December 7, 2018. I'm watching TGA. The show is going well but there are not as many announcements as I expected. All of a sudden oh wow, a WORLD PREMIERE starts and I stop blinking. Supergiant Games are showing their new game Hades and I wasn't expecting anything from them for a couple more years. The trailer is incredible, Darren Korb's music - awesome as usual, Logan Cunningham is here. But. We have a problem.
It's a roguelike in early access.
Why I don't like roguelikes
This is kind of weird to hear from me: I started my twitch channel with Dead Cells, then played a lot of Slay the Spire, Monster Train and many other titles that have emerged as a result of Roguelike Renaissance. However, I don't really like this genre that much. I don't like repetition, playing through the same content even with some variations bores me to death. Yes, now I have not a bow but a sword, and a different bouquet of trinkets, but what's the meaning of all that if I'm going through the same areas, beating up the same bosses? Roguelikes usually do not show off the depths of worldbuilding and do not boast a deep and intriguing storyline, and those are the only two things that can motivate me to do anything in a videogame. When I see a good, well-made roguelike, I buy it, play it for the next 20+ hours and then never launch it again - it happened with every single card-roguelike I've tried. Don't get me wrong, if you like this genre, there is a bunch of amazing titles out there. Dead Cells was one of the first games not only to herald the resurrection of this otherwise pretty old genre, but also to show that the Early Access model works with roguelikes exceptionally well. More than that, it's probably the only proper way to develop your roguelike - in Early Access, together with your community.
And so, my favourite game studio that I trust wholeheartedly to develop most amazing games on the indie scene, announces their new project. It's a roguelike exclusive to EGS, and EGS is all new and kind of a little suspicious. Everything inside me tied into a knot. I want to play a new game from Supergiant but it's a roguelike, and it's in Early Access. I decided to wait for it to come out on Steam a year later and not to join its community until then. Later I will regret it.
I purchased Hades the day it released on Steam, streamed it and played solo, followed the patches and overall just observed closely what an incredible job Supergiant were doing with their community as the game was still in Early Access. Hades released on September 17, 2020. I played ~20 hours of it during the last year of the Early Access and was not that incredibly inspired by it as the story was not finished yet. When it released I couldn't focus on anything else. Eating and sleeping seemed to me like a waste of time. Eating lunch? That could've been a decent Hades run. I just wanted to play this game all the time.
Let me tell you all about it.
Death is your only family. Death - and I.
Hades is a roguelike set in a world of Greek myth where you play as Zagreus, the only son of Hades, God of the Dead. Zagreus always thought his mother was Nyx, Night Incarnate, but suddenly it was revealed that she, in fact, is not his real mother. Thus, young prince embarks on a long journey from the depths of the Underworld to the surface in search of his mother that he knows absolutely nothing about. Of course, papa Hades is not willing to play along and just let his offspring run around doing whatever he wants, so all his servants will stand in your way. However, Nyx was able to contact the Olympian Gods, and your numerous relatives - Uncle Zeus and Uncle Poseidon, cousin Ares, cousin Athena and the others - who didn't even know you existed, will happily guide you by sending their boons and blessings. They are sure that you are just tired of your insufferable cruel father and long to join them on Olympus to drink Ambrosia together.
You will face several bosses as you try to battle your way out from the four regions of the Underworld in your effort to reach the surface and search for your lost mother. If you die, the waters of the river Styx will bring your back home, to the House of Hades. The House of Hades accommodates quite a lot of characters apart from you, Nyx and Hades himself, including but not limited to: Thanatos, Death Incarnate, his brother Hypnos, who will greet you every time you die, your old friend Achilles, mother Nyx, and, OF COURSE, the goodest boy of the Underworld - Cerberus. This House is anything but boring.
A shocking novelty for a roguelike but a typical Supergiant thing to include - vast lore. After a couple of escape attempts Achilles will give you the Codex, your encyclopedia of knowledge. The more you progress through the game, defeat enemies, enter new regions, meet new friends, gather resources, the thicker the Codex becomes with lore. Everything in this game has lore. Those purple drops you pick up to upgrade your stats? That's Darkness, the power of Mother Nyx, the entry on it is right here. Talked to your father? Check the "Hades" page, it might have some new information for you. Even the Olympians have their own pages, their own stories and relationships with other characters despite the fact that your encounters are quite one-sided and they can't hear you at all. Learning all about the world, listening to the dialogues, engaging, growing close with the characters - that's why I play games from Supergiant. It's incredible that they managed to put a 300000-word story into a roguelike where traditionally the dynamic and the smoothness of the gameplay are two main points of focus, not the story or lore. I will run multiple runs through the same areas battling the same enemies 24/7 if in the end - or in the process - I hear a new dialogue, get a new piece of lore or meet a new character.
Supergiant Games were finally able to achieve the narrative continuity they started inventing in Pyre. Even after you finish the main story and the Epilogue, you will still learn something new with every run. Of course, it won't last forever but it will last longer than you imagine, that's for sure. Your every run is motivated by the narrative. You run from the House of Hades because you want to reach the surface and help the boy find his mother, not because it's a roguelike and thus you need to run. All your actions are motivated by the story and it's as Supergiant Games as it can get. These kinds of roguelike I like.
If you can't tell apart Athena and Aphrodite or Ares and Achilles, then Hades will broaden your horizons. If you are passionate about Greek myths, you will be pleasantly surprised at how delicately Supergiant Games and mainly Greg Kasavin approached the source material. They managed to weave an incredible story about a disfunctional family with 30+ characters into a roguelike about constantly running upstairs. I was delighted to see that many nuances of ancient myths were gracefully incorporated into the Hades narrative. For example, in myths Zagreus is said to be either the son of Hades or another embodiment of Dionysus. It is a less known fact far beyond the scope of mainstream Greek myth lore. However, this detail is present in the game, and there is a whole funny episode dedicated to it. It shows how much work Supergiant put into their research and how much they care.
The classic legendarium is full of... awkward episodes
mostly including Zeus that are either intentionally omitted in the game or beautifully transformed to shift you focus elsewhere. Hades is incredibly inspiring and I guarantee you'll want to revisit Greek myths after you play it.
It's a gorgeous game
All Supergiant games look incredible but Hades is just something else. Depicting Greek gods, surely, is a big challenge: they are well-known in modern pop-culture and every person has their own understanding of what they look like. However, the Art Director of Supergiant Games Jen Zee did a most fantastic job. Every single character in this game looks incredible, every single one, I kid you not. During the Early Access many character arts and their 3D models looked like hooded figures because they were not ready yet but every content patch would come with a character reveal. When Nyx was revealed, I just sat there with my mouth open looking at my screen for solid 15 minutes being like ?! Her art still shakes me to the core despite the fact that I've seen it a thousand times.
All characters are wonderfully diverse, you don't get tired of them and you impatiently wait to meet them again. 3D models look exactly like their 2D arts thanks to the talent of Paige Carter. Of course, each region of the Underworld comes with stunning environmental art and details created by Joanne Tran. Hades is not only a pleasure to play but also to just look upon. And a pleasure to listen to!
Voices of Greek myths
When I start any Supergiant game, I expect to hear Logan Cunningham immediately. In Hades he voices not only the Narrator, as he usually does, but also the Hades himself, Poseidon, Charon, Asterius and Achilles. All characters in Hades are fully voiced and it's probably the best voiceover I've ever encountered in a videogame. Very often one actor voices two or more characters but you'll never know until the credits roll. I couldn't get enough of Avalon Penrose's incredible performance as Megaera the Fury. Meg is one of the first characters you encounter and she sets the tone of your adventure for the first few ours of playing. All voice actors who participated in Hades are fantastic and they brought Hades a giant step up. Hope to hear more of them in other games, those people are gold.
If you have a speaking protagonist, it's always important that they are pleasant to listen to - Zagreus has A LOT of voice lines, you will listen to him all the time. To everyone's shock - and delight! - he was voiced by the Audio Director of Supergiant Games Darren Korb. And he nailed it!
There is one question I always ask while starting a new Supergiant game: where do I need to go to hear Ashley Barrett sing? Of course, in the world of Greek myth Ashley Barrett sings as Eurydice, the muse and wife of Orpheus. Eurydice is voiced by Francesca Meaux, another incredible performance that really conveys to you what kind of person Eurydice is. Darren Korb, as you'd expect, sings as Orpheus.
Music of the Underworld
Yes, I know, Transistor is very special and Pyre sounds like an old legend, and Bastion just sits there in your heart very deep... But Hades is F I R E. The soundtrack is so dynamic that you feel like it's not your actual playing that pushes you forward but the wave of the chthonic music. Yes, I can now say that the music is "chthonic" because now I know what it sounds like! There are also songs, of course. Orpheus and Eurydice, Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett, what else is there to wish for.
The sound design in Hades is awesome: even if you close your eyes you'll still know what's happening on your screen. You can't miss a fishing spot as there is a very distinct sound cue as soon as you clear the room; you can hear the Chaos Gate before you see it. Audio design makes you comfortable in the Underworld after several runs, it's so natural.
Every run is a good run
What really sets Hades apart from every other roguelike of the last years, is that however bad and unsuccessful your run might be, you are progressing nonetheless. Even if you didn't reach the first boss and died in the third room, you still got some resources to upgrade either the House or your stats, you heard a couple of new dialogues and all your quests in the House of Hades advanced while you were away. I hated dying in Dead Cells because it would mean to return yet again into that hopeless room and start from the scratchiest scratch. Yes, I will probably have an additional health flask, some kind of reactive slipper for my second weapon but it won't change anything at all. In Hades, however badly you screwed up your run, however badly you failed - you have succeeded anyway, and that's crazy. Sometimes I wanted to go back to the House of Hades so badly to talk to people, get new dialogues and advance some quests that I was seriously thinking about making Zagreus accidentally slip of a chthonic banana peel.
In Hades you always have a build, and it's quite rare for a roguelike. Too often in this kind of games you might get unlucky at the start of the run and then realize that you're not going to even reach the boss with this build, let alone challenge the boss. You hardly have any control, you just accept whatever the game has generated for you, sometimes choosing between two options. Even shops don't do that much - you might not have the money to afford anything. In Hades, quite on the contrary, you have a lot of control over your build, and as a result all your runs are successful to different degrees. Every god offers you three boons; you have three types of attack: base attack, special and cast, which is a projectile. Every type of attack can be upgraded with a boon, but your dash, your health, your potential ult can also be buttered with boons and upgrades. Even if you're chthonically unlucky and you didn't get any decent boons to upgrade your cast with, you've most certainly got yourself some crazy upgrades for your Attack or Special to shred your enemies with. Prices in Charon's shop are always the same and you have several ways to amass gold, so there is no way you can't afford any of Charon's wares during your run.
Your combat style changes drastically with the Daedalus Hammer - you're guaranteed to encounter two hammers each full run, and it will forever change one of your primary attacks. You have 6 types of weapons 4 aspects each, dozens upon dozens of boons, a whole bunch of trinkets that you can take from the House of Hades when embarking on your journey, countless items you can purchase in the Well of Charon, and I'm not even talking about your personal stats. Hades is unique because there are so many components that make each run different - but at the same time the recipe for success is so flexible that your every escape attempt is successful whether you've bested a boss, gathered resources, or tried a build you thought ineffective. Whatever you're doing in Hades - you're having a good time, and that's the thing.
Hades is a game without a definitive end point. Here you always have something to do even beyond the story progression and side quests, in no small part thanks to the Pact of Punishment.
Pact of Punishment
Hades, much like every other Supergiant game, features a challenge system. Among all, this one is the most intricately designed. You cannot earn special rewards by completing runs with the same kind of weapon, you need to raise the stakes. Pact of Punishment has a shocking number of parameters that you could adjust to make your new run more difficult than the last and obtain special rewards if you want to run with the same weapon. These parameters also include region boss upgrades that turn your usual encounters into a shining new experience. You can tweak the Pact however you want, increasing the difficulty of your runs: I am super clumsy and always step on traps and lava, so I never turn on "Heightened Security" that boosts the damage from traps. However, I can deal with steep prices in Charon's shop and upgraded bosses, so I'd rather choose those two challenges my next run.
If Hades is challenging for you - like it was for me - you can turn on God Mode in the options menu. It will give you 20% damage resistance +2% every single time you die. If you turn it on and then die, on your next run you will have 22% damage resistance, and so on. I am not ashamed to admit that 3/4 of my time in Hades I spent with the God Mode turned on. I wanted to progress the story so badly I couldn't wait until I develop (if it happens at all) a skill high enough to move forward by myself. However, the game remained quite challenging for me even after I turned on the God Mode, and I still die sometimes :D
The game constantly encourages you to increase the difficulty of runs or risk your otherwise very decent run to explore dangerous side activities. Hades is not afraid to reward the player, and it makes even me crank up the Pact of Punishment in hopes to open more Skelly statues, or "borrow" from Charon to see how different characters will react. Risk is always - ALWAYS - rewarded.
Game of the year
For me, Hades is the game of 2020 and one of the best games I've played in my life. Roguelike genre has always been very appealing to me, it has incredible potential but unfortunately time and time again I realized that nothing can motivate me to do anything in a game except for the story and the narrative. I just can't consume variations of the same content again and again, that's my problem. Supergiant Games took a fairly old genre and just brought it a mile further, showing that not only the smooth flexible gameplay can be a point of interest but also narrative, characters, lore. That players can be motivated to continue playing by not only new shiny whistles, new weapons and classic character progression, but also by emotional engagement, new pieces of the story, by building relationships between the protagonist and other characters. The pillars of the Supergiant game-building are still here: a deep engaging narrative, astonishing artstyle, incredible music, but not all of those were present to this degree - if at all - in other representatives of the genre. If I could draw, I'd draw a comic where Supergiant Games just walk down the street and suddenly find the roguelike genre. At first, they are not sure what to do with it but then they just slap a giant sticker that says NARRATIVE on it - then Darren Korb jumps into the frame and starts playing soul-tearing (in the best way) music, and thus Hades is born. Because that's basically what happened.
A careful balance between the expected roguelike gameplay variability and a number of constants (every region has a shop, you can always find a way to earn more resources, you can change your weapon's attacks twice per run) allowed Supergiant to make a really compelling roguelike-RPG hybrid where you don't ever have a useless or super-frustrating run, and also leave enough room for challenges and random events.
As in the case with Dead Cells, Early Access only benefited Hades. I regret I wasn't a part of the community while the game was in active development, it must've been awesome. I feel like the professionalism of the programmers, engineers and QA is often overlooked in reviews and I don't think it's fair - they did a titanic job. I can't imagine how you can code a roguelike with hundreds of possible builds and thousands voicelines that are triggered by special events, and then QA it so that even in Early Access your every game build is super stable. You are pure gold.
If you want to learn more about the development process of Hades, you can watch a Noclip documentary series, it's fascinating. And very sobering too.
With every game, Supergiant tried to elaborate on the genre, to have their own spin on it but Hades turned out to be truly exceptional.
I can't recommend it enough.
Playtime - 103hrs