Supergiant’s latest game, Hades — announced and released into early-access at the Game Awards 2018 — is a rogue-lite set in the pit of Hades the place, run by Hades the god. The goal is simple: Escape the Underworld and join your fellow gods on Olympus. This is much easier said than done. After all, Hades would be out of business if escaping his domain was simple.
I play as Zagreus, son of Hades himself. Every run, I pick a weapon, drop into the game’s top-down perspective of Tartarus, and push forward through rooms of enemies. Every room is filled with a few waves of foes, and I chop or pierce them all the same with swords, shields, bows and spears.
When the dust has settled and the room is clear, I can preview the diverging paths ahead of me. The previously blood-filled orbs on each door drain to reveal the potential rewards in upcoming rooms. A heart symbolizes an upgrade in my health bar — healing items and health boosts are few and far between — and a purple teardrop gives me more currency for when I inevitably fail this run and invest in better tools for the next go-around.
Most of the time, I decide to chase the lightning bolt, the trident, the hammer, the heart, etc. These symbolize boons from the Greek gods. Each boon I collect spawns a bit of dialogue with my uncle Poseidon or my cousin Athena. After a short and awkward chat, they offer me a bit of their power in the form of a choice between three unique effects.
All of these abilities come in different flavors, usually themed to the god in question. Zeus’ abilities can cause my attacks to chain lightning between my foes, while Aphrodite’s weakens enemies struck by my various blades, making their attacks far less lethal.
These abilities drastically affect how I play. Depending on the boon I get first, it sends me toward a different loadout. If I receive Ares’ ability to strike down enemies with a delayed attack on my spear throw early on, the boons that I’ll select in the future should be to improve that playstyle or supplement my weaknesses. The boons don’t always offer the same choices each run, leading me to create a different kind of build every run I’ve made.
As I go along the dungeon, the boons I choose begin to warp my abilities. My Cast — a projectile with limited ammo that sticks in enemies until I’ve defeated them — now bounces between enemies, while my shield-throw can deflect incoming projectiles back at my attackers.
Every room and enemy has the potential to bring me down, but it’s the bosses I really have to worry about. The first boss is one of the Furies, and she constantly blocks my path to the second level of Hades. Defeating her is easier and easier each time due to a combination of upgrades in the game and my own abilities. But once I exit her door, I only get a brief reprieve before continuing my journey through the layers of hell.
This aspect of Hades is similar to so many other games out in the genre, like Dead Cells and Rogue Legacy. But Supergiant puts its own, unique spin on the formula. When I die, I’m sent back to Hades’ throne room — a kind of check-in station for wayward souls.
My father is there, as is Cerberus, our beloved three-headed dog. Greek hero Achilles stands in the corner while Hypnos, the personification of sleep, is the first to greet me after each return trip. These characters all have their own personalities and opinions of my progress. Hypnos loves to recount how I died last, while Achilles reminds me of all the combat training he’s taught me. Hades himself is just an ass, mocking me for my inability to succeed.
But Zagreus is not a silent protagonist. Lanky, fit and full of the goth-angst I expect from the young son of the Underworld, he’s always ready to quip back at Skelly the living target dummy or Dusa the Gorgon bar-maid.
Supergiant’s charm has always come from its writing, and Hades is no different. Each character is packed with personality and their own kind of humor. The downtime between each run is a bit more calming than simply jumping back into the action. It’s nice to be mad at my jerk of a father for a moment, instead of the Bone Hydra boss that still eludes me after so many runs.
But all of these systems — even my relationship with characters — build into the gameplay. I can find gifts on my quest that I can present to the gods or Dusa or whoever I come across. In return, I get items that can change the way I play every time. For example, I’ve received a collar from Cerberus that increases my max health from the start. These items combine nicely with the persistent upgrades after each run, like increased back-stab damage or number of subsequent dashes.
Hades is deep, despite its recent release into early-access. And each failed run has the perfect amount of downtime and purposefully mundane conversation to make me want to leap out my bedroom window to start a run and see what boon I’ll get next. If I just pick this weapon and get these specific boons, I’ll have no trouble against that damn Bone Hydra, I know it.
As I play, I begin to feel like a god worthy of Olympus’ company. I’ve had more than one occasion where Two boons combine together to make me so powerful that I’ve audibly scoffed while alone in my office, “That’s unfair,” on more than one occasion. It lets me blast through rooms without a single hit from enemies. I get to create my own power fantasy.
But every time, without fail, I succumb to my own hubris, just as these mythic figures are famous for. I may be powerful, but if I fail to notice a hit here or a hit there, suddenly I’m dead, and all my great power has been stripped from me. In Hades, it’s easy for me to become so preoccupied with building myself up that I forget to pay attention to the enemies chipping away at you.
The rise and fall of Hades is already stellar. Each failure is my own, like an inability to adapt to a new playstyle mid-run, to shift my weight. I always zig when I should have zagged in the wrong place, and it costs me my run. It’s not a singular mistake that does me in, but a whole series. Some mistakes are graver than others, but the game itself never appears unbeatable — although some enemies could and should be scaled up or down before the game’s final release.
I have as much fun losing in Hades as I do winning, which is a key element to the genre’s format. And areas that once seemed impossible to conquer are only offering me minimal resistance now.
So while Hades isn’t the first game of its kind, it’s one that makes me excited to boot up everyday, and marking my calendar for new content updates. Supergiant has been patching the game regularly since launch, and a timer for its next big content drop is constantly ticking down in the corner of Hades’ main menu.
It’s not surprising that the developer of Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre would make a well-written game, but it’s nice to see that the combat has as much depth as the characters. In its pre-release state, my dozen-plus hours in Hades have been some of my favorite spent in a game all year. The promise of more to come is tantalizing, and ensures that Hades will remain a big part of my life into 2019.