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Hades is the latest game by indie developer Supergiant Games who are best-known for Bastion, their 2011 narrative ARPG. Hades is somewhat of a return to their roots. It is again a Hack & Slash, with fluid combat and gorgeous visuals and deeply integrated with its narrative. Its focus on storytelling is unique among roguelites, and its Early Access status is a good example of how to use the program. Here are my first impressions of Hades, with a full review to follow later.

The Setting

Starting out a Hades run
The first chamber

The game drops you right into the deep end. You’re in a corridor, surrounded by shades of the dead, the river Styx running all around you. Every aspect of Hades is infused with Greek mythology, and it isn’t just window dressing.

You’re Zagreus, a lesser-known part of the pantheon. Now, whether the game is accurate in its depiction of the mythology and its protagonists is debatable. But the “beauty” of ancient Greek folklore is that there are myriad versions. Originally, it was an oral tradition, dating back all the way to 1800 BC, and as such, there is no definitive right or wrong version. Sure, there are some constants, for example, the lineage of the main deities. But, all in all, it is far less codified than Roman mythology. This allows Supergiant Games a lot of freedom in how they tell their story, while still keeping to the established Greek lore.

In Hades, Zagreus is the son of Hades himself, and like any good son all he wants is to escape his father’s influence. All in all, it has an almost sitcom feel, with grumpy dad, ex-girlfriend, unanswered love, cute pets. It’s all there. The main gameplay loop is fighting through a series of chambers, collecting upgrades and currencies, then dying and doing it over and over again. With each death, you land back in the House Of Hades, the main gameplay hub. Appropriately, you wake up face down in a pool (as in, swimming pool) of blood each time you die. Dying is maybe the wrong word because well, you’re already in the underworld.

Zagreus resurrecting in a pool of blood (Hades)
I did mention that it is a swimming pool.

The Story

A roguelite and the author is putting the story first?! Well, this is what I think Supergiant has gotten very right so far. I’m not nearly finished with the game, but the story and how it is implemented is brilliant. Supergiant is known for tightly integrating narrative with gameplay, and nowhere have they done a better job than in Hades. The constant cycle of death and rebirth is both a key gameplay loop as well as a key part of the story. Your main source of upgrades is help from the Olympian gods, who want to help their distant relative escape the underworld.

Dionysus presenting a boon to Zagreus in Hades
Wine and song.

Your weapons are as much part of Greek mythology as the bosses you will fight with them. Your allies are heroes and villains whose names you’ve heard a thousand times at school and in plays or books. And your codex is the diary of an ancient hero, and even the slow reveal of its contents is explained through the story. Hell, pretty much everything has a storyline reason to exist. Your training dummy talks back and is only there because it’s being paid to be. It’s also being paid to tell you how great you are at fighting it. It just won’t fight back, because that’s not part of its contract.

The writing and voice acting anchor it perfectly. Previous Supergiant games had much more of an emotional impact on me than games that were ostensibly all emotion (To The Moon). Hades is equal parts snarky and pensive, and all the characters are well-written and voiced. They’re distinct and unique, even when they’re tropes. Each time you die, you get back home, and each time you can talk to the inhabitants again. Honestly, I’m looking forward to dying whenever I play just so I can explore the relationships of the House of Hades and its denizens. Some conversations are insightful, some bittersweet, some serve as comic relief. Each run you discover more of the world and its inhabitants.

Visuals & Sound

I’m a huge fan of Supergiant’s characteristic art style. Everything looks hand-drawn, like a comic book in motion. Hades is no exception. The locations are detailed and lush, full of contrast and punchy colors. Neat little details everywhere. Like arms reaching out of the river, candles burning smokily in the background, skulls barely visible in lava. It looks fantastic in motion too. Striking foes covers them in bubbling poison, lightning zapping down on you and your enemies, lava bubbling in the background. The character art is rich and expressive, with each personality having a color that represents it. More important characters have different expressions too, and while there might not be too many of those yet, they perfectly illustrate their tone.

Megaera of the furies in conversation with Hypnos (Hades)
Megaera, not amused.

The sound in Hades is strong, too – as mentioned before, the voice acting is great. Everything is fully voiced, and Zagreus tends to comment on what is happening around him as well. Getting hit sounds appropriately painful, slapping an enemy appropriately punchy. Rubble falls thunderously, witches squeak at you. The music is …good. I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed, but both Bastion and Transistor had absolutely stellar soundtracks. In fact, they’re the only two video game soundtracks I’ve ever listened to just as music. Darren Korb is again responsible for the music here, and while it’s good, it doesn’t reach the same heights, at least not for me.

Gameplay

First things first. It’s not a roguelike. I refuse to call it that, because that’s a pretty well-defined genre, and this isn’t it. Binding of Isaac isn’t a roguelike either. It is, however, a roguelite, if barely.

The defining features of Hades are its looping structure and random enemy spawns and rewards. I hesitate to call it permadeath because you’re making significant progress with each run and becoming more powerful. The main mechanic for self-improvement is the Mirror Of Night. You’re basically admiring yourself in the mirror to grow stronger, and I wish that worked in real life too.

Mirror of Night - Hades

On your attempts to escape you’ll be collecting both boons and coin for use during your current run as well as a number of currencies to permanently increase your capabilities between runs. It’s often a trade-off – do I take a boon of Zeus now to become stronger this run, or do I collect a key to unlock a new ability for my next run? It works rather well – each decision is a dilemma, but doesn’t cripple you. Some upgrades change the way you fight completely, while others are more incremental, and so far there’s a decent balance between both.

Combat

Enemy types are varied, from thuggish melee attackers to dangerous spellcasters that harass you from afar. Each zone has unique enemy types that are appropriate to the part of the Underworld they reside in. Combat is very fluid – you dash around, delivering fast blows, then getting out again. It feels good – you’re fast, and you get invincibility frames when you dash around. There’s no delay between attacks and abilities, so you can freely chain your arsenal of tricks together.

It can become really messy later on, though. There are a dozen enemies on the screen, plus their projectiles, plus your projectiles, plus explosions. You need to keep track of where you are, where your enemies are, where your next safe spot to dodge to is. It becomes very hard to read at times, and at least an average player like me sometimes loses track of our hero, who ends up standing in the corner, in lava. Still, combat is fast and satisfying. Whenever you clear a room, time slows for a second so you can savor your victory before collecting the spoils.

Skeletal enemies attacking Zagreus
Mr. Bones wants a hug

Each run is randomly generated. You fight your way through a series of chambers filled with enemies and traps, and the only way to progress is to clear the room. The chambers have fixed layouts, but there’s enough to not get bored. The enemies that spawn are random though, as are the rewards. There isn’t as much strategic choice of route as in Binding Of Isaac or Slay The Spire. After clearing a chamber, you get a choice of 1-3 exits, with each waiting reward displayed. There’s no way of knowing what lies beyond, so your choice is always limited to the next room.

Boss Fights

At the end of each level, you’ll find a boss waiting for you. Initially, it’s always the same one, but as you unlock more and more of the story you’ll encounter alternate bosses with different mechanics. The fights are fun and unforgiving, much more challenging than the chambers before them.

Boss fight at the end of chapter one
Megaera, even less amused

My biggest criticism with the gameplay is the lack of midgame improvement. You make good progress early on, both in regards to upgrades as well as your own abilities. You learn to chain attacks and dashes, the value of each of your attacks, enemy patterns, get a feel for the cooldowns. I can also see the high skill cap the game has – perfectly dancing between shots, landing chunky arrows, precisely deflecting projectiles back. However, this is really hard to learn.

As a result, my own improvement has somewhat stalled. Additionally, once you get the first rounds of upgrades in, progress slows down dramatically too. I’ve unlocked all weapons and all cheaper mirror upgrades. As well as some dungeon improvements. And now I’m stuck. Upgrades get exponentially more expensive, while drops stay the same. Right now, it feels like a bit of a slog to progress. Luckily, the storyline and characters are keeping me engaged enough to power through.

Early Access

This is a great example of Early Access done right. I only started playing with the release on Steam in December 2019, with the game seeing a year of Early Acces on the Epic Game Store before, but all the feedback from there was positive as well.

There is a major content update every two months, with a countdown prominently displayed in the main menu that reveals what is planned and what has already been implemented. The game feels very polished already. In my playtime, I have not encountered any major bugs. Graphics are great, sound works perfectly. It’s plenty balanced as well, and really doesn’t feel like an EA game at all. Again, it has been a year on Epic Games Store before, but as of now, it is definitely Early Access done right and more than worth the price of admission.



Have you tried Hades yet? What are your first impressions? Let us know in the comments section below.

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