One day, while listening to one of my favorite nerd-centric podcasts, one of the hosts brought up Hades. After explaining the basic premise of fighting your way out of the Underworld with the help of Olympian and Chthonic gods, they praised it for the gameplay, the music, and the character designs; describing them in a way that I cannot write here because pearls will be clutched. I thought that would be the end of it, but then friends of mine started to play it, swapping gameplay tips and reacting to everything it had to offer with overwhelming positivity. Intrigued, I downloaded it on my Nintendo Switch and started to play.
It has quickly become one of my favorite games of 2020.
In the latest title by Supergiant Games (Bastion, Pyre, Transistor), you play as Zagreus a prince of the Underworld and the son of Hades, the God of the Underworld. In classic Disney princess fashion Zagreus feels as though he doesn’t belong and yearns to see what is outside his father’s realm, so naturally he decides to fight his way out. Along the way he receives a little extra help from his relatives on Mount Olympus, who grants him attack bonuses and special powers depending that vary depending on which God is granting the boon. For example, Zeus, God of Thunder, gives you the power to electrify your foes; Dionysus, God of Wine, grants you the power of making your enemies hungover, and so on. With the help of the Gods, along with some aid from other famous faces of Greek mythology, Zagreus tries to reach the surface and eventually Mount Olympus. Get to Olympus or die trying, sounds simple enough, right? Well…
Described as a roguelike, the gameplay involves navigating randomly generated dungeons and laying waste to every baddie in your way. You face everything from floating skulls and wand waving witches, to twitchy, embittered fallen warriors and an evil, floating ball of butterflies that suck out your soul. These, along with some incredibly powerful bosses, make for a game that’s very hard, but not impossible. Because of the difficulty you end up dying quite a bit. But that’s okay though! When you die, you emerge back at the House of Hades and after getting roasted for being bad at the game by Hypnos, the God of Sleep, you have the opportunity to chat and deepen your relationship with the residents; including the anxious and lovable gorgon Dusa, supportive and wise hero of legend Achilles, and ethereal and motherly Nyx, Goddess of the Night.
Whenever I died mid-run, and I died a lot, I was never upset because I was excited to talk to them again. In some ways, dying is rewarding, because you get to special dialogue and questlines faster than you would if you’d survived. And, unlike other games where the levels are unchanging, the dungeons in Hades rearrange themselves every time, meaning you never run the same dungeons configuration twice. It does not take long to recognize the way the rooms are designed, but the order of the rooms is never the same, keeping the gameplay fresh but familiar. Additionally, once you develop a rhythm and get really comfortable with the gameplay, it does not take long to recover your progress and get to where you were before you died, and go even further.
You have an array of weapons at your disposal. You start out with a sword but you quickly unlock a spear, shield, bow and arrow, boxing gloves, and a gun. Each of these weapons can be upgraded by leveling up their hidden aspects, which reveals new attack bonuses and abilities. Combining the weapon aspects and the divine boons makes for some really fast-paced and enjoyable combat. It must be said though that some of the weapons are easier to use than the others; the bow and arrow and shield proved to be unsatisfying and frustrating to use for me, personally. The pay off is a bit delayed which, depending on the player, can make an already hard game harder because you have to fumble with your weapon. An easy fix to this is to stick with a weapon you like, but keep in mind that the game rewards you for using the different weapons.
Another thing that makes the difficulty in Hades worth it are the visuals. From the character models to the backgrounds, this game is a feast for the eyes. The designs by Supergiant’s Art Director Jen Zee (Bastion, Transistor, Pyre, Gaia Online) are dynamic and lively, you can tell a lot about a character with one look at their facial expressions, size, and clothing. Hades himself is intimidating and commanding, Nyx is aloof and regal, and Megaera is harsh and confident. The designs for the Olympian Gods are detailed and rich to look, with Zeus having a literal cloud for his beard as he’s poised to hurl a thunderbolt, while Poseidon looks like he just emerged from a tidal wave, his trident at his back, and Dionysus with wine blushed cheeks, lounging and looking like the pinnacle of decadence, with a smile that can only be described as, “I’m seven bottles deep and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon, let’s party!” While most of the designs are rich in detail, I do wish Aphrodite was given a little more pizzazz. Each of her Olympian relatives get a prop to symbolize who they are and what they do, they also have clothes. But my girl is out here nothing! It would have been nice to let her have a signifier; a love letter, bottle of perfume, something. It also would have been refreshing to see a depiction of the Goddess of Love that wasn’t a thin woman with pale skin, especially when there are other characters with dark skin. Why not Aphrodite?
The backgrounds are gorgeous as well; Joanne Tran (Hades, Call of Duty WWII, Battlefield Hardline: Premium) created backgrounds that are just as lush and detailed as the character designs. Tartarus is full of sickly greens and reds and stony dungeons, Asphodel is a hellish, sulfuric wasteland that you can feel just by looking at it, and Elysium is a pastoral paradise, full of rich greens and blues, soft grass and stately statues. Each level is its own living, breathing character. While each level is more stunning than the last, I did experience moments of sensory overload while playing. At times, there were so many objects on screen moving at once vying for your attention along with a bright background that my eyes went crossed began to hurt from all the activity. While this did not detract from my enjoyment of the game, I can definitely see people having a hard, if not harder time with it than I did. Just be mindful of how much you can handle at a time; I’d hate for folks to develop migraines from all the stimuli.
This game is bursting at the seams with detail. When you’re in the House of Hades, little ghosts mill about and hang with each other in cliques, and you can find out how they died. Achilles, who is also a tad translucent to remind you of his ghostliness, will always bow to Zagreus if he walks past him, and Hypnos will jolt awake and pretend like he wasn’t sleeping when you arrive back at the House. Every screen has a surprise, making this game about the realm of the dead all the more alive.
In a fun and delightful extra, you have the chance to remodel the house as well, adding new rugs and furniture and paintings, making it look as grand or gothic as you please. Did you want the chance to play Animal Crossing and a roguelike in the same game? Because you can.
Voice Acting and Music
The visuals are in a beautiful harmony with the voice acting. Darren Korb (Bastion, Transistor, Pyre) plays Zagreus with dry, witty sarcasm, but also passion and heart. The voices in Hades vary from icy to snarky to warm to playful to flirtatious, highlighting the individuality of every character. The star of the show is Supergiant’s voice actor in residence Logan Cunningham (Bastion, Transistor, Pyre), who provided the booming and chilling voice of Hades, the soft spoken, mentor-like tones of Achilles, and the ancient mischief of the Storyteller. He also provided the voices of Poseidon, Charon, and Asterius for good measure, with each performance being more incredible than the last.
The score is also phenomenal. Korb, who was also the composer for Hades, created a score that mixes the ancient with the modern, delicate with driving, and a forward motion. He described it as “Mediterranean-Prog-Rock-Halloween Music,” which is such a delightful mishmash of moods, genres and sounds, much like how I would describe a piece of music. Combining thrashing electric instruments with light, plucking baglamas, and futuristic synths, Korb tied the whole feeling of Hades with a neat bow; a contemporary game about characters from antiquity. Like the gameplay, the music progresses in intensity room by room. At the start of a run the backing music is quiet, with only a few instruments being heard; the further you go, more of them join the party, making the song richer with each dungeon only to turn into an explosion of sound, breaking out into full headbanging glory. It’s not everyday that the music sounds like it’s playing the game with you. Along with the pulsating tunes, Hades also has pieces that play at the genre of the epic ballad of long lost heroes, and gentle and thoughtful songs that I could listen to for hours, that play into the heart and love of the game.
*The following contains side quest spoilers. You’ve been warned!*
I was not prepared for how much love there was in this game. When I first saw the box art and started to play, I pegged Zagreus as a cocky, one-line spewing badass, who kicks butt and takes names who makes little to no connections with those around him. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. He is actually very charming and sensitive and sweet and empathetic to everyone’s plight. As you play and deepen the relationships with those around you, Zagreus has the chance to reunite long lost lovers and reconnect estranged parents with their children. The fact that Zagreus is so driven to reconnect people, knowing what we know about a key plot point which I will not give away here, makes it all the more impactful if not a bit heart wrenching, and only made me love Zagreus more.
At some point, working to reunite characters became my top priority and getting out of Hades was just an added bonus. Getting Achilles and his lover Patroclus back together after they both died tragically in the Trojan War became my top priority, and when I was finally given that quest line I did everything I could to reunite those two as soon as possible. I was motivated to do this because I had grown to know and love Achilles and I wanted to see him and Patroclus happy. Whenever I would emerge back at the House, I would head straight for Achilles and say, “I’m gonna get you out of here, don’t you worry.” The fact that Hades even acknowledges the fact that those two were lovers instead of just very good friends is remarkable and a testament to how this game does queer love right.
There are romance options in this game. Zagreus is canonically bisexual, and, after giving gifts and having conversations with Megaera and/or Thanatos, Zagreus’s childhood friend and God of Death, can reveal romance subplots with one, both, or neither of them. The romance between Thanatos and Zagreus is especially endearing, because both of them are awkward when talking to their crush. As a bisexual who is also terrible at talking to crushes I can relate, but if they can do it, so can I.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up Hades. I thought that this game would be a simple drop in the bucket, a one time fling that I would get bored with after an hour or so and say, “yeah, it was alright, not really my thing.” I’m so glad I was wrong. In a year that seems like someone opened up 80 Pandora’s boxes at once, I was so pleased to play a beautiful, witty, and slick game that is, ultimately, about a person who remains good, makes connections, and wants to do right be people despite the world around him being cold and dismal. If you’re looking for a game with snappy gameplay, rich visuals, charming characters, and an awesome score, I can’t recommend Hades enough.
Hades is available on the Nintendo Switch, Steam, and Epic Games Store.
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