The roguelike genre has come an incredibly long way, and Hades is a testament to that notion. These titles that subject you to the vicious loop of dying and starting over have been through the cycle of iteration since the release of the first Rogue game in 1980.
The concept itself has been melded with other genres, such as card games and beat-em-ups, to form entire subgenres with their own cult followings. And though the initial concept has been left light years behind, the core ideology still remains. Hades isn’t in the slightest a pure Rogue game.
However, it represents a near-perfect balance between brutal challenge and engaging gameplay. It’s the culmination of decades of building on ideas from other games long past, cherry-picking what makes the vicious cycle of death and starting anew fun in tandem with a well-executed action game.
Though the “academy of games” may have denied its rightful claim to being a Game of the Year, it makes it perfectly clear that it’s, in fact, a game that won’t easily be surpassed.
What Hades makes abundantly clear about itself is that it spares no detail, aiming only to be the entire package. That becomes immediately evident by its immaculately written story.
As the prodigal son of the Greek god of the Underworld, Zagreus, you’ve chosen to escape the desolate and gloomy land of the dead. The Olympian gods have sensed this and are eager to help you ascend to where they are and live among them, probably as a means to slight Hades.
So, you begin your quest to escape, but daddy dearest won’t let you just walk out the front door. He’s alerted all dwellers of his domain to stop you at all costs, even if that means killing you.
Fortunately, as the spawn of a god, you don’t actually die but merely return back to the house you abhor. Thankfully, there are a few allies that are willing to lend some support along the way.
Most roguelikes tend to have either very thin stories or make use of discovery mechanisms to bring out their narrative. Hades goes the full monty by telling a good video game story, complete with voice acting, cutscenes, and plenty of dialogue.
Every single one of these elements is crafted and written with the utmost care. The attention to detail is at such a high level of quality that it puts some modern AAA titles to shame. Forget for a moment how superbly delivered every line is.
The sheer size and variety of dialogue from all characters in the game are staggering. After countless cycles, I’m still getting fresh quips from Hypnos each time I bounce back from death.
And making so many different lines is hard enough. I don’t think I have encountered too many jokes, comments and snipes that didn’t at least get a smile or a chuckle out of me. Hades is just that well written.
With every new run, you get to uncover more about Zagreus and his relationship with his father. Whether he’s ranting about Hades to other denizens of the underworld, such as Nyx, or clashing with the big man directly, you learn a bit more about how problematic his childhood was.
More importantly, progressing through the game unravels the fate of Persephone, Zagreus’s mother, who left the House of Hades in an attempt to reach Olympus. Though mentioning her name was strictly forbidden by the slighted God of the Underworld, Zagreus still wishes to know of her whereabouts and whether she was successful in her attempt to flee.
These elements, along with a host of sub-plots, mini-stories, and character exposition, comprise a complex and deep overarching narrative that goes into the heart of living within the Greek underworld.
While you may think it’s all fire and brimstone, its depiction in Hades is more nuanced. As with most roguelikes, the game is divided into acts that you progress through by defeating their respective bosses.
Each act represents a different biome, complete with its own set of distinct enemies that get progressively more complex mechanically and, in some cases, slightly more annoying.
Each biome has a fair share of detail that defines each of them. Some of these nuances are purely cosmetic and, in some cases, also have an impact on gameplay. The first biome feels like a series of halls of the House of Hades, laden with candles, pools and treasure.
You must watch your step, though, as the floors often have traps that’ll heavily damage Zagreus if you’re not careful. Each biome has its own set of traps, triggers, and little detail nuggets that make them unique, as well as demonstrate the sheer amount of love that has been thrown into this title.
At its heart, Hades is a fast-paced action game played from a top-down perspective. Zagreus has at his disposal an array of simple attacks based on the weapon that he’s wielding.
His normal attack can be mashed for a quick combo. He also has access to a more potent attack that can be charged for a more powerful attack with different properties. For instance, when unleashing a charged Eternal Spear, Zagreus spins furiously in a circle striking multiple enemies around him.
On the other hand, the Shield of Chaos can be pointed in any direction while charging and releasing it will have Zagreus charge in that direction, deflecting and damaging enemies in his path. Part of your typical arsenal also includes a ranged shot attack that stays on its target until it’s destroyed before you can pick it up and use it again.
To fully round off his kit, Zagreus also has a dash that allows him to move quickly in any direction, dodging attacks and moving out of the way of sure death.
As you traverse through the rooms of the various biomes, you’ll come across emblems of the gods of Olympus, summoning them down so they can lend you their aid.
This assistance comes in the form of upgrades, called Boons, with effects that vary depending on the one you call upon. Zeus will naturally grant Zagreus lightning-type abilities that chain from one foe to the next. Aphrodite’s Boons will allow you to inflict the Weak or Charmed status effect on enemies, lowering their effectiveness and improving your survivability.
All of the Boons add different properties depending on which weapon you’ve taken and form the basis of your build. You can even choose to enhance your shot attack, granting yourself more ammo and giving it damage over time capabilities.
Suffice to say, the Boon system is highly flexible, and because of the nature of the game, you’re always encouraged to change things up and try out new playstyles. At the same time, though, Zagreus’s collective skillset is so fundamentally simple to grasp that it’s easy to get to grips with any new build you try.
Hades removes some of the feeling of randomness that most roguelikes have by allowing you to choose between two rooms each time you clear one. After all enemies around you are defeated, you receive the assigned reward and then get to pick where you go next.
Each door is clearly marked with the kind of reward you’ll receive after clearing it. As mentioned above, some rooms will allow you to summon a God to grant you a choice of three boons. Some will give you gold which can be used in shops for items, upgrades, and consumables.
You’ll even have the option of collecting Darkness, a currency used to grant Zagreus permanent boosts by accessing the mirror in his room. By choosing which room you enter, you can customise your runs to meet specific goals. For instance, you may want to maximise your Darkness, so you choose the doors with the purple hearts when they become available.
For progression runs, you can prioritise doors that lead to Boons and shops in case you need to replenish health. In some cases, rooms contain random challenges, typically involving Hades’s wrath that summons large numbers of enemies in tightly confined spaces.
What’s truly remarkable about Hades’s gameplay is the sheer amount of time you can spend in the game and never be bored. Combat is snappy and fierce, thanks to the design of the different weapons.
While simplistic, I always felt I needed to improve some aspect of my gameplay in order to maximise my chances of leaving a room unscathed. Though not every run is going to get you far, you’re always making progress in some way. It’s rare to walk away without any Darkness or other item that unlocks something.
Even if you die with very little to show for it, the game’s amusing dialogue and story progression serve as a reward for simply being in the world and trying. And when all else fails, you can always pet Cerberus because, yes, in Hades, of course, you can pet the giant three-headed dog.
I submit once more that Hades is the whole package. A superbly designs action game that pushes you to the limit in terms of skill and exhilaration. There’s not a moment in the game that’ll make you feel bored or that you haven’t made some form of progress in the game as a whole.
The game’s cast of characters, with their quippy dialogue and masterfully delivered lines, suck you in right from the start, showing you a world that may be fallen in underworldly despair but still finds room for some humour.
Every inch of Hades’s visual design is a feast for your eyes, with vibrant and sinister colour palettes that marry each other beautifully to deliver a dark yet amusing environment full of lighthearted moments and mystery.
It’s frequently questionable when a reviewer is willing to grant a title a perfect ten, and was this any other title of recent times, I’d be inclined to agree. However, Hades isn’t just a triumph of game development but one of a collective of art disciplines.
From the writing to the visuals to the sound design, every tiny part of this title is a labour of love, carefully crafted bit by bit to become the best game it can be. If that’s not what a perfect game should be all about, then I don’t know what is.
Pros & Cons
- Superbly written dialogue and masterfully delivered voice-acting
- Exhilarating and fast-paced combat that’s simple to grasp and easy to experiment
- Stunning 2D visuals painted in breathtaking colour palettes that bring dark and lightheartedness together
- One of the best narrative takes on Greek mythology and its Gods
- Endless dialogue instances that keep each run feeling fresh, progressing and unravelling the story of Zagreus and his relationships
- Endless possibilities for builds and playstyles through a combination of systems
- You can pet the dog - enough said
- As with most roguelikes, the idea of dying and restarting anew doesn’t sit well with everyone