Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of the son of the god of the dead, of his trials and his deeds, of his razor wit, and of the video game that chronicles his many failed attempts at escaping the Underworld. He trudged through Tartarus, ascended from Asphodel, and escaped Elysium. And he died. He died 30 times before achieving his goal. But that’s Hades for you, and I loved every second of it.
Hades is the latest isometric top-down action RPG from Supergiant Games. Billed as a “god-like rogue-like,” the game stars Zagreus, son of the eponymous god of the dead, as he attempts to escape his dreary home. He gets help in the form of boons from his relatives on Olympus, who want to meet their cousin. However, the souls of the deceased are also doing their best to stop him, and they will. Each failed attempt sends Zag crawling out of the River Styx into his father’s office, where he’s heckled and berated by dear old dad. You’ll be able to equip power-ups and weapons in-between attempts, but your most important tool for getting out of the afterlife is experience. You’ll hopefully get a little further each time you try to run away from home until you finally reach the end of the journey.
The game’s chambers are randomized, as are the rewards for clearing them. The explanation offered is that the Underworld rearranges itself as part of its defenses, making it impossible for any would-be fugitives to map the place out. As someone who dislikes rogue-like games immensely, this aspect had me worried going in, but Hades pulls it off magnificently. As you leave a room, you see what bonus is coming up and can usually choose between two or three. This allows for somewhat consistent builds as you learn which boons and power-ups fit your play style. However, the game rewards variety and experimentation, and you’ll find yourself switching from melee weapons to ranged and back between each attempt — and having fun in new and unexpected ways.
Hades has a good selection of enemies as well. Each area of the Underworld has a dozen or so different baddies for Zagreus to slaughter (or be slaughtered by), and you’ll need to formulate a plan of attack for each assortment that gets thrown your way. The bosses are difficult and fun, with variations on their patterns that change each time you come across them and a feeling of deep satisfaction when you overcome their assaults.
Rooms can have special encounters, which really spice things up. In the Death Approaches events, you’ll have a contest with Thanatos, the young Grim Reaper, in which you compete to see who can kill the most shades. In the Trials of the Gods, on the other hand, you choose which divine relative you want to receive a boon from first, and then you flee from the wrath of the other, whom you’ve just insulted.
After your first successful escape, you’ll have the ability to change the difficulty in various areas, a Supergiant staple. For example, you can give enemies buffs, yourself nerfs, bosses extra attacks, etc., and doing so will net you some pretty sweet rewards. The developers have a unique way of incorporating levers and knobs into their game mechanics, and this is their most robust system yet. It keeps things interesting as you play through the many hours of post-game story content.
An Underworld epic
Speaking of the gods, the story in Hades is expertly told. Having just learned of Zagreus’ existence, the denizens of Mount Olympus send their messages and blessings to him in the Underworld, in an effort to help him escape and join them on high. However, like all families, they have their drama and ulterior motives, as does the protagonist. And while the Olympians are fun, with their unique visual effects and amazing designs, it’s immensely satisfying exploring Zag’s relationships with his Chthonic family. I especially appreciated some of the deeper moments, ones that explored the themes of rejection, loneliness, longing, and depression. But before the game can become a downer, you’ll run into Poseidon or Artemis and have a smile on your face again.
The sound too in this game is a feast for the ears. The voice acting is spot-on, with each character perfectly portrayed by the team. Knowing full well what happens when you pick favorites among the gods, all I’ll say is that I’ve often selected a boon from smooth-talking Dionysus just to hear him speak. The sheer amount of dialogue is incredible, and I only noticed a repeated line twice in my dozens of hours playing it. Likewise, the soundtrack is incredible, a wonderful fusion of hard rock and Greek Demotiki music.
Finally, whenever you’re in the House of Hades, you can pet Cerberus. As many times as you see fit. As often as you’d like. Zagreus will (rightfully) refer to him as “the greatest boy,” and the giant hellhound will enjoy every moment of it. Your controller will rumble at the perfect frequency, and your brain will produce enough serotonin to last you until your next death and subsequent trip home, at which time you can pet him again.
Hades comes with virtually no negatives overall. It occasionally drops a frame or two in a very specific circumstance and only with dozens of enemies on screen. That’s the worst thing I can say about this game. It even runs smoothly in handheld mode, which is ridiculously impressive.
One Hell of a good time
Supergiant Games has reached a new pinnacle of its craft with Hades, and I can now count the number of rogue-like games I enjoy on one finger. Even pushing to get through it for this review, I never felt bored or frustrated. The game doesn’t have a single real flaw. It’s not the perfect game for every single gamer, but if you enjoy an experience that rewards skill and has an amazing story, spot-on voice acting, beautiful music, and — I can’t emphasize this enough — the ability to pet Cerberus, Hound of the Underworld, as many times as you want, then it’s definitely the game for you.
A review code was provided by the publisher.