Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
It is rare that I am introduced to a brand new game genre for the first time but that was my experience with Hades, opening up the world of wonderful roguelikes to me for the first time. This stunning and brutal game seems daunting from a glance but is actually one of the strongest indie titles of this year.
Supergiant Games has outdone itself with Hades, creating my favorite game from the developer to date. Previously released on PC and now on Nintendo Switch, Hades follows Zagreus on a seemingly simple quest to escape the underworld and his father Hades to reach Olympus with the help of some of the gods along the way.
Death means little in this game as dying in a dungeon run means just starting over from the beginning with the added knowledge and currency so that Zagreus is a little bit better off for the next time around.
Combat is impressive and welcoming
When starting Hades, the game doesn’t waste any time in thrusting you right into the middle of the dungeon-crawling adventure. In fact, at least as far as I could tell, it doesn’t even explain the different controls and elements of the combat system when you first start the game.
As such, I was left to my own devices to experiment and figure out which button corresponded to which attack. Hades features numerous chambers that make up several different areas of the underworld. Though it is mostly randomly generated, the same general setup will happen every time that you do a run in the game.
You will go from chamber to chamber, taking out the enemies in each room before opening up the path to the next one. At its heart is the excellent combat that is the tool in which you are able to defeat the extremely hostile denizens of your father’s underworld.
At a glance, the combat is rather simplistic in design and that could be intentional. You really only have three attacks in total to take out enemies. You have the spell or cast attack that is mapped to the A button on Nintendo Switch, which in its default form is a blast that launches forward to deal heavy damage.
It is powered by a limited number of crystals. You have to either wait until the monster you use the spell on throws away the crystal or kill that monster to get the crystal back. While the cast ability can be useful, I honestly didn’t even use it much in combat outside of specific scenarios.
It was the other two basic abilities that made up the bulk of my toolset during my journey to escape to Olympus. The first is your basic attack, executed with the X button on Switch that varies based on the weapon that you are holding. The other is the special, used by the Y button, that also changes based on your weapon but is more focused on area-of-effect attacks for the most part.
Initially, two abilities that have no true combo utility could sound like a pretty boring game but Hades’ fast and fluid combat never got old at all. Everything that you do from slicing and dicing to dashing out of the way of attacks with the B button is quick and allows you to feel like you are a god in your own right.
But it really comes down to finding the weapon that works for you. There are four weapons available from the start of the game, with certain currency required to unlock some of them, and the default weapon is a large sword. With it, Zagreus is able to slice through foes in quick succession with the basic attack and do an area attack in a circle around him with the special.
It is with this basic weapon that players start out the game but you can unlock other weapons over time. The one that I found worked best for me was the bow that I unlocked early on, allowing me to become a ranged master.
Though both the sword and bow use only two attacks, they couldn’t be more different and cater to a different playstyle. In the bow’s case, its basic attack shows a target bar that grows with how long you hold the button down to launch the arrow at an enemy while the special sends out a barrage of arrows in a cone in front of you.
With these two attacks, I was able to dash around the map, launch some arrows, and keep enemies almost always a distance away from me. It made Hades feel like a delicate dance, as the enemies would skitter around the map, summoning pals to fight alongside them and launching bombs, spells, and themselves at me.
At the same time, I would constantly be moving to keep distance between us and launching a storm of arrows at them over and over, and occasionally targeting the bulkier enemies with a single powerful snipe. Even after dozens of hours of starting over through the same general layouts, I never got tired of this dance.
Every run was satisfying, whether I made it to only the 10th chamber or the 25th one. And it is quite welcoming to newcomers like me to the roguelike genre, with a God Mode available if you need a little boost. It doesn’t lower the difficulty necessarily but makes you more resistant to damage and the resistance increases each time you die so that you still learn the game properly while having a somewhat easier time.
Presentation and Replay Value Are Unmatched
Of course, glorious combat in Hades would be incomplete if everything else surrounding it was awful but the presentation and replay value are also unparalleled. For such a terrifying place like the underworld, it is surprisingly beautiful to look at. Supergiant Games has crafted a detailed and colorful world that varies from area to area.
Some parts are dark hallways with creepy atmospheres while others are bright and dangerous hellish fire pits with lava flowing around you. There are others, too, that I would want to bring up but I’ll leave them out for sake of spoilers. Suffice it to say that there is strong variation in the level designs and the 2.5D environments contrast well with the equally detailed 3D character models.
The high-quality presentation transitions over to performance as well, ensuring that the gameplay is as smooth as it needs to be. Dashing around the field with dozens of enemies launching attacks and so many effects going on never felt taxing on the Switch and I never died due to frame rate or other performance issues.
When it comes to replay value, there is a lot to love about Hades. The roguelike formula is captivating with the game capitalizing on that “one more run” mentality. If I slipped up and was so close to reaching a new area or I lost to one of the challenging and unique bosses, I immediately upgraded my stuff and jumped right into the next round.
The replay value succeeds in large part due to the customization options. There are both permanent upgrades that will benefit you for the rest of the game and temporary ones that last only for that run until you die again. On the permanent side, there are upgrades for your health, the number of times you can cast, damage, and more.
Since they are potentially game-changing, the currency to unlock them is rather difficult to acquire in the dungeon and it takes a good bit of time to really see a difference. Then there are the aforementioned weapons as well as accessory items that are given to you by the various main characters of the story.
Hades employs a stripped-down relationship system with each of the main gods where giving them another form of currency, nectar, will raise their heart level with you and potentially net you a keepsake item in the process. You can equip one of these at a time and they all have impressive abilities like giving more max health, taking less damage, and can each be upgraded as well.
You are even able to customize the base that you have in the underworld to an extent, unlocking in-game achievements, new characters, and more. Though the permanent upgrades take a while to unlock most of the time, the temporary ones are frequent and play a huge role in dungeon runs.
Each time that you head into the underworld chambers, you will come upon messages from the Olympian gods often. Whether it’s Zeus, Aphrodite, Poseidon, or any of the other gods, they will give you the option to pick between three randomly chosen abilities. They typically change your attack, special, cast, or dash to make them more powerful or useful.
There are other temporary upgrades as well like leveling up the temporary god boons, increasing your health for that run only, gaining an ultimate ability, and more. At first, I was annoyed that I couldn’t permanently keep my 200 health but I soon found that these upgrades make the game more exciting and fresh since my loadout would be totally different from one run to another, even with the same weapon.
Hades only falls short with its story
Where Hades does fall a bit short is with its basic story and characters. The tale of Zagreus escaping from the underworld is certainly more substantial than I expected but the actual content is only passable in terms of quality. This is partly because the story is shaped by your own actions.
Some elements are consistent but many times the characters will react to what you did in the past dungeon run. If you were taken out by a particular boss, they might mention that and even give you a helpful tip. Other times, you just need to die again or reach a specific area and you’ll be able to hear more about the person’s backstory.
While randomness works for the gameplay, it doesn’t work nearly as well for the plot that could have benefited from a more traditional format. It also doesn’t help that the gods of Olympus and the underworld aren’t that interesting in the first place. They typically say a few sentences worth of dialogue and they’re done until the next time you, well, die. Some of them do have intriguing personalities like Meg and Achilles, but even they don’t talk to you often enough to make much of a difference.
Though the plot falls short of everything else, the gameplay, presentation, and replay value are terrific in Hades. It is a genre-defining roguelike that puts its own spin on the “one more run” style with unbelievably quick and fun combat, a stunningly realized world, and constant upgrades to keep the game feeling fresh.