I have never been too engrossed in Greek mythology. It has frequently felt overdone or uninspired with its constant reimaginings that more or less make the Greek myth characters feel like one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. However, that’s not the case with how Hades portrays these famous heroes.
Everyone from the big three gods of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades all the way to the lesser-known residents of the Underworld like Hypnos and Sisyphus have so much personality than simply being full of hate, love, or bloodthirst.
That is where the real fascination with Hades comes from: the characters. Without them, this game would be little more than a shell of its true self, and that is because the writing offered up by your interactions with these icons actually fuels not only the overall plot but also the reason to keep pushing through the grind of the game again and again.
A Secret Son
As tends to happen in Greek myth, one of the Gods had a child and kept him secret from everyone. In this case, Hades’ son, Zagreus, has just learned that his father had been lying to him all his life. His mother is not the personification of night, Nyx, like he had always been told but someone who left the Underworld many years ago.
Zagreus demands to know more about her, but Hades refuses and says that he must remain in the Underworld, but Zagreus has other plans. Using the training Achilles had drilled into him all his life to leave the depths of the Underworld and escape to the surface in search of his birth mother.
No surprise, Hades doesn’t appreciate this disrespect, so he calls upon his horde of demons and legendary figures to impede Zagreus’ progress. Supergiant Games did a really good job implementing a narrative that fit well with the gameplay loop they were trying to achieve. Every time Zagreus is defeated in his escape attempt, he respawns back in a pool of blood in Hades’ reception area, where Hypnos is usually waiting to comment about whatever did him in that time. This is where the beauty of intertwining Greek myth with a rogue-like really comes into play.
The characters will remark on the player’s failures and successes. I was 20 hours in, and I was still getting dialogue that was surprising me, so I can’t imagine how much is recorded for every character. Even the Gods from who Zagreus receives upgrades can talk to one another. It all just fits so well, and it made each defeat feel not like a failure but instead like another steady step in my journey.
It becomes even better as Zagreus begins to develop relationships with these characters, and they become more sympathetic where there was once only hostility. Meg was my favorite in this regard because her story begins to open up, and she feels more respectable where she once was just an obstacle to overcome. It became bittersweet to take her out later in the game in my attempt to escape the Underworld because it felt like we were both on the same side and yet not.
Through Fire, Flames, and Persistent Acquaintances
Hades is a rogue-like dungeon crawler that has Zagreus running through sections of the Underworld in his attempt to escape. Each section will provide the player with new upgrades for his weapons and magic cast. There are even opportunities to receive “boons” or gifts from the Gods that will power certain aspects of Zagreus’s attacks with their famous abilities.
From the speed of Hermes to the overpowering wrath of Poseidon, it’s all available, as long as the Gods smile upon Zagreus that day. Each God specializes in some area of combat, so it is important to keep in mind what kind of build you will try to create for yourself.
Adaptation is crucial though, since the layouts and rewards for defeating rooms and bosses is random. There is a choice only in that the player can choose which room they will enter next based on what reward will be present in each room. A careful decision needs to be made because you might not have the chance to get the health upgrade you passed on again for a while.
Though there are stores present run by the silent man with the golden heart, Charon. Charon typically has the same wares available with slight variants. So there are ways that the player can plan in the short term and try to build up abilities that complement their playstyle. It is a really well-executed balance between strategy and random elements that go hand in hand with the rogue-like genre.
You also can change your main weapon with things like a bow, spear, and more, and they all play differently. I decided I wanted to defeat Hades quickly after the 13th time he insulted my attempts to escape, so I picked the spear and stuck with it until I mastered its fighting style.
The game wants you to both feel powerful and powerless depending on the circumstances and playthrough. There were runs where I felt like I was an unstoppable God that could oppose anyone, and there were runs where I soaked in the blood of the damned for a little while longer—just wallowing in my failure. But you keep going, and you get stronger.
Reasons to Keep Fighting
Even after you defeat Hades, the game gives you gameplay and narrative reasons to keep fighting. After meeting up with his mother, it turns out that Zagreus’ body is cursed to reside in the Underworld, and if he leaves for too long, he dies. So, he must return to the Underworld and escape again and again to continue conversing with his mother. Much like friendly Sysiphus and his boulder, Zagreus must keep fighting to look for a way to break the Underworld’s curse.
If the narrative isn’t enough to keep you going, Hades introduces bounties after the first successful escape. The bounties are new rewards for making it through the levels of the Underworld with different weapons. The rewards can be used to upgrade rooms, open up new sections of Hades’ home, unlock new abilities, and more.
Plus, you can begin to track more of your stats like how quickly you have escaped, what weapon you used, enemies killed, boons used, and pretty much any other action that you may have made during a run.
But it doesn’t stop there; Hades also begins to change up some of the layouts of the dungeons in terms of how enemies fight and what enemies you are facing. I had my teeth kicked in after I accidentally “borrowed” some cash from a dear friend of mine, but I had never been confronted with that choice, so I wanted to see what happens. The game just keeps evolving, and with the characters seeming to evolve alongside your progression, it feels like a complete, coherent experience.
My favorite moments in Hades were always when I found a new interaction with characters or watched Zagreus charm his way through the levels of a killer’s heart. Though, I wish that they showed me a little more mercy (looking at you Meg), after our heartfelt discussions.
The denizens of the Underworld can be a little callous in that regard. Despite the game being a dungeon crawler, Hades has a surprising level of depth to its characters and actions. In fact, it feels like all of your actions are being observed, and I can’t help but think that Dionysus and Hermes make bets on which floor I’ll succumb to Hades’ army.
Hades is the most charming and motivating rogue-like I have ever played. It has set a new bar for character portrayal, narrative, and gameplay loop, and I hope future rogue-like developers take some notes from what Supergiant Games has been able to achieve.