Hades reinvents the roguelike by adding in a prescient visual novel element that is so addictive, you may prefer it over the game’s brilliant gameplay.
In Hades, you play as Prince Zagreus — the son of the eponymous god — who has decided that he’s had enough of his underworld digs and that it’s time to make his way to Olympus. You must traverse countless minions and several floors of traps and occasional bullet-hell mayhem while choosing power-ups — called "Boons" — from gossipy and verbose Greek Gods. After each death, Zagreus is brought back to his father’s house via a resurrection pool of blood. Here, you can chat with several Gods and other beings, pet your allergenic dog, Cerberus, upgrade your build, and do some home decoration.
The dialogues had in Hades reflect the choices you’ve made while exploring the game, and the game is shockingly responsive and specific. In the dungeons, the Gods respond differently based on your build and progress, and may mock other Gods you’ve spoken to. There is a mechanic where some rooms have you choose between two Boons, and the God who feels jilted floods the room with attacks in an attempt to take their jealousy out on you. It feels reactive and refreshing. New dialogue feels never-ending. If you get invested in the lore, you’ll find something new and surprising in every run.
The narrative is an electrifyingly focused meditation on escape and generational trauma. I often dislike how games in this genre are deliberately opaque. Hades is the opposite. It drip feeds you new relationships and backstory whenever it can. Every element of the game is laser-focused on explaining Zagreus’ relationship to his mythological universe. Each character has their own reason for wanting to help Zagreus escape. There is also plenty of family melodrama to enjoy — much of it incestuous and erotic — and the story is more a YA coming-of-age tale than anything. (Zagreus is like a kid in a 90’s sitcom who isn’t allowed to leave his room.) Thematically, it all ties in so well with the actual challenge you’re facing, which is to escape by any means possible. Its singular focus on the protagonist also keeps you from ever feeling like you’re the recipient of a massive lore dump.
Zagreus — like many of us during the pandemic — is anxious from his time spent cooped up in his father’s abode. He spends his days learning more about the eons of misery and feuds wrought by his predecessors, and above all means to mend some fences and create a less miserable existence for himself and his immortal friends. Hades tells his son that things have always been done a certain way, and that there is no hope of changing that; Zagreus should accept his nepotistic appointment. Sitting isn’t allowed in the house of Hades, nor would the Prince want to take a break given his yearning to flee. As eternity marches on and Zagreus learns more about the world around him from his cyclical escapes, he slowly, but surely, erodes the cycle of pettiness and hatred of his obstinately callous and violent society.
You’ll find something new and surprising in every run.
Hades is instructive in how to make the player feel like they’re always making progress. No run is truly ever lost. In runs where I was in dire straits, I would refill my Death Defied — the ability to revive after death with diminished health — in the next room or find a bountiful treasure chest that would help me in the long run. At the start of the game, I was flailing about trying to master the dash timing and parsing out which routes to choose, but after a few trips back to the lobby, welcome hints and upgrades, and trial-and-error tinkering with the Boons, I consistently reached the final boss. Yet, it’s hard to feel disappointed about losing a great run when there are so many zippy lines of dialogue to take in and choices to make about your permanent upgradables. I found the game to be generous with these power-ups as well, which makes the game feel more accessible than others in the genre, like The Binding of Isaac or Enter the Gungeon.
The game forces you to make tough choices, and rarely does it feel like you’ve made the wrong one. You’ll often have to pick between win-now boons or resource hunt for future upgrades. I did occasionally misunderstand a tutorial or end up buying something useless for my playstyle. The beauty of the twitchy combat system is that the game encourages you to feel like you’re cheating at it. Combining abilities in ambitious, strange ways always yields results, and there are some abilities you can only access by diversifying the Boons you choose. The first time I beat the final boss, who can be maddeningly hard, I had a seemingly unfair build where each time I attacked I regained some health, maxed-out attack speed, a deflecting shield whenever I dashed around. It was virtually impossible to take my health away.
The actual combat is fundamentally simple, and relies upon dashing around enemy attacks and savvy positioning. The weapon choices and Boons do an exceptional job of adding variety. For example, there is a fisticuffs weapon that turns you into a pugilist combo artist like Little Mac in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and a reloadable gun that doubles as a grenade launcher. These play nothing alike, and each has their own upgrade trees that change up the movesets. One thing I did find annoying about the moveset is that some weapons have a dash-attack, and it’s difficult to parse when you’re performing it in the middle of a messy encounter, and I wish these moves had better visual indicators.
Hades is strongly imagined with a beautiful hand drawn quality and finely polished animations. The music is pulsing and hardened, driving the player to keep surviving. I especially loved the crunchy guitar solos that feature in the magma level. The size of the dungeon space itself is quite small, and the rooms don’t change up as much as others in the genre. Secret rooms are rare, and there are only a handful of bosses. The bedrock of Hades is made of story and player builds. The presentation is mostly immaculate, though, with memorable artwork and detailed character designs. On the Switch, there was some significant slowdown in busier fights, but if anything, it gives the player more time to recover.
I’ve poured hours into Hades, beaten it, and still jump back in all the time. Without saying too much, the game really opens up and allows you to adjust the guts of its system after you reach the endgame. There are still stories I haven’t seen the end of, rooms I haven’t seen, and weapons I haven’t mastered. As I improve my skills, I can see Hades’ hardened visage begin to crack a bit, and find that some characters’ wounds are healing. Like Prince Zagreus, I fear I may be stuck in it for eternity. I couldn’t ask for a better way to spend it.
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