The Netherworld is Gathered — Hades Review

Anyone who’s read my Twitter account, seen any of the horrible musings I inflicted on the internet on my old blog, or heard me pester my gaming friends knows that I adore Supergiant Games. By my estimation, they’re the only developer that’s never released a game that’s weak in any aspect — visuals, soundtracks, gameplay, story — they always work, every time. Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre were all delightful from top to bottom, and with their newest game they’ve delivered new levels of that same delight, bottom to top.

As they always do, Supergiant has somehow reinvented the wheel on yet another genre, this time taking aim at the roguelike. While the usual suspects you’d expect to find are all here — procedurally-generated maps, weapon upgrades, special abilities, constant death, increasingly difficult boss fights, tight combat, etc. — there’s added layers of depth and complexity that set Hades apart as one of the best roguelikes ever made, borrowing some of the best aspects of other giants of the genre. Take the satisfying, chunky combat of Dead Cells, the canonical deaths and progression of Rogue Legacy, and the bullet-hell chaos of Enter the Gungeon, and you’ve begun to scratch the surface of what Hades sort of feels like, but likely not nearly as good. Hades simply feels exciting to play. The combats are quick and responsive, your upgrades are easily visible and feel impactful with each swing of the sword or shot of the rifle, and the sense of progress in spite of countless deaths is felt, not only because of the constant cycle of upgrading and progressing farther, but also thanks to its consistently engaging story, and how it unfolds slowly with each and every death, revealing itself in a very Supergiant way.

Indeed, all the usual Supergiant trappings are here, as well. The vibrant, line-drawing style of the artwork that makes each character stand out as a unique being is reminiscent of Pyre’s bestial denizens of the Downside, the weapon-based isometric combat comes straight out of Transistor, the cynical narrator presiding over the whole affair feels like a direct callback to Bastion, and the heart-wrenching story that begins ambiguously and unfolds itself as the game wears on reminds one of … well, a Supergiant game. There’s the usual gorgeous landscapes, creative boss fights, and complex upgrade trees to allow you to cater to your own style of play, and of course special mention has to be made of Darren Korb, who not only provides his usual outstanding work on the soundtrack, at times laid back and at times raucous and thumping (with the occasional aid of frequent co-contributor Ashley Barrett’s gorgeous vocals) — he also voices the main character! Supergiant fans will of course also recognize Logan Cunningham as the titular character and a slew of other deities, with writer Greg Kasavin taking up a role or two, as well.

Hades casts us as Zagreus, son of the Greek god of the dead, who attempts — repeatedly — to escape his father’s realm and make it to the surface world. This task is a bit difficult, as you might expect, and as such he’s aided along the way by his extended family, namely a handful of other Greek deities who provide you with boons — mechanical upgrades — with each room you clear. These boons fluctuate in rarity, like in any good RPG, and provide a wide variety of benefits, from inflicting status effects, attacking more quickly, pushing your foes away, or calling on the raw power of the gods a few times per battle to wipe out your competition. One of the great elements of Hades that shines through here is how much all the individual deities and other characters stick out from each other. Their artwork and voice-overs are impeccable, and the abilities they bestow make are unique and fitting.

Aphrodite, for existence, can render your enemies weakened and “heartbroken,” making them deal less damage, while Ares can “doom” them and cause them to take a massive burst of damage after a short time. The divine hunter Artemis makes you crit a lot more, while Zeus lets you strike your foes with lightning when you do just about anything. Hermes is all about making you faster, and Dionysus hilariously allows you to inflict your enemies with a “hangover” condition to damage them over time. This individual expression for all the characters extends beyond the deities, too, thanks to a clever system whereby you can grant nearly every NPC in the game (from gods to demigods to even Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of the Underworld) a gift, after which they’ll give you one in return in the form of a trinket that grants you another minor benefit.

These characters that you’ll encounter run the gamut from the three furies, to Greek heroes like Achilles, Theseus, and Patroclus, to famous tortured souls like Orpheus, Eurydice, and Sisyphus, accompanied by an adorable giant rock with a face carved onto it called “Bouldy.” The designers clearly appreciated Greek myth, and their attention to detail shows.

The boons and trinkets you receive are merely a piece of Hades’s delightful combat puzzle. There are six weapons you have to choose from, each of which can be upgraded in different ways the more you use them, and each equally exciting and powerful in the right hands — with the exception of the longbow Coronacht, which just sort of sucks. While you may get particularly attached to smacking enemies about with an enormous shield, or pelting them from afar with a giant railgun, Hades smartly rewards you for swapping out your weapons from time to time, as the resources needed to upgrade them can only be found by killing a boss with each weapon for the first time.

All of this would be for naught if the combat wasn’t precise, quick, and energetic — which, of course, it is. The different enemies you’ll encounter are keyed to each area of hell you’re in. When you’re in Tartarus, you’re going to fight a lot of explosive-chucking pots, enormous orange ghosts, and disembodied crawling hands, but in Asphodel you’ll face skeletons and sentient boulders, in Elysium you’ll fight exalted souls that come back to life if you don’t vanquish their spirits quick enough, and by the time you get up to the Temple of Styx you’ll be facing off against gigantic venomous rats.The enemies are all visually and audibly distinct, so you can tell at a glance what your strategies will need to be, which is good because you’ll be making a lot of on-the-fly decisions. Hades is at its best when you can strategize and synergize with yourself to make your boons work perfectly for you. Poseidon’s abilities come with a lot of pushing and shoving, so in areas with walls you can slam your enemies into or traps to push them onto, you’re going to want to make sure you’re activating his gifts — but other times you’ll need the massive area-of-effect abilities afforded by special abilities or from certain boons, other times you might want to deflect enemy projectiles back at them courtesy of Athena’s shield-based upgrades, and still other times still you’ll need to dash out over a river a lava to take out a particularly bold foe.

Each weapon has a unique special ability on top of its regular attack, and each deity has specific upgrades keyed to those specific weapons, not to mention the occasional Daedalus hammer which upgrades your weapons specifically in unpredictable ways. You’ve also got a ranged “cast” ability that you can upgrade as well, allowing even further strategy when you reach the point where you’ve got three of them at once, certain deities have buffed it to do certain things, and you can do more damage to enemies that are currently holding onto it. You can also pick up cash to buy further upgrades from Charon’s shop, use darkness to buy permanent upgrades to Zagreus, use chthonic keys to get access to even further upgrades, use gemstones to gain access to randomly-appearing chambers and mid-level challenges for further rewards, trade your various resources in at the black market in the house of Hades, make deals with Chaos itself to suffer short-term consequences for long-term gain … Yeah. There’s a lot going on, but it’s smartly revealed over the course of play, just as the story is, so as not to overwhelm you with mechanics at the outset. By the time you near the end, you probably won’t even realize just how many split-second decisions you’re making, how many boons you’ve linked together to get a truly powerful build, and how many resources you’re managing.

Hades at times feels like a classic dungeon crawler reminiscent of a stripped-down Diablo, and at times it can feel like a frantic twin-stick shooter where you can barely keep track of where you are. Overall it’s very clever with the way it dispenses abilities and upgrades to you, and most of the time you’ve got a choice to make as you finish each chamber to decide if you want to go grab a health upgrade, get some money, visit a store, or receive a boon from a god. The choices you make in each run will impact the way you’re playing drastically, and as you near the end of an escape attempt you’ll realize that you’ve built a completely unique set of boons and abilities that you might not ever see again. After starting a run with three boons from Poseidon in a row, I had created an entire strategy based around shoving enemies into walls, thanks to upgraded damage from doing so, more opportunities to push them, and bonus uses of other abilities that did so as well. Boons from certain deities synergize really well with each other, too, like having an ability from Aphrodite that causes your enemies to take more damage when they’re weakened alongside an ability from Dionysus that damages enemies repeatedly who are near you — or an ability from Zeus that makes you strike lightning when you dash and one from Athena that shoots out a target-seeking arrow every time you damage someone.

Discovering this synergy is a true delight reminiscent of finding game-breaking card combos in Slay the Spire, but it feels more earned in Hades because you’re choosing what gods to gain benefits from every room, and what benefits you want from them. Sometimes, you’ll have to choose between two in one chamber, resulting in you pissing off the other god you didn’t choose and having to fight waves of their minions before they relent and grant you access to an even stronger boon. Other times, still, they’ll come together as part of the same boon and give you a super-charged combined boon ability unique to those two gods. All the while you’re hacking away at hordes of enemies and racking up dozens of small upgrades that you slot into your usual style of play. No two runs ever look the same, nor do the ways you choose to dispatch the fearsome bosses, which get stronger each time you best them and seem to learn from your chosen strategies. If you hadn’t noticed, there’s a ton of depth in Hades’s combat that isn’t immediately apparent, and it all works to its advantage.

While roguelikes have managed to make your numerous deaths canonical to the game in the past, none have ever done it as well as Hades does. Due to the nature of “life” in the Underworld, not only will your numerous foes remember your past encounters with them — successful or otherwise — and chide you about them, your friends back home in the house of Hades will, as well. Additionally, Zagreus will begin to learn more and more about the world he inhabits, and his little conversations with the narrator, the booming voice of his father, and himself are all a treat as he guesses along with us what version of the next fight he might be going into and remark when he faces an enemy we haven’t seen before.

I have loved other games of this genre before — the phenomenal recent release Risk of Rain 2 comes to mind — none have ever managed to tell a fully-realized story within the confines of the roguelike’s bread and butter, namely dying over and over. This setting seems like a no-brainer for such a tale, and it really is a treat to learn more about Zagreus’s parentage, what began his conflict with his father, and the mysteries of all the other characters he comes across, the like aforementioned Greek heroes, minor deities who inhabit his father’s house, and a skeleton who serves as your punching bag to test new weapons on. Odds are, if you can talk to somebody, you can talk to them another 15 times to learn more and more about their stories.

While the main campaign is likely to take you a brisk 15 hours or so, there’s tons of extra content after the credits roll to keep you coming back, in the form of a huge amount of additional challenges, extra upgrades to keep unlocking, and more of the story to discover. While it might not have the branching story paths of other Supergiant games, Hades has some of the most relatable characters and sharp writing of any of them, and really feels like a culmination of all the experimentation the studio has done over the last decade. Supergiant has once again created something greater than the sum of its parts, and Hades manages to be an engrossing story wrapped in a delightfully intense action game.

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