Greek Tragedy Has Never Been This Fun
Here’s a fun quirk of mine you might not know. When I hear everybody sing the praises of something, that usually turns me off of it. Not always, but it’s definitely why I have yet to touch the likes of Undertale. Thankfully, I was following Supergiant Games’ Hades before everybody started raving about it. You know, before it was cool. So I was already planning on checking it out. Once it got a small sale, that was that. I picked it up and started playing. At first, I only played in small bursts. Then I found myself playing for hours at a time. Because the hype is real, and I really found myself loving Hades. But that’s not to say it’s a perfect experience. So to do the game justice, I decided I should cover the good along with the bad. So buckle up, cause it’s time for HPP’s indie fanboy to tackle 2020’s indie darling.
Zig Zag Into Danger
Despite being titled Hades, the game’s protagonist is actually the god of the dead’s son, Zagreus. Like myself, you’re probably not familiar with that name. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just cause the fine folks at Supergiant created the character. I refuse to spoil anything more, but suffice to say Zag is on a mission to escape the underworld. That might seem like a daunting task, since the various domains are constantly shifting to thwart any escape, and his very own father is determined to keep him home, at any cost. Luckily, Zag has a few things in his favor. For one thing, his distant relatives, the Olympian Gods, are helping him escape. They provide the young god with Boons to aid his efforts. There’s 10 gods total that provide Boons, though one of those is a bit different. The majority of them will offer you one of 3 random Boons when you encounter them, tailored to their specific power set. Zeus provides lightning bolts, Ares can temporarily turn you into an invincible blade of death, Poseidon empowers your weapons with bursting water and much more. My favorites ended up being Dionysus and Ares, since both had different Boons that inflicted damage over time to my opponents. Given that my playstyle was decidedly spraying foes and playing keep away, those Gods really helped me find success. But there’s no useless one in the bunch. They’re all helpful in different ways, and if you’re lucky they might even team up to provide you Duo Boons, which are insanely powerful. Most of the time you’ll get their Boons without any cost to yourself, though on occasion you’ll have to pick between two gods. The one you don’t favor will instantly send minions to attack, but if you survive you’ll get two helpful Boons for the low cost of some health. Oh and regarding that other god, suffice to say their Boons come at a steeper price, but they’re often well worth the trouble.
Mirror, Mirror on Zag’s Wall…
Another thing in Zag’s favor is the Cthonic Goddess, Nyx. She might seem like a dangerous and menacing character, but she’s also matronly and loving, in her own way. She does everything she can to aid Zagreus on his quest, just shy of intervening directly. One way she helps is through the Mirror of Night. It’s set up in your room, and you can pay with Darkness you acquire to power Zagreus up with passive benefits. You can boost your starting health, increase your durability and more. You’ll unlock other options by paying with Cthonic Keys. By far the most important, however, is Death Defiance. Basically this is your only way to get a continue after you die. You’ll eventually be able to respawn after dying 3 additional times, though you won’t come back with your full health. Regardless, Death Defiance was often the difference between a successful run or an unsuccessful one. Each and every time you fail, you’ll burst out of a pool of blood in your father’s throne room, only for the old man to laugh at your failure. Which only motivated me more to succeed the next time.
Ultimate Underworld Roster
You’ll encounter a varied roster of fantastic characters in Hades, from those whiling away infinite hours in the underworld to others secluded in more hidden corners. Each and every character is well written and offers a distinct personality. They are also all voice acted beautifully, and this goes for most bosses as well. Honestly the only helpful character that has no actual voice is the multi-headed hell hound, Cerberus. But unlike the fearful legends, he’s actually a very good boy. Most every character you can talk with can be befriended as well. Forging a bond will provide many benefits. The first time you gift people with bottles of Nectar, you’ll get a new Keepsake. These are handy items that provide various benefits when equipped, such as making sure you’ll encounter a specific God in a run, boosting your attack power when backstabbing foes and a ton more besides. Given the eclectic roster of allies, ranging from a solemn yet wise Achilles to a cheerful Sisyphus to an adorable floating gorgon head named Dusa, you’ll have a lot of great Keepsakes coming your way. But even more delightful are the conversations you’ll have with all their owners. Zagreus is whip smart and sarcastic, but he’s also very committed to helping others. And by going out of your way to assist this cast of characters, you’ll get truly useful items that summon help during the most heated battles.
Gladiatorial Combat Is Putting It Lightly
Speaking of combat, part of the reason I adore Hades is how it plays. As you strive to escape though 4 realms, ranging from grim Tartarus to fiery Asphodel to idyllic Elysium to the devious Temple of Styx, you’ll have several weapons at your disposal. Not immediately, mind you, but you’ll gradually unlock them all. They break down thusly – a sword, a bow and arrow, twin gauntlets, a spear, a shield and something not unlike a gun. Each weapon has different strengths and weakness, as well as unique capabilities. Though you can use normal attacks for any weapon by pressing Y, pressing X lets you unleash your special attack. These can be AOE bomb strikes, hurling a spear then retracting it, bashing foes with a shield and more. Better yet, each of the main weapons eventually has different versions you can unlock called Aspects. There’s about 4 Aspects per weapon, and the last one is always the hardest to unlock. Those are called Hidden Aspects, but the others can be unlocked using Titan Blood. Once unlocked, you can spend more Blood to power up each weapon, making them quite versatile. My personal favorites were the ranged weapons – the Eternal Spear, Heart-Seeking Bow and gun-like Adamant Rail. Of those, my personal favorite is an Aspect of the bow that lets me fire homing arrows once I’ve hit a foe with standard attack. But again, much like with Boons, there’s no weapon that’s useless. Just find the one that best matches your playstyle and stick with it. Oh and if you want more control over your weapons, you can use the handy Daedalus Hammers you’ll find to upgrade them further, giving you some incredible enhancements.
The Might of Olympus
But wait, there’s more! Combat in Hades isn’t just about slashing and shooting foes with your armament. You also have some magic at your disposal. Earlier when I talked about Boons, I didn’t specify some of them are magical attacks called Casts. Your standard Cast is a weak red missile that hits foes, but you can get some epic ones from the Gods. Aphrodite provides a shotgun blast that weakens foes temporarily; Zeus gives you a handy bolt of lightning that can zip between adjacent foes; and good old Poseidon turns your Cast into a blast of water that washes foes away. There’s a ton of variety, and luckily you can Cast with a simple push of the A button. If you’re really lucky, you’ll earn the favor of the Olympian Gods in the form of a Call. These are activated with ZR, but there’s some nuance to them. Calls have a meter segmented into four parts. When one part is full, you can activate your Call, but it’s better to wait. If you activate it when your entire meter is full, you’ll have a much more powerful Greater Call, which lasts longer and hits harder. And last but not least, you also have a handy dash which is activated with B. This lets you evade damage, and with good timing you can stay at full health for quite a while. Just be sure to get the timing of enemy attacks down so you know when to evade.
Pick Your Poison
Getting through each of the 4 realms takes time, and is split into various choices. Once you defeat all the foes in any room, you’ll be allowed to pick which door to exit through. You’ll get a preview of an item reward first, and I strongly suggest picking them carefully. You’ll get items like golden Obol, which can be paid at the Well of Charon or directly to the Boatman himself for handy items; you’ll also get Gemstones, which can be paid to the House Contractor to unlock a variety of work orders, including both functional changes and more aesthetic improvements. There’s more besides, but the main point is, you have a lot of control in how each run plays out, at least once you figure out what each icon signifies. That goes double for the icons indicating which deity’s Boon is in the next room. As you work through rooms, you’ll also come across chests called Infernal Troves. You can open them to win their reward, by beating all the foes summoned as quickly as possible. The faster you end the conflict, the more of a reward you collect. But if you dillydally you’ll get a meager offering instead. Eventually you’ll also unlock other helpful encounters in runs, such as competing against Death himself for rewards, or negotiating with Chaos to acquire powerful Boons. Hell, you might even fight your way to the realm of Erebus. Plus, in several of the realms, you’ll have a chance to meet with a specific character and get various helpful benefits, ranging from health items, coins and even Boon empowerment. All of this helps liven up the experience, and it kept me invested in the main loop of the game for quite some time.
Oh and did I mention the bosses? Hades has a tremendous roster of foes, and though there’s not a ton of them, they will all make you earn your victory. You’ll face off against Fury sisters, an undead hydra, a duo of minotaur and king, and more. There’s even some hidden bosses that will truly test your mettle. Though the bosses definitely get easier to handle once you’ve learned their patterns, you’d be foolish to take any for granted. Once you’ve managed to beat the game once, you can utilize something called the Pact of Punishment to really keep things interesting. You basically choose harmful effects to beat the game against. You might ask – why bother? Well, successfully beating a run with a Pact active will get you Bounties. Basically, this is an easier way to get vital and rare items, such as Diamonds, Ambrosia and even Titan Blood. You’ll get these the first time you beat a game with any weapon, but not any subsequent runs. At least not without Pacts. Outside of that, you’ll have to trade with the Broker in the lounge to get such rare items, and that can be a much slower and more resource heavy process.
When In Doubt, Purge It Out
As you play through Hades, you’ll constantly be unlocking new content. I mentioned how you’ll come across various weapons earlier. You also will find new foes to challenge and gradually fill out a bestiary on foes and lore on other important areas and characters. But perhaps most helpful are the Prophecies. The Fates have a constantly updated list of minor Prophecies, and by fulfilling them, you’ll get rewarded with helpful items. Prophecies can be simple things like beating the game with a specific weapon to more challenging fare like beating a boss with a specific Pact active. You’ll even fulfill some Prophecies that defy fate itself for the betterment of your allies. I love how they all kept me invested in playing and even trying more harrowing tasks. It’s only the best games that manage to convince me to try my hardest and not feel defeated when I occasionally lose. Hades is one of those games. But that said, there are some areas where Hades fell short in my estimation.
Just Short of Divinity
Now, I’ve spent the bulk of this review singing my praises of this game. And while it definitely earned those accolades, there’s also a few small yet important things it could have improved. I’ve been playing pretty much non-stop for a couple weeks now, and at a certain point, the feedback loop started to falter. Not cause the game was suddenly bad, mind you, but because I had seen everything. I love rogue games since they constantly iterate and force me to improve. But it’s hard to do that when the content remains the same. Now, I know this might sound petty, but I really feel that Supergiant Games should have included more areas and bosses in the game. If not in the early part of the game, then definitely in the post-game. I’m dancing over some details here, but there’s a point at which Zagreus achieves his lofty goal, and is finally recognized by his father for his efforts. That’s when I feel some new areas should have been introduced. Though there’s a ton of great Olympians in the game, there’s some that aren’t present. They could have brought in the likes of Hera and Apollo, for example. There’s also another Goddess who shows up late in the game that I was convinced would become the new antagonist. Yet that never transpired. More than anything, as someone that fell in love with rogue games thanks to The Binding of Isaac, I truly expected new areas to pop up. Even if it only happened as DLC, I would welcome more content. Because in some ways, Hades almost feels somewhat incomplete without those features. Granted not everyone will spend as much time trying to unlock everything as I have. But for those dedicated players, the lack of real post-game content will come as an unwelcome surprise.
Still A Very Good Boy
Now, I don’t want to end on a negative note. I really did enjoy Hades, and a big part of that is due to the visual design. Supergiant always has amazing artwork, and this is no exception. The hand drawn portraits lend a ton of personality to everyone and everything, and each of the 4 realms is utterly distinct and eerily beautiful. I especially love small touches like how each of the Olympian Gods has a distinct color cue, which lets you instantly identify which deity is empowering your many weapons and attacks. The levels themselves are almost like living comic books, with a bit of a watercolor blush that really was attractive. On the audio side of thing, the game is equally amazing. I talked about the voice acting earlier, but it merits another mention how stunning it is. Each and every character not only looks great, but has a sound that instantly tells you who it is. The sound effects in the game are also catchy, such as the dynamic echo whenever you acquire a Boon, the thunder when you Call Zeus to your aid or the death knell of the many monsters. And the musical tracks are both catchy yet somehow classical sounding. Were I to grade Hades solely on the presentation, it would easily have gotten a perfect score.
Beyond Mere Mortals
Despite how long I’ve been ranting here, there’s plenty more I could say about Hades. But honestly, I feel it’s best you discover for yourself why I’m so enamored of Supergiant’s latest adventure. Though the game isn’t quite perfect, it truly earned the accolades it’s been receiving. And honestly, if they decide to implement some additional content later on, most of my complaints would be rendered moot. This is honestly my favorite game yet by Supergiant Games, and easily one of my favorite indies of 2020. If you love rogue and need something new to enjoy, be sure to put this one on your wishlist.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC; Publisher: Supergiant Games; Developer: Supergiant Games; Players: 1; Released: September 17th, 2020; ESRB: T for Teen – Blood, Violence; MSRP: $24.99
Author’s note: Review Copy was purchased by author.