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artwork of Zagreus from Hades superimposed on the starting area, with a stenciled number 1 on top of him Image: Supergiant Games via Polygon

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Why Hades is Polygon’s game of the year

Dead and loving it

Maddy Myers has run Polygon’s games section since 2020 as deputy editor. She has worked in games journalism since 2007, at Kotaku, The Mary Sue, and the Boston Phoenix.

It’s impossible for a video game to provide “something for everyone.” Hades comes close.

Even somebody who doesn’t like Hades as a complete package would likely find some element that speaks to them. All of those individual pieces also manage to cohere into a confident, fully realized game that has skills to teach you and a story to tell you. It is a game made up of an ensemble cast, each of them adding up into a godlike sum of their equally beautiful parts.

I’ve collected a few of the “types” of Hades fans.

Graphic layout of the words #1 Polygon GOTY 2020

For our 2020 guide to the best entertainment of the year, Polygon is counting down our top 10 with a collection of essays along with our full Top 50 list. Throughout the month, we’ll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays, and surprises!

You’re a fighter

You play as Zagreus, the rebellious son of Hades, who decides he’s had enough of Dad’s underworld domain. But it’s not like escape is easy. It involves wave after wave of random enemies in random rooms, with Zagreus using a collection of random upgrades — courtesy of the gods of Olympus, each of whom has a soft spot for him.

There’s plenty of randomness in Hades. But the more you play, the more you learn how adaptable Zagreus and his arsenal can be. It’s on you to decide which skills you want to invest in, as well as which weapons to take on during each jaunt and, over time, upgrade permanently. Your own skills will level up, too, as you master the art of dashing and striking, plus experimenting to learn which gods’ boons will work best with your play style and preferred weaponry. You’ll also learn which enemies you can take down in seconds and which ones take more care. In other words, you’ll learn to hate the way-too-dangerous pink spheres that belch deadly butterflies. And then, many upgrades later, you’ll realize they aren’t that dangerous after all.

My colleague Ryan Gilliam described Hades as a “comfort game” in his review, because of the way its thorny, repetitive cycle gets smoothed into something familiar, like a pair of worn-in work boots. In Ryan’s words, “Even when I beat that boss and finish my journey, it’s not over. The game tempts me with new materials to upgrade my weapons further and customize my home. But no matter how many runs I win or how many times I’ve fallen, I’m always jumping out that window again, just trying to see what that first upgrade will be, and then the next, and then the next.”

You’re a lover

If the combat is too challenging, or it’s just not your thing, Hades has the fix for you: God Mode. It’s not an “easy” mode, exactly. It simply reduces enemy damage by 20%. Every time you die, that figure ticks up another 2 percentage points, all the way until it hits 80%. It’s a way to see the rest of the game without so much friction — and the rest of the game is well worth seeing.

The story of Hades happens on the sidelines, or so it seems at first. In between escape attempts, Zagreus makes casual conversation with the other residents of his dad’s domain. But even as his deaths stack up, Zagreus stays stubborn, and over time, he begins to make a name for himself all across the realms, inviting alliances and even romantic interests from the various gods and demigods in his orbit.

I soon realized these allegiances were the reason I kept playing. I cared about getting better at the game, sure, but mostly I wanted to see whether Achilles and Patroclus would get to be reunited, as anyone who studied The Iliad would long to see. And I wanted to keep on running into Thanatos so that I could make him into the clear winner of Zag’s affections.

Those folks are a few of my favorites, but Hades has an ensemble cast full of characters who are just as sexy and messy as the actual ancient Greek pantheon. The story makes mythological references for the players who are familiar, but it’s clever as hell about it all, inviting you along for the ride even if this is your first time hearing of Persephone and Hades’ on-again-off-again romance. The game has a whole cast stacked with killer charisma stats, thanks to strong writing, voice acting, and the ever-cautious seasoning of crumbs of story sprinkled into every nook and cranny. Polygon contributor Nico Deyo summed it up well:

Hades could have just had NPCs who were further cut off from Zagreus emotionally, serving as mere buff dispensers, but instead they are welcoming compatriots, crushes, and perhaps even partners-to-be.

The mythological setting creates a delicious liminality that suspends the harsh reality of relationships in the real world. These are immortal beings who cannot die, who are born from foreheads and oceans and the night sky and don’t adhere to such strict ideas of “co-workers,” “family,” and “acquaintances.” [...] It is a dream you sink into: Your primary desire as Zagreus is to escape, but time and again, all the revolving doors lead back to these faces, ones you’ve grown to need.

You like the finer things

If you’re going to spend this much time stuck in one place, it had better look damn good, and Hades delivers. Around the point when you’ve gotten sick of the environments and enemies of Tartarus, you’ll find yourself in Asphodel, and Elysium, and so on — each afterlife realm filled with its own otherworldly enemies. The game explodes with neon and lava in moments of high drama, saving the thick browns and blood-red pools for Zag’s emotional trudge back to the home he hates. Every moment looks distinct, different, designed with care.

The music of Hades is also striking, but in how minimal it is. Games that involve repetitive rooms full of random enemies need to help you feel comfortable with seeing the same stuff over and over, and in Hades, that also means hearing the same stuff over and over. But I never got sick of the sounds of Hades, in part because of how light of a touch they have in the actual game.

Every run begins with the same sparkly burst of notes, but then the soundtrack takes a back seat again, only surging forward when key moments arise. For example, “The King and the Bull” starts off with a low thrum that ever-so-slowly builds into a sharp metal tear, matching the desperation of the double-boss fight. Meanwhile, Eurydice’s bittersweet “Good Riddance” never kicks it up a notch, staying slow and low the whole time, but because it’s one of the few songs with lyrics, its minimalism encourages you to stop and listen, fully hearing her story. It’s a soundtrack that doesn’t call attention to its own strengths, instead rewarding the patient player who notices the effort and quality ... and over time, you’ll notice it despite yourself.

Hades didn’t even need to be this good

The Olympian Gods of Hades Image: Supergiant Games via Polygon

In 2018, Supergiant Games put out Hades in early access. Even back then, Hades had a lot to offer; the bones of the game were good, showing the promise of the gem that it would become after two years of polish. In 2019, studio director Amir Rao and writer and designer Greg Kasavin told Kotaku about the studio’s less visible success story: their policy of no forced overtime, and more importantly, vacations imposed on employees who need to be given permission to recharge. In the video game industry, that’s not standard. And it should be.

You know what else isn’t standard? Putting out a video game that checks this many boxes. Super-tight combat, plus a way to sand down the difficulty? Check. Story packed with drama, intrigue, humor, and sexy side plots and romance? Check. Gorgeous animations? Haunting melodies? Check, check. Queer storylines and romances, but in the way that would have already been in ancient Greek myths and legends, so no one’s going to fight you on “historical accuracy” or whatever? Quadruple check. Racial diversity, because who even knows what gods would actually look like, whether you’re from ancient times or the present day? Check yet again.

The fact that all of that fits together into a game that knows exactly what it is, with each individual piece helping paint that bigger picture, at a studio with work practices that you don’t have to feel bad about supporting? You didn’t have to do it to us, Supergiant. But you did.

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