Indiewatch – Supergiant’s Hades finally feels like a game

Over the holiday break I had a chance to take a second look at Supergiant’s new Early Access game: Hades. Hades was first announced at The Game Awards two years ago, but its original incarnation wasn’t very impressive. Not only was it an Epic Games Store exclusive, but it was very clear that Supergiant really meant what they said when they said “early access.” It was a proof of concept more than anything else.

However, things have changed. Not only has Hades received quite a few updates including a recent massive one that flooded the game with content. It’s no longer an Epic Games exclusive either. It’s clear that Supergiant feels that Hades has reached a new stage of development, as we are seeing much more marketing materials highlighting updates and new additions to gameplay. Granted, it’s still not done, but for the first time it really roped me in. I barely played Hades for 30 minutes when it first came out and now I have clocked over 40 hours.

So what is Hades? Simply put, it’s Supergiant’s attempt at doing a rogue-like. It has all the trappings of a standard Supergiant game, from the amazing soundtrack and voice acting to the isometric action gameplay with animated hand painted visuals. If you liked Transistor or Bastion you’ll love this just the same.

This time around you play as Zagreus, son of the lord of the underworld himself. Of course, if you know your Greek mythology you might be a little confused, as is Zagreus himself. He has been kept in the underworld his whole life, and he is sick of it. Thus, he decides to climb out of hell to reach the world of mortals and then the world of gods beyond.

Unfortunately, good old pop-pop lord of the dead doesn’t take kindly to Zagreus’s ambitions, nor does he like the ideas of freedom that the other gods of Olympus put in his head. So he fills the underworld with minions seeking to kill Zagreus at every turn. It’s not as bad as you might think. Zagreus and all the other gods are immortal. Encountering death simply sends Zagreus back to his home and gives him a chance to pout in his room.

That’s the central conceit of the rogue-like here. Zagreus leaves his room to ascend through the many levels of the underworld until he inevitably dies, comes back, and has to do it all over again. Each time he progresses a little bit further after getting a little bit more powerful, unlocking more of his backstory as he goes.

That’s something I really have to commend Supergiant for. Most of the time, rogue-likes have the thinnest veneer of a plot. However, Hades manages to tie in its mechanics and plot in interesting ways.

Throughout your travels you will meet the gods of Olympus who will grant you boons to help you on your journey. You can give them offerings to get better boons, but doing so also reveals more of their role in the plot.

Or you might not want to side with Olympus at all. Instead you can give your offerings to the Chthonic gods of the underworld, or the souls of dead warriors and heroes like Achilles, or the embodiment of the primordial chaos that created the universe, or maybe you just want to give them all to Cerberus. Who’s a good triple puppy? He is!

(By the way, you can pet the dog in Hades.)

Deciding who to accept boons from, and who to make offerings to, determines how you will play the game. Side with Zeus and you’ll be raining thunder down on your enemies. Side with Dionysus and you’ll be using your mastery of wine to poison your foes. Sometimes two gods can work together to create even greater boons. Zeus and Poseidon can create torrential storms while Dionysus and Aphrodite can charm your enemies.

However, the gods of Olympus are fickle and can just as easily become jealous. Side with Ares and Athena might take offense, sending her own minions to hunt you down. Gods help you if you purge one of your boons for a better one offered by a better god. You’ll definitely call down the gods’ ire in that case. Luckily, if you manage to survive the onslaught you’ll end up with even better boons when it’s all through.

Outside of boons you’ll be collecting a bunch of different resources. Darkness lets you increase your base abilities. Keys will unlock new abilities and weapons. Titan’s blood will make your weapons better. Gems will allow you to add new procedurally generated rooms to the underworld, or new facilities in your room. There’s always something new to collect. You can change out certain resources for others once you unlock a specific shop at your base. You can also earn gold as you make your way through the underworld, but that goes away the second you die. Make sure to spend it!

All of this sounds pretty boilerplate for most rogue-likes and rogue-lites, but Hades really knocks it out of the park by making every gameplay choice attach itself to story in some way. And I mean, every gameplay choice. Upgrading your weapons reveals some backstory for Skelly, your undead punching bag. Buying more stuff reveals backstory for Charon, the shopkeep. Heck, you can even reveal backstory for bosses you defeat, random NPCs lounging about the underworld, or a cute little medusa head that works as a maid. Then all of this circles back into the core gameplay loop, as delving into the stories of these characters gives you new equipment and abilities to use on your runs.

So yeah, Hades feels like a game now, but it’s still clearly an incomplete game. When you eventually complete a run there’s just no conclusion. Certain stories simply cut off midway. You can, of course, continue to come back and challenge increasingly difficult runs with increasingly difficult modifiers, but there’s no real reward past a certain point.

However, it’s entirely clear that this is the case only because the game is in Early Access. You even get a note from Supergiant upon completing a run that says much more is on the way. Heck, in a few days we are getting more story content and even a brand new god to interact with! This is a game that is worth your time and attention. Supergiant has a great track record, and Hades is likely going to end up just as good as game as Bastion, Transistor, or Pyre.