This is a short review for the game Hades, released by developer Supergiant Games in 2020. This is the same development team that formerly created the games Bastion and Transistor, and Hades shares a lot of overlap with those previous titles in terms of art style, gameplay, and narration. Hades can best be described as a roguelike action game in the same general vein as Rogue Legacy. You play as Zagreus, the son of the Greek god Hades, attempting to escape from the underworld on each run. A successful escape attempt will progress through four different areas and defeat four bosses over the course of roughly 30 minutes of real-world time. After dying in the attempt or successfully making it out of the underworld, Zagreus will end up back at his starting point and can begin another trip through the dungeon once again. As in Rogue Legacy, the player can carry over some of their progress to the next run and slowly get stronger over time in their quest to achieve victory.
The biggest difference between Hades and other previous titles in the roguelike genre comes in the form of its narrative elements. While the gameplay itself is solid in Hades, the storyline is the main reason why people will play this game and keep coming back to it again and again. The characters that Zagreus meets throughout the game will grow and change over time as a result of his conversations with them. There isn't much in the way of player choice here (the story sequence will unfold in almost entirely the same fashion regardless of what you do) but there are major changes that unfold over the course of the gameplay. It's not enough to make it out of the underworld once, the player will need to escape again and again and again in order to see how the plot unfolds. This is both a strength of Hades and one of its primary weaknesses, as there's both a lot of replayability and also a lot of repetitiveness at the same time. If you're enjoying the gameplay though, then there's not much of a downside and this game has a truly insane amount of prerecorded dialogue. I had to make something like 30 successful escapes before I started to see generic stock language instead of something specific to the moment.
Normally I would start out a review by focusing on the gameplay and only tangentially referencing the plot of the game in question. With Hades, however, the plot is such an important driver of the rest of the title that I feel compelled to start with it. As mentioned above, you play as the god Zagreus in this game. Zagreus has a terrible relationship with his father Hades and decides that he'll try to escape the underworld and make his way to the surface. This requires fighting his way through the hostile zones of Tartarus, Asphodel, and Elysium in the hopes of making it to the outside world above. Zagreus is aided in his quest by the Greek gods of Olympus and the player can expect to see familiar figures like Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, etc. show up here to bestow some of their powers on Zagreus. All of these characters are fully voice acted and have memorable portrait art and personalities that help to make this game such a delight to experience. There are roughly two dozen major characters in this game and Zagreus will spend a lot of time interacting with them.
But escaping to the surface is only the beginning of the game, not the end of it. Each restart back in the House of Hades is a chance to hold new conversations with other characters, level up Zagreus in a number of different ways, test out new weapons, and unlock additional areas. This is the place where Hades distinguishes itself the most from its peers and I've never seen another roguelike game where the "town" area is arguably more interesting than the dungeon. In Rogue Legacy, the player will purchase their upgrades in a minute or two and then move on quickly to the next character run. By contrast, in Hades it's not unusual to spend half as much time in the House of Hades as out in the dungeon fighting monsters. There are lots of people to chat with and so many unique conversations that don't repeat. It's clear that the developer spent a massive amount of time working on this portion of the gameplay.
And again to the credit of the designers, these conversations have a real impact over time. The House of Hades grows larger as the game develops, more characters will appear there, its appearance can be upgraded repeatedly with a series of cosmetic changes, and the relationships between the characters grow and deepen. The surprising theme that emerges is that Hades is ultimately a game about family: a great, big, incredibly messy family as embodied by the gods of the Greek pantheon. Zagreus has the chance to knit back together a series of relationships that have been broken and help to reunite his family together once again. That's a genuinely unique concept that I can't recall seeing elsewhere, and especially not in this genre of games which tend to be heavily focused on dungeon-crawling. Players are likely to keep trying more escape attempts because they want to help Zagreus search for his lost mother, or to help out his mentor Achilles, or just to figure out what the deal is with Skelly, the animated training dummy used for weapon practice. If you're someone who enjoys the narrative elements of game design, there's a ton to enjoy in Hades.
With that said, this is still ultimately a roguelike game where the goal is to escape from the underworld on each character run and that means combat and dungeon crawling are at the heart of the gameplay. Zagreus has four major abilities which are conveniently mapped to the four primary buttons on a controller. There's an Attack move which is typically a lighter and faster offensive action, along with a Special move that tends to be a heavier and slower move of some kind. With the default starting sword, the Attack is a quick three hit combo while the Special is a big clear out hit that has a longer recovery time afterwards. Zagreus also has a ranged move known as his Cast that tosses a projectile in the direction that he's facing. There's only one Cast available initially (Zagreus has to go and pick it up after tossing the thing) but with upgrades the player can eventually have three total Casts. There are a number of strategies that can use the Cast as the primary form of offense under the right circumstances and it's always useful to have at least one ranged option when using some of the melee weapons. Finally, the last primary move is a Dash action that makes Zagreus leap forward while gaining a very brief invulnerability for the length of the dash. The Dash can be upgraded to get multiple dashes at a time, up to five in total which grants a long period of invincibility, and can also be empowered to deal damage and gain other status-inducing properties. Most fights consist of Zagreus constantly dashing around like a maniac to reposition himself and take advantage of his invincibility frames to avoid attacks.
The Cast and the Dash actions always remain the same at the outset of each escape attempt. However, the Attack and Special moves will change depending on which weapon Zagreus is using. There are six different weapons in total and there are some wide variations in terms of how they function in combat. The sword tends to be one of the lighter weapons with faster animations while the spear has long reach and can be thrown at a distance or charged up for a big circular attack. There's a shield that can block incoming projectiles and a pair of gloves that gets used for hand-to-hand combat. My favorite weapon is the bow which combines long range with excellent damage at the tradeoff of being weaker against close targets. There's even a railgun that fires bullets and has to be reloaded after a dozen shots. All six of the weapons can be modified within each escape attempt by finding "Daedalus Hammers" which change how the weapon functions. For example, the bow can be changed to fire arrows continuously instead of charging them up while the railgun's grenade launcher can be changed to deal triple damage but also cause self-harm to Zagreus. There are over a dozen of these hammer upgrades for each of the six weapons to discover. Furthermore, after unlocking all of the weapons, Zagreus eventually gets the option to start upgrading these weapons into stronger forms, including unlocking three different variations on each of the six weapons. While some of them are pretty similar to the base version, some of the weapon variations do result in major gameplay shifts, and therefore there's a total of 24 weapons in all. Unlike the Daedalus Hammer changes, these weapon upgrades actually do carry over between runs and they form one of the longstanding projects for players to embark upon. Experimenting with all of these different weapons is a major source of replayability in Hades.
Those are just the base weapon types though. All four of these primary actions - Attack, Special, Cast, and Dash - can be empowered by the Olympic gods through the use of "boons" which appear on each escape attempt. These boons do not carry over from run to run but grant some sort of thematically-appropriate power for the remainder of that particular escape sequence. Zeus will add lightning effects to your weapons, Athena will cause them to reflect incoming attacks back at the enemies, Artemis grants critical strike chance, and so on. There are nine Olympian gods in all and each has a list of roughly two dozen different boons that will empower Zagreus. This results in a large amount of mix-and-match gameplay across different escape attempts that adds to the game's replayability factor. Sometimes you'll be firing arrows out of a bow empowered by Poseidon's knockback boon. On another occasion, you'll be using Dionysius' boon that turns the Cast projectile into a cloud of hangover-inducing fog. On yet another occasion, you might grab Aphrodite's boon because it induces weakness on monsters. These boons can furthermore come in different forms of rarity (Common, Rare, Epic, and Heroic) and be upgraded to higher levels by finding Pomegranate power-ups out in the dungeon. The boons are the core of the in-dungeon upgrade system, and although they don't carry over from run to run, players will want to stack as many boons as possible on each escape attempt.
Encounters in Hades take place through a procession of procedurally-generated rooms that change on each dungeon sequence. Most rooms have monsters of some kind inside which have to be cleared out before Zagreus can pass into the next one and there will always be a reward of some kind for finishing the room. These rooms have a preview icon on their doorway which indicates what the reward will be; sometimes there's only one door and no option on where to go but frequently there are two or three options available. This is where much of the strategy for each escape attempt takes place, as the player must decide what rewards they want to pursue and what will do the most to help them achieve victory. The same kind of logic goes into the boons as well; the Olympian gods will offer three different choices and picking the best option can be tough sometimes. Eventually Zagreus gains the ability to force certain gods to show up and you can plan out a build path to a certain extent but it's never guaranteed what boons they will offer as a reward. Knowing how to build Zagreus is a skill that the player will develop over time with more experience playing the game.
By contrast, the combat itself is honestly not that great in Hades. The game uses an isometric 3D view much like Diablo and the fighting always takes place in the aforementioned rooms. Some of them are tiny sardine cans while others can be quite large with lots of room to maneuver. There are various different traps to avoid such as spikes and lava and axes falling down from the ceiling but at least the game is fair in this regard and traps can be used against the enemies as well. One of my minor gripes with Hades is that there's not much diversity in the monsters, only about half a dozen types per zone, and it won't take long at all before they start to get pretty repetitive. Even worse, many of the monsters in the later zones are upgraded versions of the same monsters from the earlier zones with more dangerous attacks. This is a bit of a disappointment. The combat can also get very chaotic, with lots of projectiles on screen making it difficult to tell what's going on. Between the monster attacks and the constant dashing from Zagreus it can be a bit of a disjointed mess. My personal preference is a somewhat slower and more controlled experience but your mileage may vary here.
There are four boss fights in Hades and these encounters are where much of the difficulty lies in the gameplay. These bosses are much, much better designed than the ones in Rogue Legacy and learning their attack patterns is the key to progressing in this game. Each boss has several different types of attack and they will change their AI routines as they drop lower in terms of health. The first two bosses are relatively straightforward but the third boss dials up the challenge factor considerably and then the final boss is even more difficult to overcome. If you don't know what you're doing, these opponents will make short work of your character. The good news is that all of the bosses are readily beatable with time and practice; I've managed to get a zero damage fight against all of them, even the final boss (albeit with the help of a keepsake item that blocks the first few damage instances against bosses). The bad news is that it takes a while to reach the last few bosses and there's no way to get better at these fights without playing through the whole game up to that point. Struggling against the final boss? Have fun grinding through 30 minutes of gameplay before you have another shot at the fight. This is where the game would benefit from having a practice mode of some kind like the one in Crypt of the Necrodancer. I was stuck for some time with the last two bosses on my initial playthrough and it was entirely due to not knowing their attack patterns. Once I saw them enough times I was able to defeat them without too much trouble but I had to spend hours getting to that point. I could have saved a ton of time and effort if I simply could have practiced against them a bit. This is one of a number of places where the focus on the narrative elements in Hades undermines the rest of the player experience - we can't have a practice mode because it wouldn't fit with the story that the game wants to tell.
Outside of combat in the dungeon, the other big focus of Hades comes from developing Zagreus and his relationships back in the "town" area. There are several different ways to improve Zagreus and make his future runs easier using one of the many different currencies employed in this game. The most straightforward method involves using "darkness", the basic currency, to purchase various permanent ability upgrades at the Mirror of Night. This process should be familiar to veterans of past rouguelike games such as Rogue Legacy and these upgrades are extremely important for making future escapes easier. Basic upgrades include things like getting more casts, the second dash, and additional death defiances that cause your character to return to life upon hitting zero health. There are additional upgrades listed further down the mirror that require spending "keys" (another currency) to unlock. Strangely, the very basic upgrades that grant extra starting health and extra starting gold are hidden away at the third tier of the mirror while more esoteric upgrades like "deal more damage when striking from behind" are available instantly. I don't really understand that design decision. The last few upgrades cost extremely high amounts of darkness (into the thousands) and finishing up with this process will take a very long time.
So darkness is the most basic currency and powers up Zagreus with a series of upgrades. I also mentioned keys as the second currency that unlocks additional parts of the mirror along with unlocking the other five weapons - only the sword is available at the start of the game. The next currency comes in the form of gemstones which are given to the house contractor for a number of repairs and improvements. Gemstones will unlock various things out in the dungeon like a chance for pots to contain gold, infernal troves containing additional darkness/gemstones/gold, fishing locations, fountain rooms that provide extra healing, more healing from those fountains, and so on. The effect of each one is small but cumulatively they make a big difference. Gemstones can also be spent on a series of cosmetic upgrades for the House of Hades, various furniture and doodads added to the walls that spruce up the place. There are an absolute *TON* of these that will cost tens of thousands of gemstones to unlock in total. While most of these have no gameplay effect whatsoever, they also have a cumulative effect that adds up over time in terms of changing the appearance of the starting area. The House of Hades looks very different with 50 of these cosmetic upgrades in place as compared to the beginning of the game. Eventually there are even additional rooms that unlock which have their own cosmetic upgrades. If you like grinding for resources, there's a lot of time to be spent here.
The next major resource in Hades is something called nectar which is a more valuable and rare commodity. Nectar can be gifted to other characters to improve Zagreus' relationship with them. The first gift of nectar unlock a keepsake with that individual, an item that can be equipped and provides some kind of benefit out in the dungeon. This includes everything from more current health to reduced damage taken in fights to additional money to the ability to force certain Olympian gods to show up. Those keepsakes will upgrade over time from their starting level by wearing them during encounters; it takes 75 encounters to level up a keepsake completely and there are 25 keepsakes in the game so this is another place where the gameplay will take some time to complete.
Zagreus can gift each character nectar up to five times before being unable to grant them any more of the resource. At that point, he needs to complete some kind of favor unique to each character to bypass that locked requirement before being able to finish up with their individual storylines. Hades does not tell the player what the requirements are for these favors and some of them are unintuitive to say the least; I don't know what someone is expected to do here other than look up Internet guides. Once those individual favors have been completed, Zagreus can gift them the upgraded form of nectar named ambrosia to finish up with their story. Some characters only require one more ambrosia but others need as many as ten of the resource and it's very hard to acquire. Ambrosia typically only drops from defeating the third boss and that can only happen once per escape attempt; if the player has already defeated the third boss under the same settings, then they'll get darkness instead and not pick up ambrosia at all. Between the need to gift five nectars and at least one ambrosia to each character there's a very high amount of grinding and repetition in this part of the gameplay. Yes, it's true that the player is getting a lot of new conversations to read but that doesn't change the fact that this is pretty repetitive stuff.
Making matters worse is the fact that characters won't always be present in the House of Hades, and if they aren't there, you can't gift nectar/ambrosia or advance their storyline. It's also possible to get stuck in multiple different dialogue trees at once and only one of them can operate at a time. For example, I might need to speak with Achilles both to advance his own personal story and also to unlock a new weapon form. Only one of those conversations can play at a time. If you get the wrong one, there's no choice but to go out into the dungeon again and either die or make it to the exit. The game also does a poor job of telling players which characters need to interact with one another to advance their plotlines. I was trying to pardon one character and had gifted them the maximum five nectars and then was left unable to progress further for dozens and dozens of escape attempts until I searched online and discovered that I needed to also gift five nectars to an unrelated second character to proceed. And of course I could only gift one nectar per trip back to the House of Hades and only if that character happened to be present while also needing to save up all of that nectar in the first place. Much of the nectar/ambrosia system seems designed to drag things out for as long as possible for no real reason.
Then there are the rarest of resources, diamonds and titan blood. Diamonds are an upgraded form of gemstones, used by the house contractor for expensive upgrades or to unlock a list of songs to be played by the court musician. They are typically acquired from defeating the second boss or alternately can sometimes be purchased from a store in the fourth zone (Styx) for an expensive 1000 gold. Titan Blood is a somewhat easier resource to acquire and is used to upgrade the six weapons wielded by Zagreus. It drops from defeating the first boss and the final boss, and can also sometimes be purchased from that same store in the fourth zone for an even more expensive 1200 gold. A really good run can sometimes bring back three Titan Bloods and that's a great haul. There are five tiers of upgrades for each of the 24 weapon forms and they can be highly costly to improve. The pictured sword cost 5 Titan Bloods to upgrade the default form, then 15 Titan Bloods to upgrade the Aspect of Arthur, and it will cost another 5 Titan Bloods just to upgrade the Aspect of Nemesis from Level 4 to Level 5. This is one of the more exciting parts of the game because the player gets to make their core weapons stronger and test out different forms of the six weapons. Once again though, the process requires many repetitions of the dungeon to keep grinding out those additional Titan Bloods.
The sheer number of currencies and how they relate to one another can also be highly confusing. There's darkness and keys and gemstones and nectar and ambrosia and diamonds and Titan Blood, plus gold as the one currency that only gets used out in the dungeon and doesn't carry over between runs. What to use them for isn't clear at all; I spent long periods of time wondering what the heck all of this stuff was supposed to do. Ambrosia in particular can't be used for a very long time and then suddenly becomes extremely valuable in the super lategame portion of Hades. These systems mostly felt overly complicated to me and I didn't think there was any reason to have something like eight different currencies operating simultaneously. It's very easy for a newcomer to spend large quantities of valuable resources on cosmetic improvements and then belatedly realize that they need to grind up more of them to advance the actual plot. I often found myself missing the much simpler upgrades in Rogue Legacy since they dispensed with all of this nonsense.
Finally, there are the additional challenges that can be added to the gameplay to make things more difficult. Known as the Pact of Punishment and unlocking after the player has successfully escaped for the first time, this gameplay mechanic functions through the use of a gauge known as "heat". The player can pick from a list of additional challenges which will add heat to the meter on the left side of the screen. Each successive level of heat provides a chance to earn a new set of diamond/ambrosia/Titan Blood rewards for escaping from the dungeon. There's a lot of creativity here on the part of the developers: aside from your standard "monsters have more health/more damage", players can also make stores more expensive, add more enemies, put the escape attempt on a timer, remove the number of boon options offered by Olympians, and force the player to sacrifice a boon when moving to the next area. There are even changes to the minibosses and the bosses that can be added here, and not just palette swaps, genuinely different AI programming for the bosses in different arenas. This is one of the better forms of replayability that I can recall seeing in a roguelike game, especially due to how customizable it is. I never felt the need to dial things up to insane levels and try clearing the game on 50 Heat or whatever but the option is there for those who want it.
Hades is a good game and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys rougelike games or action games. The writing in this game is well done, the voice acting is excellent, and the gameplay is a lot of fun to experience, at least for a little while. I definitely found myself in "just one more run" mode for some time, both because I wanted to keep trying out new combinations of weapons + boons and because I wanted to see where the narrative was going to go next. The biggest downsides are the repetitive nature of the gameplay and the need to keep escaping repeatedly to experience the full storyline, both for the main plot and the individual characters. To provide some numbers here, I had to escape about ten times to get the initial ending and about fifty times to get the true secret ending to the game. That's... a lot of escape attempts. They were fun for the most part and it's not like I haven't done several hundred games of FTL: Faster Than Light but I can't deny that things started to get repetitive over time.
I don't think Hades has quite as much replayability as FTL or even Rogue Legacy and that's mostly because the actual combat in this game doesn't appeal to me as much. There isn't enough diversity in the monsters and even the weapons only have so much variability to them. As I said before, the combat can be a bit of a mess of endless dashing and screens full of enemy projectiles; it doesn't feel as clean to me as the 2D platforming in something like Rogue Legacy. That doesn't mean that you should avoid this game, however, as there's still a ton of content in Hades and far more than needed to justify its asking price. This is well worth picking up as a digital download for PC or on the Nintendo Switch. Feel free to take a look at my Livestream footage to get a sense for what gameplay looks like in motion as opposed to static screenshots. This is a fun game and Supergiant Games did a fine job on this project. I'll be keeping an eye out for their future titles since they've put together an impressive track record over the last decade. As always, thanks for reading.