I love the games that SuperGiant makes. This company has consistently put out games that have managed to capture my heart and mind in equal measure. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I’ve been playing a lot of Hades, SuperGiant’s latest game. And I wanted to spend some time discussing how Hades kept me entertained for almost a hundred hours.
Firstly, what is it? Hades is a rogue-like that follows a similar template to SuperGiant’s other games. You’re given a nimble character and partake in combative action from an isometric camera perspective. Players control Zagreus, the son of Hades, as he tries to escape from the Underworld. And it wouldn’t be a SuperGiant game if the art, music, lore, and character writing weren’t better than the gameplay and Hades doesn’t disappoint in this regard. I like it a lot. Now let’s dive into why.
Typically, while playing rogue-likes most of my time is spent chasing intrinsic goals. These are goals set by the player independent of the game where satisfaction is derived from achieving your objectives. For me this involves coming to fully understand a game’s mechanics and practicing them to where I can consistently win. Making use of incremental difficulty is generally a big part of this skill progression as it pushes my understanding of the game further.
And this same gameplay loop of system mastery is very much present in Hades. There are six unique weapons each with four forms that operate differently. Every form accentuates a different aspects of play which dramatically alter how players must approach combat. For example, the Chiron bow, my favourite weapon, marks targets with its basic attack allowing the bow’s arrow volley to home in on the marked target. As a result, players must think about when to mark foes and in which order to mark them to use of this weapon effectively.
In addition, there is the boon system. Throughout a run in Hades you’ll encounter Olympian Gods who will bestow upon Zagreus a variety of powerful buffs that alter his move set and capabilities. Thinking critically about which benefits are best suited for each ability and how these buffs synergize will drastically alter your chances of escaping successfully. For example, Dionysus provides boons that apply a stacking debuff thus they are more effective when applied to abilities that hit a target repeatedly in rapid succession. Alternatively, Artemis offers damage increases and heightened critical chance making her boons more effective on high damage strikes.
Altering your style of play to suit your weapon and thinking critically about which boons are best suited for your current move set are a huge part of mastering Hades. What’s better is that run to run different Gods will appear, so unlike SuperGiant’s older title Transistor you can’t map out a perfect solution and railroad to victory. Each run players are asked to think about their options and the better you become at working with these options the more often you shall be rewarded with success.
That’s great and all, but what about extrinsic rewards? What rewards are offered to players who aren’t as obsessive as myself so they continue to come back again and again?
Similar to other rogue-likes, there are minor character upgrades that players can apply to Zagreus. The first several do wonders for making the young godling feel a lot more combat proficient, while later ones offer bonuses that are largely superfluous. These act as a primary motivator early on, but fizzle out as the character writing takes shape and encourages players to keep throwing themselves into the meat grinder.
In a staggering achievement, each character in Hades is extremely compelling to talk with. I think it speaks volumes about the quality of writing when I still enjoyed dialogue from characters I didn’t like. Every character comes across like a real person even though their origins are rooted in a combination of history and fantasy. SuperGiant has done a great job of giving each of the different mythological figures their own personality while making it honest to the stories that inspired them.
Character writing isn’t Hades most notable achievement however. With a rogue-like format being utilized for gameplay the developers forfeited the opportunity to tell a tightly scripted story. Instead, many of the game’s dialogue moments have context sensitive triggers so that they only come up at a point which makes sense. This helps to prevent issues where side stories or the main story would become entirely fragmented to the point of being incompressible. The result is a story that can be dynamically delivered to the player as they hit the appropriate milestones without it ever feeling stilted in its delivery.
In contrast to Children of Morta, a game following a similar framework, the story doesn’t feel detached from the gameplay. In Hades the story progresses, in-part, during every attempted escape of the Underworld. Bosses you’ve fought will remark about your repeated attempts to escape and have their own side stories. In addition, each time you reach the surface during the main plot you’re treated to new dialogue which pushes the plot forward. It always feels as though the story is at the forefront of the player is doing instead of a completely separate set of events unrelated to gameplay.
The interwoven nature of Hades writing and gameplay is what makes it so great to play. Each run is an opportunity to explore more of the world and the various denizens within. You’ll never know if your favourite character will make an appearance to afford you another opportunity to learn about them further endearing them to you. Or perhaps you’ll be treated to a snippet of dialogue that references one of the many real world stories that exist about these characters. Continuing to run into and interact with characters in a meaningful way is how Hades provides extrinsic rewards for the most devoted of players.
Hades is a landmark title. I believed that trying to tell a story through the context of a rogue-like was a fool’s errand. The prospect of communicating a cohesive narrative while offering the kind of depth and variety that the genre is known for seemed like a goal at odds with itself. SuperGiant proved me wrong. They’ve crafted a game with both a compelling gameplay loop offering players an avenue to pursue intrinsic goals while also creating compelling dialogue that makes both the story and the characters therein endearing. Anyone planning to make a story focused rogue-like needs to study Hades as there are a lot of lessons to be learned from what SuperGiant have accomplished.