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Hades blends God of War with Binding of Isaac in marvelous ways

The creators of Bastion and Transistor succeed in tackling the rogue-like genre

Supergiant via Polygon
Russ Frushtick is the director of special projects, and he has been covering the world of video games and technology for over 15 years. He co-founded Polygon in 2012.

Last night, The Game Awards saw the surprise announcement and launch of a new title from Supergiant Games called Hades. The team’s first three games, Bastion, Transistor and Pyre, where unique blends of various genres, ranging from turn-based strategy to basketball text adventure. Hades follows that mash-up mentality as an isometric action rogue-like with RPG mechanics. Think of it like God of War meets Binding of Isaac.

If there’s one thing Supergiant is most known for, it’s presentation. The studio’s first three games are some of the best looking and sounding games of the last 10 years, and that level of attention has been brought forth into Hades.

Honestly, it’s a bit bizarre to see a rogue-like look this polished. It’s a genre known for a rough-around-the-edges jank that has allowed even the tiniest developers to succeed on purely great game design. And yet Hades offers up fully voiced dialog between you, the ever-dying son of Hades, and a classic pantheon of gods and monsters. Every character is presented in hand-drawn portraits that look ripped from a 700-page leather-bound tome from days of yore.

Supergiant via Polygon

The voice acting is especially stellar, if unsurprising, given that Supergiant has always had a keen ear for talented, memorable performances. The entire game features a running monologue from the main character as he explores the depths of the Underworld, in addition to the prince’s interactions with various members of his household. The writing shines, especially when the dark premise is buoyed by a bit of humor. At one point we’re given a darkly comedic description of Cerberus (the three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hell) having torn up part of Hades’ lounge, as if he had gotten into a roll of toilet paper.

And yet, maybe unfairly, this is to be expected. Supergiant has always been able to tell intricate stories through powerful narration and artwork. On the gameplay side, though, their recent games have struggled a bit, perhaps becoming a bit too unique for their own good.

With Hades, it feels like Supergiant is refining a genre and putting their own spin on it, rather than creating one out of whole cloth. The combat in this game feels like classic, PlayStation 2-era God of War, with an emphasis on dodge-rolling around handfuls of enemies, diving into the fray and then dodging back out again. I started the game unable to handle more than two or three enemies at once, but as with any rogue-like, each death made me more capable.

But where the original God of War saw players taking a similar character progression path, each run of Hades can play very different from one another. I start every run at the bottom of The Underworld, in the house of Hades, which acts as a home base. From here I’m able to select a starting weapon. These are typical fare, ranging from swords to polearms to bows and the like. But this choice defines much of the forthcoming run. Grabbing a sword has me having to fight up close, with life and death determined by a well-timed dodge. With a bow I’m able to hang back and pick enemies off, though I’m also very vulnerable to being swarmed.

My starting weapon determines some of the temporary upgrades I’ll see over the course of a run. Defeating all of the enemies in a room may drop a mythical boon from a specific god, with giving me three potential upgrades based on my chosen weapon. One increases my bow’s damage dramatically, yet slows its charge time, while another grants me a close-range instant volley attack.

As with other action rogue-likes, like Binding of Isaac, these choices slowly define a character class, be it ranged damage dealer or up-close scrapper. Either way, Hades combat is sharp and satisfying, with blows echoing off the undead temple walls. Deaths, too, feel earned, as every mistake feels preventable if only I knew the enemy patterns a bit better or had avoided that spike trap.

Supergiant via Polygon

Hades does seem slightly more forgiving than traditional rogue-likes, though, thanks to a persistent upgrade system which will, over time, make it easier to progress. Rather than starting from scratch, you’ll earn currency and keys to unlock new weapons and perks that stick with you from death to death.

And those deaths are never ignored or incongruous to the story. It fits perfectly with the live-die-repeat nature of the Underworld, where its heroes attempt to find salvation, even after being mocked by Hades himself for yet another failed attempt.

I’ve already experienced plenty of these failed attempts, with undoubtedly more in my future. I haven’t hit the end of the existing story, and Hades is currently listed as “early access,” with content planned for release throughout the coming year. Even in its current state, it’s an incredible start and a very pleasant surprise to close out the year.

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