Hades – Review

Iain bought Hades with his own money. Some of the images are from Supergiant Games’ site.

Throughout all of 2020 we have sought ways to distract ourselves from the ongoing crises around us. We have take up arts, crafts, and new exercise regimes. We have rejected old habits, formed new ones, and sought comfort where we could find it. One of mine has been Hades from Supergiant Games, a computer game of battling out of hell (oooh, metaphorical).

I’ve been a fan of Supergiant Games ever since their first release Bastion, back in 2011. An action brawler with beautiful art, fantastic voice-over work, and a lovingly constructed score. These production values would come to epitomise the studio’s brand. I devoured Transistor when it came out, a more tactical game with a compelling, if tragic, story. I missed Pyre but might pick it up soon. Hades hit early access towards the end of 2018 and then spent about another year in development. It compelled me from the get go but I think it’s worth diving into what the final game looks like, and why you should play it. I’ll be avoiding spoilers as much as I can as I think there are a lot of parts of the game that you should discover for yourself.

Aren’t you a handsome chap

In Hades you play the son of the God the game is named after, Lord of the Underworld Hades himself. You are called Zagreus, and are compelled to escape this realm by a shocking revelation about your origins. You run away from home, picking up a weapon on your way out the door. This first escape sets into motion a string of events that will see you battling your way out the different levels of the underworld to finally breathe the fresh air up above. You will die many, many times, but each time you do will make you stronger, better, faster. Eventually you will escape. Then…well that would be telling.

The weapon you choose on each run will very much inform how you tackle the game, but also what help you might want to pick up along the way. Hades is not the only deity involved in this story. Along the way you’ll get aid from on high, from atop Olympus itself. Zeus’ lightning, Dinoysus’ Revelry, Aphrodite’s Charm, and much more besides will be offered to you. You’ll gather resources to boost you on subsequent runs, currency to rebuild the Underworld with, and upgrades to your boons and weapons.

Guess what his boons do

The building of a run is compelling. You start small, a single power offered to tease you as to what may lie ahead once you’ve jumped out the window of dad’s palace. You fight, you evade, you make choices on the path to follow. Every room will boost your resources, grow your power, upgrade your weapon, building a rolling stone that powers its way to the final battle of each zone, moss free.

The combat is beautiful. Balletic but chunky, with a visceral difference between the various weapons. You can build long range cannons, and close up brawlers, and everything in between. Over time you’ll tune into what powers and upgrades are best for certain builds, but I’ve been very impressed by the breadth of choice and the realisation that there don’t seem to be any wrong picks. Maybe you’ll choose one weapon for all your time with the game, but for me switching weapons frequently keeps the game feeling fresh.

Laying into them with a bow

The loop of the game was enough to make it good in my mind, a compelling action brawler with lots of interesting choices. What really elevates Hades above all the other roguelikes I’ve played is the story. Weaved through the existing Greek mythology, this story starts out as a classic tragedy with Son hating Father and evolves into something else over the course of your playthrough. The narrative is well written, compelling, and backed up by some of the best voice acting in the business. Not only that but it includes some incredibly inclusive storytelling that I can’t really tell you about without spoilers. Trust me, it is superb. You’ll believe each character’s motivations, you’ll sympathise with their choices, you grow to understand them as rounded individuals, not just 2D pieces of art (and what art it is!).

You’ll get good at Hades, but Supergiant has anticipated that. With most roguelikes, I’ve never been interested in the ‘Make things harder’ setting that most have baked in. Hades’ system. the Pact of Punishment, like the rest of the game, rewards you handsomely for continuing to conquer the game, long after you have completed it’s tale. Every run there are new rewards, new objectives, relationships to sort out, and weapon aspects to utilise.

Slight spoiler I know

I think any conversation around Hades and how well it has been received, needs to include a look at the company behind it a bit. I say this due to the current controversy around Cyberpunk 2077, the current AAA game dejour. The latter was made by a huge company, CD Projekt Red, over 8/9 years. This game involved a huge amount of crunch, basically company mandated overtime to get the product out the door. Many AAA games rely on this kind of work, and it is endemic in the industry. I also believe it to be fundamentally wrong and basically a problem of project management.

Supergiant Games, best I can tell, do not believe in this kind of working. They’ve had the same core team since Bastion, taking one a few more people as the company grew. They don’t have mandated crunch, they have time off from development properly assigned, they look after their people and it shows in their games. All of Supergiant Games that I have played, shine with passion for what they are doing and they are rewarded time and again with critical acclaim. I am not saying there aren’t passionate people behind a AAA like Cyberpunk, just that there is a different way to produce great games and we need to keep talking about that until it changes.

Hades is a comfort food to me. I pick up the controller, I grab a weapon and hurl myself into the underworld once more, feeling the familiar warmth of a hit there, a dodge here, a well executed build and a satisfying victory. Every run there is a new challenge, a new objective, a new thing to see. In a hellish year, a game set in the Underworld has been a light among the darkness. It embraces bold, inclusive storytelling, fast action, and hard challenges in a way that few games come close to mastering.

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Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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