While rogue-lites are quite fun, they can be rather restrictive in certain ways. Trying to tell a story, for example, is rather difficult given the run-based nature of the genre. What Supergiant Games have done with Hades, however, shows that anything is achievable if you have the right ideas and put your resources in the right places. Not only does it evolve the rogue-lite genre with ease, it’s also a singleplayer game that is just as fun and engaging at hour one as it is at hour eighty, which for me is rare. Hades, in my opinion, is the best rogue-lite I have played to-date, and the best game I played in 2020.
Hades is an isometric top-down action rogue-lite in which you play as Zagreus, who is the son of Hades. He is trying to escape the Underworld to be with the other Olympians, but every time he dies he ends up right back at the start. Over time, it is revealed that his true meaning for escape is to reunite with his true mother, Persephone, despite it being against his father’s wishes.
While its story sounds basic from the offset, it’s how the story progresses in this game that is so unique. Many rogue-lites have struggled with telling a narrative within a run-based game, but the mythological setting gives the game narrative explanations to death and randomized environments, and having the narrative work with the gameplay allows better craft characters and storylines. The way this game delivers characters both within and outside of each run is by crafting a ton of unique dialogue for each character and character interaction, and a lot of the characters treat this world as “just another day on the job,” which both works with the game as well as paints the Greek Gods in a unique and more jovial manner. There are a few characters and story events that are a bit hard to advance because of the game’s randomized level design, but being able to talk to the Greek Gods and other mythological characters even dozens of hours in and still run into unique story beats and dialogue is impressive.
Who knew that being the God of the Dead could be so boring?
As for the storylines and relationships themselves, Hades does a great job with that too. Each character is unique and well voice acted, and their complex relationships in regards to what Zagreus is doing means no character is entirely good nor evil. Even some of the boss fights involve characters who don’t (or rather can’t) really hate Zag because of his standing with them before the events of the game and how they ultimately are forced to see him again and again. The game also introduces nectar (and eventually ambrosia), which is given to various characters to strengthen their relationships with him, and seeing each person’s relationship grow in relation to my runs runs was super interesting to watch unfurl. The most interesting relationship is the one between Zag and the narrator, as he is able to actually hear the narrator and there are parts in the story where the narrator reveals major plot points that he catches onto. The one falter I found with the story and relationships is with Zagreus himself, as I found his voice acting to be rather dull compared to the rest of the cast.
While beating the final boss may be the end of the game for many, where this game is different is that this is where the story kind of starts. Since there can only be so much character interaction and whatnot within each run, the various storylines and character arcs are a slow burn, and while I normally prefer tighter stories, this game manages to dangle that carrot on the stick in a way that keeps the story engaging even in the high hour counts. New plotlines open up, romancing for a few characters opens up, and relationship and character arcs slowly reach the finish line. One moment that stands out to me is every time Zag makes it to Persephone, as Zag being slowly dragged back to his home despite wanting to spend more time with his mother is surprisingly heartbreaking to watch. What’s also interesting with these various plotlines is how the dialogue shifts based on new circumstances. The reasoning for escape changes at one point in the story, and seeing the characters react to this change is neat. Not all of it is perfect, as I would’ve liked to have seen some better character arcs with a few characters like Theseus, and some of the story moments aren’t worth the work, but for the most part this game does a great job at keeping characters, relationships, and storylines interesting for a long time.
While an engaging story isn’t all that common in a rogue-lite, having strong combat in an action rogue-lite is crucial, as gameplay is what takes center stage in this genre. Fortunately, just like the story, Hades nails it and manages to keep things engaging for hours on-end. In regards to the basics, Hades has all of the essentials of a top-down melee game while also being a tight experience. Basic attack, special attack, dash, an ultimate attack, and a special attack based on a consumable item that either recharges or needs to be picked up again can be found here. There are six weapons in the game (sword for basic melee attacks, shield for bashing attacks, bow and arrow, spear for longer-range melee, fists for fast and short attacks, and a gun), and what’s great about these weapons is not only their diversity but also how well balanced they are. I didn’t find myself favoring one weapon over the others because all of them feel great to use, and I can’t think of a game where I found myself falling in love with all weapon types.
Within each run, there are a couple of bosses to defeat that guard the entrance to a new area. Each boss is unique in personality and attack patterns, and I don’t have any major complaints with fighting any of them except for the first time I fought Hades as it was frustrated to see him come back to life. While they are fun to fight and I think each boss is someone Zag isn’t exactly enemies with is interesting, I mainly want to highlight the variations and evolutions to the bosses. Bosses change slightly each run which helps with variation, like for example Theseus calling upon different Gods for aid or a different Fury sister fighting Zag in the first boss fight. These bosses also evolve to become more difficult as the game goes on, which means not being able to get too comfortable with them. Boss fights can be a tricky thing to pull off, but I think Hades does a good job at making them balanced as well as scaling them and adding variation for higher replayability.
One of the three Fury sisters encountered in the first boss fight. Sometimes, multiple sisters will attack at the same time.
While the basics are great, where the combat truly shines is with the Gods. Within each run, Zagreus interacts with the Gods through items called Boons, and each God specializes in different abilities. Artemis focuses on critical hits, Athena focuses on defense and damage reflection, Dionysus focuses on poison, and so on. Every attack type, dash, and various active and passive abilities can be picked up via a random selection of three Boons from each encounter with said God in each run. While each weapon is varied in their attack style, the true variation and different character builds shows its full form with Boons, and this is where the combat’s high replayability truly shows. There are so many ways to craft unique and powerful builds for each weapon which I found fun from beginning to end, and combining various abilities from various Gods to turn a decent weapon into some hodge-podge of epic abilities made even builds within the same weapon incredibly unique.
Just as important as the combat in a rogue-lite is its level design, as I usually find that to be a make-or-break for me. Seeing repeated room layouts is usually a turn-off for me, but instead of rooms being shifted around and connected together to make a level in other games, however, each room is the level itself, and they are all essentially just combat arenas. Do the rooms repeat? Yes, but I think the way they handle these levels keeps it from feeling repetitive because it shifts the focus onto the combat. How a full run works is that Zag goes through a bunch of these rooms, hits a boss fight, then enters the next area with new enemies and more rooms to go through. The first three areas are structured like this, but the forth area, Styx, is different in that there are five paths to choose from, and one of the paths has the key to the final boss. While I love the structure of the levels because of how tight they are and how they mostly rid of the repetitiveness and RNG of a normal rogue-lite, I found the final area frustrating for awhile because of how it re-introduces RNG. It didn’t annoy me too long though, and I think overall the level design is great as it mostly tries to stay out of the limelight for the rest of the game to shine.
While the levels are for the most part combat rooms, there is still a lot to talk about in regards to what’s within them. For starters, each room usually has multiple paths to take, and each path will show what reward will be found in the next room as well as if the enemies have extra armor or if there will be a mini-boss, which I found as a nice way of letting me focus on the build I wanted to create. Various traps and whatnot like spike traps, smoke traps, projectile traps, and later on poison are filled to help or hinder with fighting enemies. Hitting enemies into pillars or walls will result in pillars breaking down and rocks falling on their heads, causing some damage. None of it is crazy unique or anything, but it does give combat some extra flavor. Some rooms offer Infernal Troves, which are time trials to kill all enemies speedily for a reward. There are also occasional vendors like a purple fountain that sells temporary buffs or a red vendor where items can be sold. The weirdest one by far is a fishing mini-game that occasionally pops up, and caught fish can be traded for resources. Later on in the game, some other interactions like Erebus Gates open up that offer a separate challenge room to complete. For the most part, I found these elements to be nice for adding a little extra to each room.
Nyx loves me (as a mother), fish fear me.
Where the mechanics within the run gets really unique is with the Gods. Each God has their own Boon to give, but there’s more to it than that. One of the Gods, Chaos, offers Boons that have temporary debuffs and requires some damage taken to get to, but the buff from the Boons are usually worth it, so it’s an interesting dilemma. Sometimes two Gods offer a Boon in the same room, in which one has to be chosen, resulting in the non-chosen God aiding the enemies, then eventually conceding and offering their Boon at the end. If the right pattern of Boons are picked up, there is a chance for a Duo Boon to spawn, in which two Gods team up and craft a unique ability. Outside of that, Thanatos sometimes appears and challenges Zag to who can kill the most within a level for a reward, Daedalus offers a Boon that significantly alters the attack pattern of a weapon, Hades himself sometimes forces Zag to survive in a room for an x amount of time, and Charon offers a shop for purchasing various goods. Just like the combat, when the Gods get involved, that is where this part of the game really shines.
In between runs, Zag spends time in the House of Hades, which acts as a central hub. Here is where he can interact with various characters, purchase upgrades, turn in fish for resources, trade resources, train with weapons, and more. With every run, the main base changes a bit as new areas and upgrades open up and characters shift around. Just like the rest of the game, the drip-feed of new mechanics and upgrades keeps pace with everything else and results in a highly replayable experience for hours on-end, even when I started cruising through runs after my first victorious foray with Hades. Plus, the home area also plays into the “another day on the job” vibe well, with Hades almost always behind a desk processing souls, the kitchen and lounge filled with souls and some characters chatting it up, a board in the lounge that shows a “featured house servant” similar to an employee of the month, and even an administrative chamber filled with souls doing paper work (as well as where statistics on previous runs and whatnot can be found). Even well after the credits rolled, I didn’t know when to put Hades down because of the game’s introduction to various new mechanics and upgrades, a lot of which stem from the home base.
In regards to the upgrades, well, there are a lot. A mirror in Zag’s room offers various active and passive abilities to him when he’s in a run like extra lives, boosts to attacks, and even an ability that changes the reward of the next room. Alternate attacks to weapons can be unlocked and upgraded, and there is even a cool version for each weapon that is not only significantly different from the rest but is also based on weapons from other mythos. Character relationships will unlock keepsakes that offer various abilities inside of runs, and a few characters even offer a companion that aids in combat. Even the house itself has various decorations and music to be bought. The upgrades aren’t perfect, as I think the underworld garden is a wasted opportunity and I wish the game explained how to unlock some the upgrades like ambrosia slots for characters or even some of the story beats like the epilogue, but there are plenty of upgrades to look out for while resting between runs.
Beyond all of the upgrades, the home base also has a bunch of other mechanics that open up as the game goes on. The codex is a large compendium full of information about characters, enemies, location, Boons, and much more, and it’s handy to have when it comes to figuring out how to unlock various Boons and the current state of relationships with others. The training room allows Zag to test out various weapons, and equipping each weapon gives a brief rundown on the controls, which is helpful for if and when I take a long hiatus from the game or switch platforms. What’s also cool about this room is that the “test dummy” is actually a full-blown character named Skelly who’s a lot of fun to talk to, and a random weapon is given a crystal boost (which is one of the game’s many forms of currency) after each run, which I think is a good incentive for me to change around my loadout. Later on in the game, the Pact of Punishment is unlocked, which is a large list of difficulty modifiers with points attached to each one, and using these modifiers will start to offer rewards for killing bosses again. Not only is this list highly customizable and includes some major changes to the run, but each weapon has its own Pact of Punishment high score to work on, which means a whole lot of time for slowly cranking up the difficulty. Overall, the home base highlights just how much this game has to offer as well as plays to the story and vibe of the game well.
The training room, where Skelly’s whole job is to be Zagreus’ test dummy.
For just about every game I can think of, I usually just play it on one system and call it there. I was enjoying this game so much, however, that I decided to pick up a second copy on my Switch after already putting a few dozen hours into the PC version. I didn’t have to restart, however, as this game offers cross saves between the two platforms, which is essentially what I wanted out of the Switch to begin with. The game ran fine for me on PC, but I was surprised by how small the downgrade was to Switch, and I was able to comfortably play on the handheld platform almost immediately. The ability to cross save is a great feature I wish more games offered, and the Switch performance for this game is surprisingly solid considering the platform’s weak hardware.
In conclusion, Hades shows that with the right talent and ideas, fantastic games can be made even with small teams. This game manages to do something for me that not even most high-budget triple-A games can do: create a singleplayer experience that is engaging at high hour counts. Even at around 90 hours in, I still have plenty of reason and incentive to return. The story is masterfully done, the combat is a blast, and the game highlights the best aspects of rogue-lites while managing to strip away most of the bad parts. This is my favorite rogue-lite to-date, and I recommend this game to just about everyone.