“There is no escape” – Hades

Released: September 17, 2020

It seems to be becoming a theme where I will say that a game within a specific genre is not really my scene, so instead I will say that Hades was recommended to me by a friend who knew that I had never played a rogue-like before but that I have always found Greek mythology fascinating. There is a lot of variation between versions of the stories within the mythos and this creates a huge number of possibilities when retelling them, which is something that Supergiant Games have done masterfully. When you join insightful storytelling with a visually striking art direction and an incredible soundtrack then you know you’re in for a good time.

Players assume control of Zagreus, Prince of the Underworld, who attempts to escape his father’s realm to reach Mount Olympus. The Olympian Gods, who have been made aware of his plight, reach out to Zagreus during his escape attempts and bestow gifts to help Zagreus grow stronger and improve his chances of escaping the deepest pits of hell. Players are not given a healing ability and so they must take as little damage as possible during their runs but should they fail, Zagreus is sent back home, to the House of Hades, where his father is waiting for him.

I’m going to get this one out of the way first because I could, unashamedly, talk about the art direction of this game all day. It played a huge role in the draw I felt towards this game because I adore how the artists have used colour throughout the game. The Underworld maintains its intimidating feeling, but it is in no way muted or grungy to reflect this – in fact, the Underworld has never looked so vibrant. Each area of Hades is wholly unique to the other and because of how rich the environments are, it makes the Underworld a treat to traverse through. I love the contrast between areas like Tartarus and Elysium, and both biomes do a great job of storytelling simply in their appearances.

The dreamlike sci fi setting for Transistor (2017) and the painterly quality of Pyre (2017) are both beautiful, but there was something that immediately jumped out to me in Hades and it was the characters. The direction that the team went with reminded me of graphic novels and felt more purposefully stylised. My personal favourites are Ares (for obvious reasons, I mean come on), Primordial Chaos, Eurydice, Nyx and Megaera. One thing with Megaera that I thought was such a nice touch was to use the same red and magenta tones of her whip as highlights on her body – it compliments the blue/gold theme that she’s got going on perfectly but isn’t overused so you’re not distracted from her intimidating presence. 

Although I wasn’t one of the players who had experienced Hades during its early access period, I have since gone back to look through early game footage and the improvements made between then and the current v1.0 iteration is huge. The people over at Supergiant are brilliant at what they do, and I am desperate for a Hades graphic novel because the art is just sumptuous. To Jen Zee and the rest of the art department at Supergiant: Thank you for breathing life into this game with your incredible designs!

So we know the game looks great, I think I covered that as succinctly as possible, but what does it play like?

Death is a core mechanic that players need to come to terms with that rather quickly, and while it can feel frustrating it isn’t necessarily a punishment. Upon death Zagreus will lose any boons that he earned through his previous run and all currency used for Charon’s shops that can be found throughout the Underworld. Other items such as gems, darkness, diamonds and nectar are carried over to be used for power ups, cosmetic changes around the House of Hades, increasing bonds with NPCs and much more. For every death there is a lesson learned and a chance to rethink strategies as you boost Zagreus’ attributes and chances of escape.

I’ve said it before but here it is again: I am not a particularly skilled player. I am usually playing games in a state of panic, especially when it comes to combat, which manifested itself in Hades as frantic button mashing. My poor hands couldn’t take the stress after a while, so it forced me to actually look at what was happening instead of haphazardly dash striking around encounter rooms. I will admit that it was effective, but my runs are lasting a lot longer now that I’m trying to be more tactical about it. It’s disappointing to be sent back to square one, but I often relish in the chance to be able to interact with the many NPCs in the House and gain glimpses about their relationship with Zagreus or even to one another. Achilles broke my heart with his initial entry in the Codex about Patroclus and all I want is for them to be happy. I’m also always sure to pet the Underworld’s best boy every time I wind up back home because Cerberus works very hard and deserves acknowledgement.

There is a selection of six weapons for players to choose from for their escape attempts, known as the Infernal Arms, each of which can be upgraded the more you progress through the game and have their own unique attacks. I wanted to love the Heart-Seeking Bow, Coronacht, but I found it too slow for the play style that I eventually adopted, which turned out to be much more aggressive than I was expecting considering I usually like to keep my distance from enemies. I found myself using the Twin Fists of Malphon for its speed and to be able to pummel enemies. Exagryph is probably the most out of place weapon as it is essentially a gun but I like how it was tied into the lore as a precursor of firearms that was ultimately sealed away so it didn’t fall into the wrong hands. One of the benefits of dying a lot in Hades is that it gives you a chance to try out every weapon and see what combination of powerups work for you. While I may not like using Coronacht in general, I will definitely be trying another run with it now that I’ve learned more about the mechanics.

While it’s probably obvious, I’ve not actually escaped the Underworld as of yet and so I haven’t seen the ‘true’ ending, but I did reach the final boss in my most recent attempt. This came as a surprise for two reasons: I was shocked that I had made that much progress and I was gutted that the campaign itself is so short. Escape attempts will vary from player to player but the time from start to finish is not awfully long, which is quite disappointing but only because of how much I am enjoying the game. What keeps bringing me back isn’t necessarily the prospect of finishing the game, but instead it’s because I want to interact with the NPCs more. I have a spreadsheet of characters where I am keeping track of the lore because, I clearly have too much time on my hands, and I want to see where Supergiant has taken their version of the Greek myths.

I like that they’ve given each character a very distinct personality and while there is a history between them, there are gaps in their knowledge. Athena, for example, claims that the Olympians have tried to make peace with Hades but he refuses to accept it, and Hades himself doesn’t speak to Zagreus about his past with his family. One of the questions that I have been asking since the very beginning is why are the Olympians helping Zagreus? Achilles at one stage is unsure of the Olympians’ intentions due to the bad blood between them and Hades and, as far as I have seen, the Olympians had no idea that Zagreus existed until Nyx reached out to them. The number of story threads that connect each of these characters is brilliant and at its core, it feels like a family ordeal that’s been blown out of proportion, and who can’t relate to that?

The voice acting in Hades is perfect. They have struck a balance between engaging and humorous without coming across as cheesy, especially in Zagreus’ voice lines as he is both hilarious and bratty. It got to a point where I was recoiling in my seat while I was listening to him and Hades bicker because I felt like I really shouldn’t be there. But we also see Zagreus’ softer side when he interacts with other characters like Nyx and Thanatos. One of the things that I loved was that characters ‘remember’ things, the first example we see of this is whenever Hypnos will recall how the player died in their last run. I love when the Olympians comment on another God whose boon the player has already accepted, and more recently I spoke to Dusa which initiated a dialogue where Zagreus apologised to her for being insensitive in a previous conversation that I had with her. It’s these things that make the characters so much more interesting than rather than being beautiful images on a screen and the variation of dialogue is insane.

Also, while we’re on the topic of the audio direction, the music is amazing. Darren Korb is a genius.

I can see why some people would be concerned about the repetitiveness of the game, but the ever-changing layout of the maps keep every run feeling fresh and exciting. There is a huge variation of enemy types to keep you on your toes and the bosses are challenging, especially because you’re desperately trying to avoid taking damage. The Lernaean Hydra is definitely the boss that tends to throw me off and take up a death defy feat but I’m still getting past it consistently, so I consider that a win.

If my only real complaint about the game is that escape attempts from the Underworld are quite short, then I don’t really have any complaints. The story is engaging, the character interactions are always entertaining, and the art direction is literally God-tier. The high level standard that they’ve set is the reason why I want more content and would love to see the game expand into other areas of the Underworld, such as the Fields of Mourning from The Aeneid and maybe even to the other various rivers like Acheron and Lethe (mentioned in game). I’d also be interested in seeing more of the Gods and heroes make an appearance, possibly Hera and Hestia as they are the other two Gods who wielded the Infernal Arms. I know that a lot of players want to see Heracles but I quite liked that Supergiant decided to give the spotlight to other heroes. I think I just want to see what kind of wizardry the team pull off with new character designs if they ever decide to add more.

The Noclip documentary series about Supergiant Games’ journey with Hades provides an interesting insight into what releasing a game in early access is like for an indie team and I highly recommend that people watch it. The care, passion and energy that went into creating Hades is outstanding and I think Supergiant deserve all the praise and support that they’re getting because this game is an overwhelming success.

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