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Game Info:

Hades
Developed by: Supergiant Games
Published by: Supergiant Games
Release date: September 17, 2020
Available on: Windows, macOS, Nintendo Switch
Genre: Rogue-like Dungeon Crawler
Number of players: Single player
ESRB Rating: Teen for Blood and Violence
Price: $24.99

There’s magic in Hades. It is a forgiving rogue-like, where progress is lost in the short term but gained in the long term with every death. The characters are almost all gods, and like their mythical originals, they are flawed and interesting characters reflecting humanity more than divinity. In Hades, the perpetually-small Supergiant Games studio has produced a remarkably large game (no doubt thanks to the mystical tool of contracting artists), with innumerable voice lines for its dozens of characters reacting to the unique and specific actions the player takes. It’s a game about escaping the land of Hades that constantly reminds the player when their character dies, “There is no escape.” Hades sustains these tensions in brilliant ways. More than by showing off clever design, Hades is experienced in wonderful moments of story and gameplay. The combat feels good; the characters pop. I was suspicious of Hades’s ability to tell a story with randomized character interactions, but, as usual for Supergiant, character moments were the most memorable. For example, the fabled musician Orpheus becomes a court musician and friend of the main character. At first, he is burdened with grief for his lost wife Eurydice. He plays his lyre but does not sing, not even at the angry command of his master, the god Hades. Zagreus, the player-controlled main character, acts as a go-between for Orpheus and Eurydice, first learning what happened to them and then hoping to reunite them. Meanwhile, Zagreus continues his attempts to escape the underworld. I progressed far enough in these escapes that Hades and the three-headed guard dog Cerberus were out of Hades’s house while Zagreus sneaked into a forbidden area. He soon crept back out. All these were scripted story events. I don’t know if it is by design or coincidence that Zagreus’s escapes and Orpheus’s arc combined so that Zagreus was sneaking through an empty house as gentle humming filled the halls. Away from the master’s eyes, Orpheus had decided to sing again. Fittingly, it was magical.

I suspect that moments like this are behind the many flowery words already written about Hades. It doesn’t hurt that, after two years in early access, Hades officially released in a year with multiple delays in every sector of entertainment, games included. That said, Hades is, on purely mechanical grounds, a solid game. From a top-down isometric perspective, the player controls Hades’s son Zagreus (almost entirely invented for the game) as he fights the denizens of the underworld in an attempt to reach the surface. This journey takes him through four distinct areas, each capped by a boss fight. The combat is quick and deadly such that the first run the player is dropped into at the start of the game is almost certain to end in death in the first area. This is by design, for it is only after death, back in the House of Hades at the bottom of the underworld, that the player learns more context and interacts with most of the game’s characters. That’s the genius stroke of the game, and it only works because both the gameplay and the character writing are so good.

Hades
Highlights:

Strong Points: Responsive, stylish, and varied action; forgiving death mechanics that reward progress and failure; excellent art design and voice acting
Weak Points: Random buffs can result in overpowered or underpowered builds; story progression can be uneven with progression through the game’s stages
Moral Warnings: Greek gods exist, are worshipped, and actively intervene in the world; optional romances, homosexual and heterosexual, lead to implied sex scenes; alcoholism; skull, blood, and ghost imagery as typical for the underworld; “hell” as a swear word and the location of the Greek afterlife’s underworld; Lucifer is mentioned as a mythological figure; the player fights and kills a variety of enemies; most enemies are undead and come back to life; stealing from a shop is possible and incentivized; the main character has a highly antagonistic, if not hopeless, relationship with his father

The combat is exciting, albeit not very innovative. Zagreus progresses from room to room, fighting a variety of enemies that usually teleport in as waves. With a sword, spear, bow, and more creative weapons later on, Zagreus dodges attacks and kills enemies. What makes each attempt to escape Hades so engaging is the hope of making it higher and of trying out the buffs granted by the gods. Called Boons, these enhancements are often accompanied by brief messages from the gifting god offering encouragement, shedding light on the broader situation, or bantering with the other gods. The gods are envisioned as a variety of races and archetypes, including surfer dude Dionysus, quirky uncle Poseidon, noble Athena, friendly but sneaky Hermes, and more. The brief dialogue is a treat, as are the boons themselves. Boons change weapon behavior, add bonus effects from lightning strikes to razor blades, enhance Zagreus’s movement, provide health effects, and overall synergize delightfully. Sometimes they feel too strong; rarely, the combinations feel too weak. Boons are removed after every death or successful escape. Each run is thus truly different, forcing the player to adapt to the effects of their current boon allotment on their current weapon. Boons from a given god are offered in random sets of three, allowing the player to customize their build. They can also be leveled up for longer or stronger effects. Player abilities vary; enemy types rarely change in a given area aside from miniboss variety and late-game boss changes.

As a general rule, Hades incentivizes trying out all the options eventually. Trying each weapon, each boon, and so on are rewarded with experience and various in-game upgrade currencies. The rewards are large, but not so much that I ever felt that I was forced to take a less fun option for the sake of completing a list. The variety is rewarding on its own, and upgrade rewards only open up more variety. Zagreus and each of his weapons can be persistently upgraded in several ways. The House of Hades and the realm of Hades itself can be upgraded with decorations and gameplay benefits. Hades is constantly changing, and a major reason to keep playing is to try out the new toys.

The other main motivator is progress in relationships with the characters. Most characters, even Cerberus the big red dog, have relationship values raised by regular interactions. Bottles of nectar and ambrosia can be earned and gifted to become closer to people and gain equippable stat-boosting heirlooms. If the player is driven by completionist tendencies or just wants to experience the narrative, this process could be frustrating. Nectar is earned slowly, and Zagreus must at least attempt a new escape before further interactions are unlocked. This means character relationships can, depending on how the escape attempts go, progress less reliably than the main storyline. This is not a problem per se because the story continues and gameplay options increase after the first successful escape attempt. Hades is uniquely designed for easy replaying. Rogue-likes are known for requiring the player to become an expert in order to complete even one run through the game’s levels. Death in Hades resets Boons and temporary currency for an underworld shop, but otherwise, it is very forgiving of failure. Zagreus always makes progress in character interactions and, usually, in persistent growth. Similarly, successfully completing the levels once is not the end of the game; it is just the beginning of the end-game progression, where Zagreus can enable various difficulty modifiers in exchange for rewards while continuing to unlock upgrades and character interactions. I wish the game encouraged piling on excess modifiers as in Supergiant’s previous work, but the ability to increase the difficulty is appreciated. Between experience and character progression, including generous respawn chances, the only serious threats to an endgame run are overabundant difficulty modifiers and an enhanced version of the final boss.

If Hades doesn’t work for you, it probably stops working either right at the beginning or here at the endgame. Those who do not enjoy the gameplay at the start will probably not be brought in by increasing variety, and even those of us who love the combat can eventually tire of fighting the same enemies. That’s not a condemnation of Hades; it’s not meant to be played forever. But if you want to finish the post-game combat, it might ask to be played a little longer than the variety remains fresh.

Hades
Score Breakdown:
Higher is better
(10/10 is perfect)

Game Score - 94%
Gameplay - 18/20
Graphics - 10/10
Sound - 9/10
Stability - 5/5
Controls - 5/5

Morality Score - 40%
Violence - 6/10
Language - 6/10
Sexual Content - 1/10
Occult/Supernatural - 0/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 7/10

What does not wear thin is Hades’s presentation. Zagreus controls responsively and accurately. The art is vibrant and creative across the board. Background music is less memorable than usual for developer mainstay Darren Korb. The vocal tracks and final boss music stand out in the first Supergiant soundtrack that I don’t feel like listening to on its own. This is no great criticism; it is credit enough that the music never annoys in a game with so much level repetition. Almost all speaking characters have gorgeous 2D models accompanying their text and voice-over. The environments, characters, and effects of the fights are clear and pleasing. As usual for Supergiant, the narrator is a constant reactive companion. Hades has an absurd amount of unique contextual dialog that distracts me only when I wonder how the system tracks it all. This is why I don’t know precisely the “usual” circumstances under which players hear Orpheus sing the first time. Visits to the House of Hades feel entirely unique because relationships, and thus conversations, with different characters develop at different paces and play off each other. They are also altered by the specifics of Zagreus’s latest escape attempt.

It should not be surprising that a game about escaping Hades with the assistance of the Greek pantheon is filled with potentially-troubling content. Hades flows with stylized blood in violent combat. Enemies generally appear and disappear in flashes of light; bosses and Zagreus are the exceptions, being plopped into a blood-red River Styx when defeated. “Hell” is used as a swear word, along with b******d. Characters refer to alcohol often, and one of the buffs inflicts a “hangover” on enemies. Pagan deities, of course, exist and are worshipped by side characters in the game. I was surprised by a mention of Lucifer among a group of non-Greek mythological figures; he is spoken of as a tragic rebel. Given the subject matter, there is relatively little sexual content. Aphrodite is naked, with her hair covering up a lot, though she is drawn in a much less sexualized way than that would suggest. There are two potential romances to pursue, one with a woman and one with a man. Each ends in a fade-to-black suggested sex scene with brief but plain audio. There is enough meat to the narrative that the “message” of Hades, if it even has one, can be debated. In short, it is a story about reconciliation: among families, between lovers, and so on. This theme includes, at least at first, the main character acting in direct rebellion against his father. Zagreus is given the option to steal from a shop in one recurring situation; doing so is incentivized but not unpunished.

As I hope I’ve made clear, I highly recommend Hades to fans of action games. I would recommend it to fans of storytelling as well; unfortunately, there is no enjoying the story without also enjoying the action. Even with a built-in difficulty adjustment mode that makes Zagreus sturdier after every death, the player has to engage with the combat to get through the story. If you are interested in the narrative in addition to the combat, all the better. Hades is Supergiant’s most polished work and is an excellent action game in its own right.

About the Author

Sam George

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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