I don’t have a good experience with roguelike games or anything that involves dying and losing all your bonuses in the process. I got pretty far with Azure Dreams back in the day and it was one of my favorite games for the PS1, but because I completely messed up a monster build, it completely turned me off from the game after. Soulsborne games are definitely part of that experience and with the exception of Bloodborne, I’m not a big fan.
My experience is the same for Supergiant Games, where Bastion was one of my first and favorite indie games of the past because of its easy to complete dungeon crawler while being serenaded by Nick Cave. Unfortunately while I do appreciate the art and lore that came with Transistor and Pyre, they felt way too linear for me. Here comes Hades and for the longest time I felt like I would never start this game. Due to the fact that 13 Sentinels was shorter (but really good!) than expected, I loaded Hades on the Switch Lite and I was hooked from the get-go.
You take the role of Prince Zagreus, son of Hades, as he makes his way out of the underworld once he discovers that his true mother is still alive. Against his father’s wishes, the rebellious youth takes his Stygian blade and makes his way out of Tartarus defying hordes of undead, hell’s sentinels, and mythic nemeses from the Minotaur to the Hydra; Zagreus challenges death itself to taste life beyond the walls of his prison in the underworld. As each death pushes him to restart on his Sisyphean journey (more on him later), every death makes him stronger and more impervious to the challenges Hades casts in his way.
God of Hissy Fits
While I prefer Norse mythology to the Greeks, when a story is done right, I don’t mind the setting. Assassin’s Creed Odyseey did a good job with showing Ancient Greece in tune with their mythology. While the story of escaping hell isn’t new (see Dante’s Inferno and Agony), Hades really pushes to re-brand this subgenre, showcasing Tartarus, Asphodel, and even Elysium – each a different area of the Grecian mythological afterlife.
The bonuses Zagreus receives as he progresses through the level are akin to what a mythic hero would receive just like Theseus or Herakles. A god or goddess, basically one of your uncles or cousins would grant you weapon or stat bonuses that range from common, rare, epic, or heroic. Your Stygian blade or future weapons to be unlocked will receive said bonus that would make your journey easier fighting through hordes of monsters. Besides the health bonus from defeating enemies, you also earn Charon’s obols– currency you could use to purchase passive effects, healing bonuses, or even night shards (more on this later).
As you enter new randomized rooms and encounter new enemies, you will learn that every room has a different bonus that you could earn after vanquishing the enemies within. Centaur Hearts increase your life, Pomegranate Energy and Daedalus Hammers upgrade the boon you’ve received from your relatives or improve upon your weapon. You could choose to enter rooms that correspond to the icon of said deity and improve upon their boons, or choose to earn Night Shards, Nectar, Gemstones, Chthonic Keys for permanent rewards. Now you ask, why are they permanent rewards, what about the other power ups that you’ve received?
Walk It Off
The moment you die, and you will die, you lose all the bonuses you’ve received during that run. All that centaur hearts you’ve collected, the upgraded bonuses, and all that gold, gone in an instant. What if you’ve reached Elysium after defeating the Hydra and Megara in the lower levels? Too bad, you gotta start all over again from Tartarus. You’re back to level one, your weapon is back to its basic attributes, and if you went through your run collecting just transient bonuses, you just have to move on and walk it off.
However, as I said you have permanent power-ups that you can use back in Hades’ kingdom. Night Shards can give you permanent passive bonuses, Chthonic Keys allow you to unlock new weapons from your armory, Nectar allows you to build your relationship with the denizens of Hell and Olympus, and Gemstones give you capacity to make adjustments to your world whether you allow treasure trove challenges to litter Tartarus or cosmetic changes such as changing Hades’ furniture much to his chagrin. You are a rebellious teenager after all.
I feel that this is where the game gets more fun once you’ve learned how to differentiate between the permanent rewards and the transient bonuses. I hated using the Stygian Blade, the moment I found other weapons such as the Heart Seeking Bow and Aegis: The Shield of Chaos– going through the dungeons became a lot more enjoyable attempting to improve on your last run. In fact, after a while, I didn’t mind dying. All the Nectar you’ve received, you can use to bribe your subjects and receive keepsakes that grant bonuses and you can power up through your travels. Plus I enjoy Zagreus needling his father as they get on their nerves with their insults and banter. If you want you can pet Cerberus as much as you want. Much of the story is hidden in the subtle dialogue throughout the game and unlocking areas in Hades’ palace. Resist the urge to reset when you die because that’s when you actually get stronger.
Reimagining The Roguelike
While other roguelike games get frustrating at that point, Hades actually finds a way to marry player death with RPG character progression. Games like Moonlighter are fun until after a while it becomes a slog because after dying for a number of times or healing at the pool punishes you. I find myself losing motivation when this happens and then I end up quitting the game much too early. Hades pushes more for what Darkest Dungeon does with their games, they give quite a bit of carrot before beating you with a large stick.
Although it feels daunting starting from the first level after you’ve completed the region countless times, with no shortcuts to start from the next level, fighting the same bosses all over again, I feel that it actually trains you to enjoy the Sisyphean madness. You are like Sisyphus pushing that proverbial boulder up the hill, fighting the same hordes of enemies and bosses until you’ve achieved your goal. Yet it is best to think of Sisyphus with a smile on his face when doing so, because each new encounter gets easier as you get stronger with your permanent bonuses and new equipment you learn to master. Plus when you actually meet Sisyphus down in Tartarus, he’ll give you some pretty sweet swag.
What we liked:
- Beautiful art and mood music that keep you inspired.
- The roguelike experience is flexible and you keep coming back for more.
- The randomized dungeons, loot, and power-ups make every dungeon crawl unique.
- Customization of your palace in Hades and permanent bonuses are fun to grind.
- Interesting spin on the “escape from hell” sub-genre with entertaining dialogue and lore to keep you engaged.
What we didn’t like:
- That sinking feeling you get on the first few runs where you have to restart all over without keeping your bonuses and the dread of fighting the same bosses all over again.
- Nintendo Switch has no achievements.
- Harder to play older Supergiant Games as everything improved with Hades.
Verdict: Buy It!
Believe the hype. Those high review ratings and perfect scores you see aren’t a joke.
Hades is an enjoyable dungeon crawler that makes you appreciate the roguelike genre with the right balance of challenge, exploration, and customization. At the same time, it is an inexpensive game that you can get right into without making you feel bad after your purchase like so many other games out there that cost twice as much.
Hades will challenge you, kill you, but make you come back wanting more with its fantastic art direction and voice acting. It hooks you from the get go and doesn’t loosen its grip, with each dungeon run being unique and a whole new experience that you’ll not tire of so easily.