Supergiant isn’t exactly known for “live games.” Their previous titles (the superb Bastion, Transistor and Pyre) all felt like a love letter to a type of game that most larger studios don’t put out anymore: Bespoke, singleplayer experiences without a huge focus on variability for replay value. They were games built to be finished, thought about, discussed, and perhaps picked up in a year or two if you’re feeling the itch.
In contrast, Hades is a procedural roguelike about escaping the Greek underworld. And while I fully expected to leave it with a bad taste in my mouth, I have gotta say… I think it might actually kick ass.
To be fair, Supergiant’s pedigree and my documented love of their work was pushing me along, but I still expected the early access, live-game-until-it’s-finished mentality of Hades to end up frustrating me. How would the expressive characters, the detailed conversations, the moments of familiarity that I found so enticing in previous Supergiant games, fit into a roguelike?
Well, turns out, in between runs. It’s not a completely unique idea—plenty of roguelikes have some sort of meta-progression between each dive into the [insert dangerous zone name here]—but Hades manages to do a lot with a little, and it’s a testament to Supergiant’s aesthetic and writing sensibilities that it succeeds as it does.
You play as Zagreus, hotshot know-it-all son of Hades, who has decided he’s done with the Underworld and wants to head up to Olympus, where he knows his distant family (the other gods of the Greek pantheon) will be waiting. It’s a grim setting that’s made considerably warmer by the fact that, as a denizen of the Underworld and also a demigod by way of Hades, no death is permanent.
Even Hades knows this, which makes the interactions between Zagreus and Hades take on a darkly comedic tone: Zagreus, the godly equivalent of a rowdy teen, returning from his latest escape attempt to find Hades displeased, but unable to stop the boy. Hades, confident, fatherly, but nonetheless overbearing and passively cruel, is sure in his position that Zagreus can never escape the underworld. Their conversations are bitter and tight, each frustrated with the other but their own feelings leaving them unable to let that frustration boil over into hate.
The other friendly denizens of the underworld are also a delight to interact with between escape attempts. There’s Nyx (goddess of night), Hypnos (god of sleep, cousin of Nyx), Achilles (the hero, doomed to spend eternity in the underworld), Megaera (the first fury), and a few other secret faces hidden throughout the world as the game progresses.
It should be marked as an achievement that all of this is nestled within a pretty tight loop of roguelike action. Each escape attempt is started by picking a weapon (you begin with a sword, but eventually can unlock a bow, battering shield, and lance) and then diving into procedurally-chosen rooms as you slowly climb from Tartarus to Olympus. It’s a click-mashing, quick-evasion type of combat, with each encounter pushing you to consider positioning and your fragile health bar before engaging.
Each room ends with a prize, after defeating the room’s inhabitants. Here, again, it can be a mechanical reward (a new ability, a larger health bar, or a collectible resource), or a narrative reward, in the form of a communique with an Olympian god or a bottle of ambrosia, to be tucked away and gifted to an inhabitant of the underworld in exchange for new dialogue and a possible item.
It’s an ingenious method of melding the more mechanical aspects of the game’s climb and using narrative to soften the blow of each failure. Every time Zag gets killed out in Tartarus, I can return to the House of Hades and see what its inhabitants have to say.
The game’s still in early access, so all opinions on it at this time are subject to flux. I have my own thoughts about what might be nerfed or buffed in later updates, and there are clear pathways to further content should Supergiant decide to add a new weapon, or new characters, or more of their wonderful visual art into the game. But whatever comes next for Hades, I’m pretty sure that this point it’s firmly cemented itself as worthy of the title of the next Supergiant game.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.