Does a game ever get so much hype and attention that you kinda don’t want to play it? Maybe I have an inner contrarian I need to deal with, but there are some series that become so powerful in the cultural conversation that I roll my eyes every time I see someone mention them. This can vary by the moment but has been, at various times over the past few years: GTA V, Red Dead Redemption, The Last of Us, God of War, and that game with Norman Reedus that for some reason I just forgot the name of as I was typing…Death Stranding, that’s it. Yeah some games eventually become so annoying to hear other people talk about all the time that I’m like “yeah, I’m gonna pass on that thanks.”
This year it seemed like Hades was going to join that list of games. I remember seeing Hades in a Nintendo Direct earlier this year and thinking “eh, that seems neat but doesn’t look like my kind of game.” The moment the game came out, a couple of journalists I follow who had played the game in early access put out articles talking about how amazing Hades is. Then some other people played the game and articles hit my feed about how brilliant God Mode is. I would see threads of which characters people were thirsty for, essays on the brilliant implementation of roguelike mechanisms, and of course interviews with the creators about their decision to create a more diverse Greek mythos than is typically portrayed in other media. The game seemed neat but with what felt like every single person I followed going on about it, I felt that familiar feeling inside urging me to dismiss the game.
There were a few things that finally sold me on Hades. The first was hearing recommendations from other bloggers, not just from writers at larger sites. People I know personally are a little more likely to understand my tastes, and that recommendation of “hey, I think you Ian will like this” as opposed to the broader “I think Hades is a great game” makes a difference. The second was that out of everything I read or heard about the game, none of it was negative. Typically with a ridiculously popular title comes analysis so deep that flaws are inevitable. I don’t think anyone out there has been proselytizing Hades as the perfect game; rather, it simply seems clear that what works about the game is so strong that the issues are easy to bear. The final element was timing – Hades went on sale during a time when I was playing through Slay the Spire and Super Mario 3D All Stars, two games that are good in their own right but have little to offer in the storytelling department. Hades by contrast promised a rich story with compelling characters in addition to great roguelike mechanics. My hunger to play something with a strong narrative alongside the other games I am currently working at ultimately drove me to scoop up Hades and see what all the fuss is about.
So what the hell is Hades? It’s a roguelike action game set in the Greek underworld. You play as Zagreus, the son of the god of the underworld, Hades. Zagreus has decided to leave the underworld and sets out for the world of the living, but as it turns out, the underworld is a very dangerous place and Hades has no intention of letting his son escape. Chances are good that during your first run through Hades, Zagreus will die. When he does, he returns to his home, where he can then make preparations for a new journey into the underworld and you ask the player can learn more about the characters of this fresh interpretation of Greek mythology. The gameplay loop then is a simple one: you make a run for it, die, appear back home, power up for your next run, try again, die, etc. The promise of eventually making it out certainly lingers but with this being a first impressions article, I have definitely not had a successful run yet.
The game throws you right into the action, so that’s what I will do too. While in the underworld you can move around the environment and battle monsters striving to prevent your escape. You have buttons for a basic attack, a special attack, a dash movement which assists with getting around quickly as well as dodging, and a spell ability that allows you to cast a magical crystal with varying effects depending on the types of upgrades you choose as you play the game. There are other abilities too but those are unlocked over time – these four skills make up the basics of how you will navigate the underworld.
Combat takes place in real time. Enemies spawn as you enter a room or may already be present inside, and they’ll make an effort to come after you and do you in. Different enemy types attack with different patterns and deal varying amounts of damage When your health hits zero, you die and return home to Hades’ estate. Survive an encounter with enemies and they’ll drop a reward of some type, and then you can choose how to proceed forward through the underworld. While a decent number of rooms will only have one clear path forward, plenty of others will give you a choice between two rewards, so you can prioritize what exactly you want to receive for surviving the next room.
While maneuvering through the underworld you’ll have lots of different prizes to angle for. Many resources are a type of currency meant for a specific function either in the underworld or back at the estate: darkness, coins, gems, and keys all have different functions and they serve as pretty basic collectibles that you can get a benefit from later. You can also find smithing hammers which upgrade your current weapon, shops where you can spend coins for benefits both temporary and lasting, or pomegranates which boost the effectiveness of a previously-acquired upgrades. One of the biggest boons you’ll be on the lookout for while in the underworld is…well, boons. These are gifts from the gods of Olympus that give you lasting, tangible bonuses to your abilities and may even change them up a little. When choosing upgrades from hammers or from boons, you’ll have a set of different options to choose from so you can pick what appeals to you the most in that moment.
Some benefits are tied to special types of rooms or challenges. Some rooms have elite enemies – foes from a harder area of the underworld who have also been gifted armor, which is essentially a second health gauge that also prevents knockback. These enemies can be difficult but they tend to be tied to the best rewards. Another type of special challenge is the trial of the gods, where two gods will offer you boons at the same time and the one you choose second gets jealous and sends some monsters after you before you get their benefit. These fights are tough because the god will use their own abilities to harass you during the battle, but the benefit of two godly boons can be well worth the effort.
As you make your way further into the underworld, you’ll encounter boss characters who are particularly difficult to beat and serve as the final barrier to reaching the next section of the underworld. Each section has a different environment, new hazards, and tougher enemies, so the bosses serve as benchmarks to determine if you are ready to move on to the next area. Defeating a boss with a weapon you haven’t used against them before also nets you a special reward – I’ve not played far enough to know just what these rewards do yet, but the game telegraphs that it will be worthwhile to change up your weapons in order to get all of these special prizes.
One way or another you will eventually end up back at the estate to face your father in shame. This phase of the game offers respite from the action and gives you the opportunity to socialize, learn about the lore of Hades, and spend all the goodies you collected during your adventure into the underworld. Dying in Hades may feel like a setback because it means you’ll have to start your climb from the beginning again, but it also feels like a step forward because of the myriad ways in which you can improve your chances of a successful run.
Zagreus has a mirror in his room from which he can invest darkness into a variety of skills. These boosts are permanent and are carried over from run to run – in this way, Zagreus can “level up” and become more capable, increasing your chances of success during future runs. You start with a limited number of options but can spend keys to unlock new skills to invest in, expanding your mechanical potency even more. Keys can also be used to increase Zagreus’s combat versatility by unlocking new weapons. Each weapon has a different playstyle and has unique effects for basic attacks and special attacks. For example while both the shield and the sword have a basic swiping attack, the shield’s can be held down to charge up a dash forward that also blocks enemy attacks while the sword swipes are faster and combo more easily. The weapons also have wholly different specials, the sword’s being a smash that sends out a shockwave while the shield is thrown and ricochets between targets. Some of the basic qualities of these weapons can change when you upgrade: in the case of the bow, I had pretty good fortune with an upgrade that traded its charge shot ability for a rapid fire volley when holding the basic attack button.
But wait, there’s more! Hades has a social system which expands your knowledge of other characters as you speak with them between runs. You can also expand these relationships by gifting characters Nectar that you find in the underworld. Upon being gifted this nectar, some characters will grant keepsakes which you can then equip for special bonuses. Achilles, for example, gives you a bracer that increases frontal armor by 20% in exchange for a 10% decrease in rear armor. Aphrodite, on the other hand, shares a rose which guarantees an encounter with her for your first boon and increases the likelihood that her boons will be rare. These keepsakes can be equipped for runs and even improve as you use them more and more. I’ve also neglected to mention gems – these can be spent with the contractor of the estate to build new furniture or unlock features of the underworld. Some early features you can earn here are healing fountains that appear occasionally in the underworld as well as a list of achievements determined by the Fates which give out large gem rewards for completing them.
The mechanisms in Hades work together to incentivize you to keep playing. Charge into the underworld to collect darkness, keys, nectar, and gems. When you die, you can spend those things to form better relationships with characters and to make Zagreus more powerful. Once you’ve rested a bit and have new resources to tackle the underworld, the promise of trying out new stuff beckons you to attempt a run once more. And because the story grows whether you win or lose, you are always progressing, learning more about the game’s compelling narrative as you go. It’s an excellent system and I can see how so many people have fallen in love with it. That said, it wouldn’t work as well if the narrative didn’t deliver with some degree of quality.
Fortunately, the world of Hades is an interesting twist on Greek mythology that keeps some of the basics while also playing with conventions. The characters are well-voiced and both the text and the portrayal by the performers help to bring each character to life and make them compelling. And the diversity of the cast truly is refreshing – this is the most visually interesting Greek mythos I have ever seen, and it makes me more interested in a group of characters whom I typically dismiss as being too overdone. We know Zagreus wants to leave the underworld, sure, but what is driving him? What has convinced the gods to help him along on his journey? And what ulterior motives might be held by those in the underworld who dare to betray their master? The opportunity to learn the answer to these questions is part of the motivation to keep playing, and I am certainly happy to have chosen Hades as the game to scratch my story itch while also playing through some titles that have weak narratives and characters.
So yeah, all those articles I mentioned in the beginning about how Hades is great and you should play it? This is my first contribution to that genre of post and it will likely not be my last. Hades has hooked me with both its excellent gameplay and the interesting cast of characters, and I’m excited to delve further into the underworld as well as master the many weapons and tools in Zagreus’s arsenal. While I do eventually want to have a successful run of this game, the fact that each time you come back is an opportunity to grow your character helps me stay more engaged than other roguelike titles without a lasting metagame element. Hades is definitely worth the hype, and if you haven’t checked it out yet I will add my own voice to the chorus declaring that playing this game is worth your time.