Escaping the Underworld Again and Again with Hades

Supergiant Games has become a show-stopping studio. From bursting onto the scene with critically acclaimed Bastion to their equally impressive follow-up offerings, Transistor and Pyre, the indie developer is known for its incredible art style, brilliant voice acting, stunning music and rock-solid gameplay that’s almost impossible to put down.

For as outstanding as their first three games are, Supergiant aimed for something on an even grander scale with its latest offering, turning to a literal pantheon of gods for inspiration. In Hades, not only has Supergiant hit the mark for a fourth time — it’s created one of the best roguelikes you can find.

Hades takes all of Supergiant’s aforementioned qualities and turns them up to high gear. With a lengthy early access period, the development team added constant flourishes to the game, incorporating player feedback to create something magical.

Drawing from classic Greek mythology, Hades puts players in the role of Prince Zagreus, son of the titular Hades. After finding out he has a mother whom he never knew existed, Zagreus is hell-bent (pun intended) on escaping to find her. Of course, if you know anything about Greek mythology — or pretty much any other mythology — escaping the underworld is both frowned upon and nigh impossible.

To facilitate his escape, Zagreus has a number of abilities that change slightly based on the weapon he’s using. All weapons have an attack, special and dash attack, with some also including a dash special. Additionally, players have a cast that deals damage and acts as a sort of magic attack.

The game is broken down into a number of procedurally generated chambers across four areas, with the next chamber unlocking after all enemies are defeated. Each chamber comes with a reward, which can be a resource, increased health, Olympian boon or Daedalus Hammer.

Resources are self-explanatory, consisting of money to use at the shop for the run you’re on or another currency for permanent upgrades in between escape attempts. Boons and hammers, on the other hand, alter gameplay and are key to creating a strong build.

Encountering one of the Olympians will give you a choice among three of their boons, which can have a passive bonus or take up a slot. Your attack, dash, special and cast all have slots that can only have one boon for each. There’s also a “call” slot, a unique ability each Olympian offers. Boons can also be upgraded with Poms of Power, literally pomegranates, in another nod to Greek mythology. There are also boons that modify others.

Taking a boon has a number of effects. To start with, it boosts whichever slot you’ve taken. For instance, accepting Poseidon’s attack both increases your attack damage and adds a knock-back effect to it. That allows you to easily slam foes into walls, further damaging them, but it also opens up a new boon if you run into Poseidon later. His Razor Shoals ability causes a damage-over-time effect to any enemies hit with abilities that cause knock-back, but it only becomes available when you have one of his abilities that already does that.

That’s only one example of the myriad choices Hades offers, and it’s far and away not the only game-altering augment. Daedalus Hammers directly affect the weapon you’re using, doing everything from increasing how much damage you deal to armor to offering entirely new moves. Double Nova, for example, takes the sword’s special attack and makes it hit twice in quick succession rather than once like it normally does.

Attempting to create a build strong enough to successfully complete your run requires making smart choices about the boons and upgrades you take, but with the game’s randomized nature, that’s not always easy. That’s where keepsakes come in. These are permanent items that can be equipped and upgraded to enhance and guide each run.

Every Olympian offers a keepsake, with most other characters offering one as well. Keepsakes from the Olympian gods, with the exception of Hermes, have two effects: They guarantee the first boon you see after equipping it will be from that god, and they increase the chances of the god offering higher tier boons.

Hermes is unique in that his boons are always offered during a run, providing bonuses that augment your other abilities, with upgrades focused on increasing your speed, movement and dodge chance. His keepsake is also unique in that each time you clear a chamber within a certain amount of time, your dodge chance increases.

There’s also Chaos, a primordial deity who offers boons with a huge benefit but an equally cumbersome detriment. All of Chaos’ boons take effect after a set number of cleared chambers, but until you’ve cleared them, the negative effect is in place. You may see a boon that offers a 60% increased attack bonus, but for the next four chambers, every enemy that dies throws a bomb at you. It’s a terrific risk/reward system that, appropriately, creates chaos.

With 25 keepsakes, six weapons with four aspects each and dozens of boons, plus the game’s randomized nature, every run of Hades feels unique and offers something unexpected. Sometimes, that unexpected nature means you’ll fail, but Hades does an excellent job in allowing you to progress, even coming up short.

Through resources gathered in each playthrough, you can upgrade weapons, add new, helpful mechanics to chambers and gain the aid of limited-use companions who deal a ton of damage. More than that, each playthrough reveals more of the story, and it’s here where Supergiant put its trademark world building on full display.

In between Zagreus’ escape attempts, he can talk to certain underworld characters who each reveal different pieces of what quickly becomes a tangled web of plots and side stories. Through utterly gorgeous artwork and masterful voice acting, Hades somehow makes a roguelike into a narrative force, one that often had me craving just one more run as much for the story as its excellent gameplay.

Supergiant obviously crafted a story based on Greek myth, but the combination of incredible voice work and sublime writing brings every character to life. Poseidon is portrayed as an aloof surfer dude, while Hermes is delightfully mischievous. Even his voice acting is spoken at a higher cadence to reflect how fast he is.

The more you play, the more characters you encounter, and as you increase your relationship with each one, more dialogue and narrative elements become available. Each character’s lines are also accompanied by one of several static portraits, yet even without being animated, the perfect marriage of voice acting and remarkable artistic detail brings the story to life majestically. The polish in Hades’ presentation is breathtaking.

Attempting describe Hades’ art style and properly do it justice is almost impossible. The isometric viewpoint allows for a stunning display of every environment, with colors popping vividly and different areas of the underworld taking on a personality of their own. Sharp, crisp lines often make it seem like a comic book is being played out in front of you, and even with the frenetic pace of combat, the game never ceases to amaze in its presentation.

Even the font choice and color of damage numbers blend beautifully with the overall aesthetic. The attention to painstaking detail is everywhere you look, and that includes the music. Especially the music.

Darren Korb is a genius. He’s the one responsible for all of Supergiant’s music (among other credits), and in Hades, he’s created something masterful.

Everything from light, acoustic tracks to electronic-infused melodies plays through the various chambers, with the heavy electric guitar riffs saved for particularly dangerous encounters. Along with the singing talents of Ashley Barrett, who’s lent her brilliant singing voice to another one of Supergiant’s offerings, there are few games that can match the hypnotic music in Hades.

I could go on and on, extolling the virtues of Hades and why it’s such a phenomenal gaming experience. It’s one of the few games I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, regardless of genre preference. Supergiant Games has raised the bar they set for themselves yet again, and in doing so, has provided us with a masterpiece.

Hades earns 5 GiN Gems out of 5 because I can’t give it a 6 with our rating system.

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