thought out weapons, boons and aspects that combine to create infinite possibilities.

Hades

Hades casts you as Zagreus, prince of the underworld and son of Hades. Having grown weary and tired of his sheltered life in his father’s barren, sunless kingdom, Zagreus sets out on a journey to discover his own truths, including the reasons why his mother left. Not that leaving’s easy. Between Zagreus and the way out are supernatural enemies and heroes and villains of mythological infamy.

The odds are definitely stacked against Zagreus and sooner or later he runs afoul of some warrior’s blade, some monster’s claws or a devastating spell or trap. As prince of the underworld, death doesn’t really faze him, he simply re-emerges from a pool of blood in his father’s home, ready to try, die and try again. The live, die, repeat formula is typical roguelike fodder but Hades frames it excellently.

The most rewarding aspect of Hades is exploring this premise to peel back the layers of the game’s lore and characters. Supergiant Games isn’t interested in tucking these bits behind conversation trees or exposition dumps, and instead has designed Hades so that story tidbits emerge as a result of the gameplay choices you make.

Supergiant Games isn’t interested in tucking these bits behind conversation trees or exposition dumps, and instead has designed Hades so that story tidbits emerge as a result of your the gameplay choices you make.

Shower a house inhabitant with the nectar and ambrosia you extract from enemies and you’ll learn more about them, maybe acquire some neat trinket or enter into a romance with them. Change up your tactics or disable your power ups and bosses like Megaera will react accordingly. Do Nyx a favor and you’ll deepen your understanding and knowledge of them.

Hades’ narrative design is one of its strongest bits while also reflective of how much emphasis Supergiant puts on letting players have the experience they desire. If you choose to engage with those story mechanics, the world begins to fill out and make Zagreus easier to empathize with and Hades’ cruelty feel more palpable. But you’re also not punished for treating the game as pure combat.

While boosting trinkets are available from many of those you meet in the underworld, there’s no exclusive loot to be had from maxing out your relationships nor do you get a special buff from rekindling one of Zagreus’ old romances. The story’s there if you want it, and writer-designer Greg Kasavin doesn’t demand that you pursue it.

Excellence and player agency also apply to combat. The fights in Hades are frenetic and challenging, but unlike other roguelikes the constant trickle of rewards you carry with you from each death are meaningfully felt. Zagreus can die just as much as his peers from games like Risk of Rain or Dead Cells, but unlike those games a new unlock or upgrade is always within reach.

You’ll choose different paths in the dungeons in pursuit of different rewards. You’ll make decisions about which particular god’s favor you wish to curry. Hades’ challenges are many, but you can fine tune your approach to them.

Regardless of your skill level, you need to finesse a collection of boons, aspects and other upgrades in order to best the underworld’s many rooms. And so while randomness is in play here, there’s also an element of control the player has to make informed choices. You’ll choose different paths in the dungeons in pursuit of different rewards. You’ll make decisions about which particular god’s favor you wish to curry. Hades’ challenges are many, but you can fine tune your approach to them.

However, while Hades succeeds impressively on just about every front, its otherwise great narrative design leads to a peculiar kind of storytelling that won’t be for everyone. Supergiant takes the gamble of making story built out of hundreds of small moments and beats that don’t really come together until much later. Its a perfect use of the roguelike genre as a narrative canvas in which arcs are deliberately protracted and things don’t truly end.

It’s to Hades’ credit that this doesn’t really come across as a weakness. It only makes it more like the Greek myths that inspire it in which clean endings are a rarity, and the internecine conflicts between gods never truly end. And when you beat the final boss for the first time, Hades introduces a riveting and robust postgame series of beats that keep things truly gripping.

Even if you don’t see every combination of builds that Hades has to offer and cease endeavoring to learn all you can about its fascinating take on hot gods and hotter tempers, sooner or later you’ll find your way drawn back. The inexorable pull of exciting combat, clever design and compelling lore guarantee that when it comes to Hades, there’s no easy way out.

Hades review
Hades
about the score
An impressive accomplishment. This amazing game will likely endure as a classic of its genre and easily a highlight of the year.
PROS
Unparalleled feast for the eyes and ears
Excellent narrative design
Progression is meaningful
Cons
Approach to narrative might not be for everyone
9
AMAZING