Hades Review: Rogue-Likes Aren’t So Scary Anymore!

Hades is a Rogue-like Action RPG created and published by Supergiant Games. It was released on PC and Nintendo Switch in September 2020, and on PlayStation and Xbox in August 2021. MSRB is $25. I played the Nintendo Switch version.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

I didn’t play any spooky games this year, but I did play Hades, which takes place in the Greek Underworld. That’s about as scary as it gets for my 2022 of gaming. The game also helped me overcome my fear of Roguelikes!

For those who don’t know, many indie games have embraced an obscure PC Role-Playing Game from the 1980s called Rogue. The game has several mechanics that give it a rather… distinct taste. For example, Rogue has a perma-death — if you die, you have to start the game back from the beginning. Yeah, you heard right, no levels, no checkpoints, no saves, the honest-to-God beginning. Rogue also generates its dungeons randomly. This combination of mechanics means that you’ll be going through the game for several runs before finally beating it, yet no two playthroughs are exactly the same. Much to my dismay, indie developers have embraced these design principles like Zeus embracing a helpless maiden. Games that strictly follow Rogue’s mechanics (no abilities or currencies will carry over to your next run) are called Roguelikes, while games that let you bring something with you are put in a sub-genre called Rogue-lites. I make this distinction here because I’m 100% positive someone will make a comment about how Hades is technically a Rogue-lite, even though Roguelike is obviously an umbrella term and it’s okay to call Hades that too for the sake of brevity.

In Hades you will die over and over again, but Hades makes that punishing moment the starting point for something more.

Anyway, semantics aside, I’ve bounced back from many Roguelike games in the past, such as Enter the Gungeon and FTL. I honestly thought the genre simply wasn’t for me. I hated the feeling of starting over from the beginning, and anything that I got to unlock or carry with me just never felt like it was enough. Coupled with stories that didn’t engage me, I felt like I was wasting my time with them and I moved on.

Hades fixed literally every single one of my hang-ups with Roguelikes.

Be ready to fight like Hell to make it out of here.

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Petulant Prince Scored

In Hades you play as Zagreus, the son of Hades. You may be asking yourself: “Uh… Zagreus? I don’t remember him from my High School English class.” And that’s okay. Zagreus is one of the more obscure members of the Greek Pantheon — in fact, the few stories that do mention him have conflicting information on who he actually was. And so Supergiant Games decided that he would be the perfect person to flesh out as a protagonist. With no canon character, they could make him however they wanted.

And in this game, they made him hot.

No really, his feet are on fire. And that’s not just because he inherited them from his father. He’s bound and determined to get out of the literal Hell that he lives in. Unfortunately, his father doesn’t really want him to do that. There’s kind of this reputation Hades has where no one escapes the Underworld. And so you have to fight your way past all of Greece’s monsters and heroes to try and escape, possibly relying on some aide from your distant Olympian relatives. You probably won’t make it out on your first attempt, though. You might fall into a spike trap or get beaten by Megaera, one of the Furies.

But that’s alright. You’re a god after all, and so you wind up back in the House of Hades, ready to start another attempt.

Hades is the first Roguelike I’ve played with a cast of characters that truly endears me. Normally I don’t meet a cast of characters this relatable and compelling outside of JRPGs, and after every attempt more of the game’s story is waiting for you to unravel. In fact, the narrative is built entirely around you dying over and over again. I didn’t really care for my avatar in Enter the Gungeon (though she did have a cute dog), but Zagreus’s persistent attempts at defying his jerk of a father gave me the gumption to keep trying, even when I lost to the same boss for the 5th time in a row (a thousand curses upon you, Theseus!). I like a challenge as much as the next person, but without a strongly-written story those challenges can feel hollow to complete. Hades’ Underworld of characters provided the antidote I needed to care about getting good at the game.

Combat is as crunchy as a tortilla chip, a deliciously salty tortilla chip.

Game Design From The Gods

Supergiant Games have been hard at work at isometric Action games ever since their first release Bastion back in 2010. And they’ve only gotten better at their craft. Hades offers some of the crunchiest combat I’ve ever played. Only Platinum Games can ever rival them. The controls are clean and precise, the enemies are readable yet challenging, and the weapons, and each and every weapon has a satisfying weight to the hits. You get a sense of rhythm to dodging and hitting, and paired with the rocking soundtrack, you can easily slip into a flow state of hacking and slashing enemy Shades.

Along your run you will come across so many goodies. You may find a boon from one of the Olympians willing to offer you some aid, or some gold that you can spend in Charon’s many shops (yes the ferryman of the Underworld has several wares to sell you, don’t ask him how he got them). Best of all, though, are the many items that you can take with you back to the House of Hades. There, you can upgrade your skills, improve the random layout of the Underworld, or gift, befriend, and even romance NPCs. No run is ever wasted — you always have something to show for your efforts, and it takes all the pain out of dying.

There are plenty of meta-systems to sink your teeth into, and they’re all meaty enough to provide you hours of experimentation all on their own, not including the ways accessories and boons can interact with each other.

But there’s more. Supergiant knew that to keep things feeling fresh, you’d need a meta-game of abilities and systems. And boy did they deliver on this. You can customize your weapons to suite particular playstyles that you like, and once you get the hang of godly favors, you can have them synergize together in devastating ways. What would normally be a tedious slog through the beginning areas of the game transform into a sandbox to experiment with new builds. They even take a page out of Sakurai’s Game Difficulty Handbook, letting you add on even more difficult challenges to your run in exchange for more goodies to upgrade your weapons with.

I bought the physical version of Hades on the Switch because I thought that if I didn’t like it, I could always at least sell it off. However, I’m very happy I bought the physical version of this game, because now I can display it in my collection as one of my favorite indie games of all time. Perhaps I was being too harsh on Roguelikes. Perhaps I need to give a few more a fair shake. Hades turned my story with this subgenre of video games from disappointment and horror to a happy ending.

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