Developer: Supergiant Games
Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
I don’t put a lot of stock into Game of the Year awards, simply because everyone with an opinion on the internet does one. Sure, there’s the Golden Globes, but they aren’t on the same level of prestige as the Academy Awards. Video games have the Game Awards, but it doesn’t really stand that much higher from every other game of the year award. Every publication and blogger still puts in their own garbage take, so I’m not super keen on contributing to that.
So as I discuss the mythology inspired roguelike Hades, the framing of Game of the Year is akin to window dressing. I’ve played most of the nominees for the Game Awards, though I still haven’t had time to give Ghost of Tsushima the chance it deserves. This is simply to contextualize a review coming out way too late, and because I put out far more essays than I do reviews, and I am attempting to rectify that disparity.
To issue a warning, I am a sucker for Greek mythology. My early adolescence was defined by an obsession with Percy Jackson and the Olympians which sprouted into reading textbooks and the Iliad. Ugh, I should have gotten bullied so much more than I was. Where did I go wrong?
Hades just oozes a passion for mythological source material. It portrays every god and goddess with color and charm, and the depiction of the Underworld belies great appreciation for the classics and creativity in bringing new life to the land of the dead. The developers have built a compelling story out of these legends, although I will keep this review spoiler safe, as it is a subtle part of the game better experienced firsthand.
Hades stars Zagreus, son of the god of the dead and Prince of the Underworld, seeking to escape his father’s domain with the help of his extended family on Mount Olympus. Hades, as I mentioned, is a roguelike, a genre of game where every death takes you to the first level, and the levels are randomly generated, where no two journeys are ever the same. Every chamber of the Underworld contains a horde of enemies and traps, flinging dozens if not hundreds of projectiles at a given moment. If the picture weren’t crisp and the game didn’t run smoothly, then it would be unplayable.
This performance isn’t groundbreaking, as a single-player game with a distant camera should be easy to keep a consistent frame rate. However, many third party developers use their Switch ports as an excuse to cut the performance of their game and push out a stuttering mess as quickly as possible. At this point, I’m just grateful that I’m not sacrificing the quality of the experience by playing it on the Switch.
Considering the game takes place in the bowels of the Underworld, one might excuse Hades for not being a colorful or visually exciting game. To the contrary, actually, as the combat in Hades is as flashy and optically stimulating as many stylish beat-em-ups like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. The House of Hades shimmers in the god of wealth’s opulent tastes. The resting ground for mediocre souls, the Fields of Asphodel, have been flooded by the fiery River Phlegathon and transformed into a burning wasteland. Elysium, home to the virtuous souls, is a lush oasis amidst the grim backdrops of the afterlife.
And moving from place to place would not be nearly as much fun without the music. Hades has a dynamic soundtrack depending on where Zagreus finds himself, but I have had the upbeat and almost jazzy tune that plays when he first drops into Tartarus stuck in my head ever since I picked up the game. During gauntlet style time trials or boss fights, Hades takes on a metal and rock inspired track that feels like it came out of its competitor for Game of the Year, Doom Eternal.
But the presentation is merely in service to that ever important gameplay. While Hades offers only a drip feed of story and exposition at a time, the basic loop of Zagreus’ escape attempts is the main course of the game. Now, Zagreus’ basic moveset is rather simple: an attack, a special, a projectile, and a dash. Things grow more complicated as he unlocks new weapons, starting out with a sword, and moving on to a bow, a shield, a lance, and many more.
The game eschews any kind of defense in favor of evasion, as Zagreus’ dash allows him to move over traps and lava, through enemies and projectiles. This creates a forgiving but difficult to master system of bobbing and weaving through the armies of the Underworld. Simple enough to dodge one long reaching attack from one of the Furies, but throw in the dozens of fireballs she cast towards you, while summoning reinforcements, and it becomes apparent why the dash is so useful.
In each individual chamber of the Underworld, Zagreus earns a reward for conquering the demonic inhabitants, usually one of the game’s several currencies, healing items, or a weapon or ability buff. Zagreus is not alone in his quest, he is receiving assistance from his heavenly family in the form of boons that buff his existing abilities or radically alter their purpose. Poseidon might offer Zagreus’ weapon a knockback effect, and the god of wine Dionysus can strike foes with the lingering effects of hangover.
The essentials of Hades are enough to keep the game moving forward and feeling fresh and stimulating, but the real treat is when Zagreus snags a half-dozen or more ablities that stack on each other. Poseidon’s knockback combined with the quick jab lance ability, or Zeus’ lightning bolts and Aphrodite’s weakness effect that can be tied to your special attack. Hades offers the player a chemistry set of stacking powers to tear through the hordes of hell.
Nearly every character in Hades is iconic (or perhaps legendary would be more fitting), and their well-defined personalities would usually not leave much room for creativity. However, Hades manages to bring many fresh takes to the hall of fame of Greek mythology. The god of sleep Hypnos is actually quite chipper, while the shade of Achilles is not the arrogant hero of the Trojan War, but has mellowed in death. The gorgon Medusa manifests as a severed head with a skittish crush on Prince Zagreus, usually fleeing to the rafters after speaking only a few words to him. One of my favorite parts of the game was dying so that I could return to the House of Hades and speak to each of the NPCs.
The Olympians are depicted closely to their mythological counterparts. Each only gets the occasional line as they pass their blessing on to Zagreus, but they manage to make an impression in that short time. For the most part their comments are funny or insightful enough to be worth their inclusion.
Hades even integrates the pettiness of the gods into its gameplay. One type of chamber Zagreus can enter is called a trial of the Gods, where he is given the choice between two blessings, offered by two different gods. After you choose, the spurned god will throw a wave of enemies after you in a childish tantrum. This really speaks to one of the core appeals of Greek mythology.
Gods from other cultures often behave strangely or above humanity, because the reasoning followed that gods were above people, so why should their behavior make sense to people? Ants do not recognize the behavior of humans, so the gods must act like alien forces. The Greeks and their worship was decidedly more personal, choosing deities who were intensely human in nature. The gods of Greece partied, carried on affairs, and possessed every human vice and then some. It’s easy to turn these immortals into Disney characters without flaws, but it’s also less interesting.
Hades is, to put it simply, a thrill ride. I mean that both positively and negatively, because there’s nothing quite like an adrenaline rush from a game that you’d otherwise have to get from skydiving or actually going outside. On the other hand, it is also consistently exhausting to play in long bursts, especially after one of your escape attempts ends in bloody failure and you find yourself dropped back in the House of Hades. Still, the day must come where you pick it back up and give it another try, because Zagreus surely isn’t going to give up.
I usually don’t go for roguelikes, I get frustrated quite easily by games, especially when the threat of loss of progress looms in the distance. Hades makes up for that loss with a constant sense of progress as Zagreus is constantly gathering new resources that can only be used after he fails. Hades manages to weave that failure into its narrative, even if it often is hellish. 9/10