Genre: Action, Indie, RPG, Early Access
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Release Date: Dec 10, 2019
Edited by Thorstag
NOTE: This review was written based on v0.23932 (Welcome to Hell update) of the game, and is hence a reflection of the game’s state at that time.
Supergiant Games can do almost no wrong. Well, they did ruffle a fair amount of feathers when it was announced during The Game Awards 2018 that Hades would be a timed exclusive on the Epic Games Store. Now that it’s finally on Steam after a year in the (as-yet unfinished) Early Access period though, all is forgiven. (I jest, though, partially — the whole Epic versus Steam battle is a discussion for another time. I’m just excited that it’s eventually here.)
The longtime indie developer has finally hit their fourth game milestone, following Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre (which Draul really liked) — and Hades represents the studio’s first Early Access game. Hades utilizes Supergiant’s mastery of the isometric action RPG genre and combines it with the procedural roguelike nature and rogue-lite skill upgrade trees.
In recent years, it turns out that Early Access is the perfect base for roguelikes — a fair amount of these games (see: Risk of Rain 2, Dead Cells, et al.) used the period to add new items and mechanics, then test the inter-item interactions and further balance them. When playtesting Hades, it is not hard to see why. There is a metric ton of intermingling gameplay systems at play here, necessitating that the game should be balanced as adequately as possible.
Hades’ lore is based partly upon Greek mythology. You play as Zagreus, Prince of the Underworld and son of the titular Hades, trying to escape the Underworld…for reasons which I won’t spoil here, and which will become apparent a few runs in. Because of the nature of the game compared to Supergiant’s past body of work, the story is conveyed in a slightly different manner; instead of being the prime driving factor, conversations occur randomly throughout the game. As always, the humor remains top-notch, with the various characters having a level of wit — and Zagreus himself even regularly quips following speeches from the game’s narrator. Heck, even the game itself has moments of hilarity. I audibly guffawed upon getting the multi-headed hellhound Cerberus to stop guarding the exit of the game’s fourth biome, The Temple of Styx, by giving him a treat, as the game then cheekily displayed “Cerberus Vanquished (Not Really)”.
The method behind the gameplay madness
Hades is a strictly single-player roguelike experience in the vein of other top-down roguelikes (like The Binding of Isaac, Enter the Gungeon, Nuclear Throne). The procedural generation works by taking pre-crafted rooms (called chambers) and randomizing the order that they are played in. There is no semblance of unnecessary tedious backtracking as you defeat all the foes that spawn in a chamber, pick up the chamber reward, and then choose your next chamber. Most of the time there is only one possible choice of next chamber reward, but occasionally there are more, and this is neat in that you have some freedom (within the constraints of the given choices) and some sense of direction on how you want to build Zagreus for the current run.
Enemy variety is great. Throughout the four total biomes, there are a decent variety of enemies spread throughout. With each biome offering up new and more fiendish manners of enemies — Exalted enemies that appear in the third biome Elysium are especially annoying. They become a lingering soul upon killing them, and will eventually respawn into the full enemy if they are not dealt with. There are occasional miniboss encounters with far more difficult enemies, and at some point, enemies will start having armor, meaning they’re impervious to knockback or stuns until the armor is destroyed. As for the boss battles, they are mostly set with a specific boss at the end of a given biome. The first biome Tartarus is notably the only biome with some boss variation after some runs; the rest as of writing currently have no variations. Thus far, all enemies and bosses are telegraphed as well as I can tell; I may have gotten too indulged into cutting them down to notice, anyway…
Chamber rewards are where things start to get fun because there are a lot of various currencies for various things — maybe too many. A good bunch of them persist between runs. Darkness is used primarily to improve Zagreus’ base statistics and abilities at the Mirror of Night (the so-called rogue-lite skill tree). Chthonic Keys unlock more possible abilities at the Mirror, as well as the various Infernal Arms (the weapons which Zagreus wields in battle).
You can only pick one of up to 5 (a sixth is in development) of the Arms to bring on a run, and they each have signature Attack/Special Attack and special characteristics. There is a system in place where a random weapon that you usually did not play in the most recent run earns slightly more Darkness on the next run. This boost encourages frequent weapon swaps so that you don’t get too comfortable with one of them (it’s not mandatory, of course, and sticking to one is fine). At a later point, you can also upgrade and unlock other special characteristics for each weapon using another rare persistent currency.
Other possible post-chamber rewards range from increases to health capacity, gemstones which are used on various things but chiefly on improvements to the House of Hades or the various rooms within your run. A non-persistent currency known as Charon’s Obol, which is used to purchase various items from the shops, and what I feel is the main meat of the game — the boons of the Olympus Gods/Goddesses.
These boons typically affect one main aspect of Zagreus, for example, his main attack, his Cast (which is a limited-use ranged attack), or his Special Attack. Supergiant put a lot of care into designing these boons to making them thematically appropriate for the various gods — for example, Hermes’ (the god of travel) boons revolve around speed while Ares’ (the god of war) boons focus on damage, damage, and more damage. After a few runs of each, I love Ares’ boons the most, especially if I can nab a boon that inflicts Doom (where enemies will take a burst of damage a while after being struck).
Boons have tiers and rarities associated with them as well; naturally, the rarer and higher tier a boon is, the more effective it is. Some specific boons can only be obtained after obtaining two specific boons from two different gods (known as Duo boons), and they combine these gods’ characteristics with aplomb. Some situations can also arise during some chambers where you have to pick from one of two god’s boons. Your choice results in angering the one you did not pick and having to clear the chamber with the angered god making it harder for you and then eventually getting the angered god’s boon after all.
Boons (and the specific god offering you their boons) are randomly determined, though they can be influenced to a very minor extent by the usage of Keepsakes, which can be thought of as trinkets that are only obtainable by gifting Nectar (another persistent currency that can only be found during runs) to the gods and some select other entities. The only real issue I have is that, although there’s a decent spread of powerful boons spread throughout the various gods, some are objectively offensively better than others, and failure to acquire a powerful offensive boon can turn battles (especially boss battles at the end of each biome) into long, drawn-out slogs.
All these aspects add up to a rather frenetic experience that perpetually keeps you on your toes, and I love it. Each weapon is distinct and feels great, and the melee-based ones allow you to go ham while the ranged ones are also good fun — even though you have to stand still to fire with them, you can always quickly reposition after firing by dashing, such that they are pretty viable options. At the late stage (think late-Elysium) of a run, I had with the Adamant Rail, a repeating rifle-based weapon. I was furiously mashing every single key at my disposal, trying to move, dodge, fire at enemies, and use my abilities all at the same time — and I had a really large grin plastered onto my face, such was how cathartic the experience had become.
At the time of writing, Hades’ most recent update (Welcome to Hell) added difficulty options: a God Mode hidden away in the options, and a Hell Mode available upon starting a new save file. God Mode makes things far easier for those that aren’t as skilled with roguelikes, while Hell Mode does…the opposite. Given my above-average skill with roguelikes, I do look forward to eventually trying out the game on Hell Mode, as some of the changes shake things up, and I relish the extra challenge…after I eventually finally beat the game on normal difficulty!
Whenever you play a Supergiant game, you can always expect a high degree of polish in various areas, and this is once again very prevalent. Naturally, the first thing I would do is to study the audiovisual aspect in great detail. The quality of art director Jen Zee and the art team’s hand-drawn artwork (be it the chamber artwork, the character portraits, and so on) is exceptional, with great attention to detail.
As for the soundtrack, it seems like resident maestro Darren Korb has stepped up to a whole new level. I will confess that it didn’t immediately captivate me, partly because it was reminiscent of Bastion’s soundtrack and partly because the sound effects would drown it out a lot of the time. When I listened to the tracks on their own and in full, though…that was when I was utterly blown away. There are some fairly intricate progressive-rock influenced structures and time signatures, but most importantly, a lot of the songs undergo a serious tonal change midway through the song, shifting into rock/heavy metal overdrive (and delighting the inner progressive metal fanboy in me in the process). The soundtrack is utilized pretty neatly in-game, with the initial part of the song forming the soundtrack to most of the chambers (fading out to a few instrument stems after a chamber is cleared), while the rock/metal section serves as an awesome backing to the miniboss and boss battles.
With a large number of characters, there are numerous (and thus far all voiced, by a rather large cast) dialogue segments. Each character sounds distinct from each other, and the voiceovers give the game a lot more charm. Sometimes I do feel that some characters speak a bit too fast for my liking, but thankfully there are subtitles anyway. Logan Cunningham (the voice of Rucks the Narrator in Bastion, and other prominent roles in other Supergiant games) voices multiple characters ranging from the titular Hades to the narrator, among others. Darren Korb even has a few voice roles as Zagreus and the training dummy Skelly. I must single out Darren’s performance as Zagreus for praise here, as it does portray him as a rather mild-mannered individual that is humorously snarky at times, with a soft and rather soothing voice.
(Noclip, which makes crowdfunded documentaries about video games, has a great series following the development of Hades, and the audiovisual aspects take center stage in the lovely Episode 3. The series is a rather eye-opening one, and it demonstrates Jen and Darren’s devotion to their respective craft, the results of which are very, very pronounced and appreciated.)
A key step to making a great game is ensuring it runs well…
Hades performs almost technically flawlessly. Almost. Supergiant is one of the rare oddities in the indie scene that use their own in-house Mono-based game engine, from Bastion till now, and Hades is no different. The game ran smoothly, most of the time, at a consistent 60 frames per second…but would noticeably struggle on my rig whenever there were multiple smoke effects in the second biome Asphodel. I’d argue that this is reason enough for them to include at least a few graphical settings that tone down these effects. As of current, there were no graphical options beyond shrinking down the game’s resolution (which could have mitigated the issue somewhat, but I did not extensively test it, and also comes with the drawback of having to play the game in a smaller window).
Although Supergiant recommends a controller, the mouse and keyboard controls are mostly solid, which is just as well because using a mouse and keyboard for twin-stick games is my strict personal preference. When it came to using my Special and ‘Call’ ability (the latter being a powerful ability that charges up when dealing/taking damage, and can either be expended bit by bit or saved up to unleash the entirety of it), my fingers would occasionally fumble having to juggle not only the directional keys but the additional two keys required for those two abilities. Fine, I guess that’s why they recommended the controller after all…
Targeting enemies with a mouse cursor instead of a reticle feels a little odd personally, and while it did not take long to get used to, I do sometimes wish that I had the option for a more typical reticle. A slight degree of aim assist (a toggle-able option where the aim would sometimes snap to the direction of the enemy) that I’ve observed when using the Heart-Seeking Bow is at times helpful, at occasional others a bit disorienting.
Hades also respects your time. You can quit anywhere during a run (preferably after completing a room), and the game will save your progress. Perfect for if you want to start a run but want the ability to stop on short notice.
What does being in Early Access entails for the future of Hades?
The general structure of the game is mostly complete (4 biomes of a set length each with a final boss fight), but is missing the true end to the story, as well as other story sections here and there. When I eventually beat the final boss for the first time, after 15 runs, I relished in my achievement — before then having a good laugh as Supergiant managed to Deus Ex Machina the plot to force Zagreus back to the Underworld, due to the aforementioned lack of a fully fleshed out ending.
No matter, I eagerly anticipate seeing these fleshed out throughout the Early Access period, but I can always utilize what is called the Pact of Punishment, another method designed to improve replayability and difficulty (which is also ‘on’ by default in Hell mode and set to specific settings for a more challenging base experience).
Chances are when this review is published, a new Major Update (these are released roughly every eight weeks) will be live — targeted for Jan 21, it will add another god and more possible boons to the game, among others.
- As always, the 2D artwork is a visual treat
- Darren Korb’s rock-flavored soundtrack is aurally satisfying
- A variety of unlockable combat options for differing playstyles
- Difficulty options catering to a wider populace
- Ability to almost freely exit and save a run for later
- The game oozes charm, humor, and personality, and is VERY fun to play
- Early Access means it’s not content-complete (bearing that in mind, there’s already a LOT)
- Without the ‘correct’ boons, foes can feel way too tanky
With Hades finally out on Steam and retailing for the same price ($24.99), customers now have the choice of their preferred storefront. At this point, choosing whichever storefront you want to get the game on is a matter of personal preference; while I still prefer Steam overall, I do recognize that there are some merits to buying via Epic.
Platform choice aside, with the price not slated to increase and with the current and planned amount of content, the asking price is very competitive and similar to the other roguelikes on offer (i.e. Risk of Rain 2, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and expansions). I whole-heartedly recommend Hades as an essential pickup in its current state, and I believe it’ll only get better; even now, I would personally crown it Supergiant’s magnum opus.
Hades is expected to leave Early Access sometime in 2020 — do keep an eye on the site as I’ll be revisiting the game then!