It’s rare for early access titles to actually pay off in their final release. Hades, the latest game from indie developer Supergiant Games, is an exception of towering proportions.
Initially made available as an early access title in December 2018, the 1.0 version of Hades released for PC last September and managed to overshadow triple-A releases as widely anticipated and heavily funded as Cyberpunk 2077. Now, having proven itself as one of the best indie games in recent years and one of the all-time greatest entries in the roguelike genre, Hades has also made its way to the PlayStation and Xbox consoles.
Inspired by the world of Greek mythology, the game centers on Prince Zagreus, the rebellious son of Hades, king of the underworld. Supergiant portrays the Greek gods like a dysfunctional family — Zagreus chafes against his father’s dispassionate, stifling treatment and blind dedication to his labor. Depressed by the prospect of a Kafkaesque existence in the realm of the dead, Zagreus vows instead to break out of Hades and reach Mount Olympus. In order to achieve the impossible, Zagreus, aided by heavenly boons strewn in his path, must fight through the teeming hordes of hell and conquer the underworld’s ever-shifting, labyrinthine landscape.
As with Supergiant’s previous titles, Bastion, Transistor and Pyre, Hades features a perfect synthesis of gameplay and narrative. Given the nature of the underworld, players never reach a game-over state in Hades. Instead, dying simply brings Zagreus back to his father’s home deep in the pits of Tartarus, where fallen gods and forgotten heroes lay about in anguish, overing pearls of wisdom and cheeky commentary on players’ escape attempts. Each time Zagreus ventures out, his path through the underworld changes slightly — no two runs are ever the same, though repeated crawls through Hades build players’ familiarity with the combat system and permanently increase Zagreus’ strength, making future runs more prone to success.
As Zagreus makes it further and further away from his father’s clutches, players meet the various, charmingly voiced Greek gods such as Zeus, Ares, Athena and Aphrodite, who each have a unique relationship with Zagreus and his father. By repeatedly encountering the gods, players can expand their understanding of the rich backstory that links Zagreus to the gods and compels his journey forward to Olympus.
Though in combat Zagreus is typically drowning in a sea of projectiles and surrounded by vast scores of enemies, Hades’ excellent art style, which features wonderfully detailed hand-painted character models and environments, ensures that players are never overwhelmed by an overly busy screen. In addition to the typical brawler gameplay, in which hordes of enemies are thrust upon Zagreus, players also face challenging and memorable bosses, such as an undead hydra with regenerating heads.
Because players are constantly progressing and unlocking radically different weapons, gameplay is never stagnant, and the randomized gifts awarded to Zagreus by Olympian gods grant powers that allow each encounter to feel unique. With seemingly infinite permutations and combinations of weapons, powers and upgrades, Hades gives players plenty to experiment with and ensures that, even after hundreds of hours of gameplay, there is always more to see.
Hades rewards those who invest patience and are not afraid of dying time and time again, and its fresh, flashy combat system is easy to pick up, turning casual players into maestros within a few hours. In the past decade, Supergiant has had a perfect track record. Though each of its games is distinctive and unlike any other, Hades plays to all of Supergiant’s strengths. It successfully blends the heart-pounding action of a dungeon crawler with deep character-focused narrative, and manages to give both elements equal weight.
This review is based on the PS5 version of Hades.
Neil Haeems covers video games. Contact him at [email protected].