Hades Review: A Herculean Feat

Hades is available on PC and Nintendo Switch. I reviewed the PC version of the game.

You can find a video version of this review here: Hades Review [Action Rogue-lite] – YouTube

Overview

Hades is an action rogue-lite steeped in Greek Mythology. You take on the role of Zagreus, a secret son of Hades seeking to escape the underworld, a nearly impossible feat. The great thing about living in the underworld is death is simply an inconvenience. No matter how many times Zagreus is slain, he rises once again within the house of Hades.

The form factor of the game is clearly a rogue-lite. Complete with permadeath meeting meta progression, it’s intertwined with the setting, baked right into the world and its themes.

The Olympian’s have a lot to say!

Zagreus’s various deaths are canon, and the characters you meet will comment on them. Success and failure consistently push the story and its character interactions forward in a way that’s not usually seen within the rogue-lite genre.

Hades has an incredible amount of voiced contextual dialogue scattered throughout its varied cast of Greek Mythological figures. All of which are voiced by talented actors that really bring the characters to life.

Styxing the Combat

Like the underworld itself, Hades is a game of layers. One that is slowly peeled back hour after hour, and death after death. Initially, the combat seems exceptionally lightweight. While it always remains simple to use, with only a few attacks mapped to a couple of buttons, its depth is deceptive.

Zagreus has access to several unlockable weapons, each with its own distinct attacks, and you have to choose one each run. You might pick the long-ranged bow, rapid-fire gun, defensive shield, swift sword, powerful gauntlets or far reaching spear. Zagreus can always fire a shard of his own burning blood, though he must retrieve it afterward.

Additionally, Zagreus has unwitting allies in the form of Olympians. They can’t intervene directly, but they send messages complete with boons that Zagreus can pick up and choose from. Boons directly alter the effects AND appearance of his weapons attacks and casting ability.

Hazards hurt you, but you can turn them against your foes.

Poseidon may add watery push back to an attack, which can be handy as slamming an enemy into a wall does extra damage, and the environment is laden with hazards. Athena may allow Zagreus to reflect projectiles, while Zeus might cause lightning to arc between foes.

Each of these boons affects every weapon differently. A tidal wave from the rapidly firing bullets of the Adamant Rail feels different than when it’s applied to Stygius the sword. Reflecting a projectile when you dash, feels significantly different than when it’s applied to a volley of arrows.

You may even find a hammer of Daedulus to alter how your weapon functions. What if your shield bash was turned into a long-range charged shot, but also shoved enemies back thanks to Poseidon? What if your gun could fire three bombs, all of which were imbued with the freezing power of the Goddess Demeter? Every possible change alters your playstyle

The game has tons of random elements and you never truly know what the next room holds. However, Each doorway shows you the reward beyond it. Be it a boon, a Pom of power to level up a current boon, or some kind of currency to spend back home.

You always get a choice of three random boons from any given God.

It’s up to you to choose which path best suits your current strategy and whether you need more power for your current run or something to spend back home to make yourself permanently stronger. Eventually, you can even unlock new aspects for your weapons, that can fundamentally change how they feel.

Hades encourages experimentation as well, to truly acquire the resources you need. You must progress through the layers of the underworld and defeat its guardians using a variety of weapons and tactics. Sticking to just one will gimp your progression severely. Many rewards are tied to the weapons your using.

The army of underworld denizens that seek to slay you further enhances the game’s depth. Each of the four layers offers a variety of foes. Each and every one has its own quirks and powers, and your approach will vary drastically based not only on your choice of weapon but also on the boons you have picked up.

Many attacks stun-lock enemies, but armored enemies can’t be stun locked until their armor is broken. Just watching Hades in motion doesn’t truly convey what’s happening. It will look like a fast-paced button masher, but that’s simply not the truth.

Failure is expected, even in the games canon.

Behind the scenes, in the mind of the player piloting Zagreus, is a sequence of moment-to-moment tactical thoughts on how to deal with the enemy combinations in each room. Backstab this monster, throw an area effect blast here to slow them down, break this guy’s armor. Deal with the ranged one first. All based on tons and tons of factors that are different every playthrough.

Getting hit is very bad in Hades. I know that should be obvious, but healing is rare, and usually comes at the cost of picking it over a boon or some valuable currency. Button mashing simply doesn’t work. I mean you will be mashing buttons sure, but in a thoughtful way that isn’t apparent upfront.

The way Hades manages to present an incredibly simple combat system and enhances it with nearly infinite depth is truly a marvel. All the while it incorporates meaningful player choice with the randomness that keeps things fresh.

There are many ways to grow Zagreus’s power

Nearly all of your choices influence the game’s visuals as well. Aspects change the look of a weapon while boons showcase the aspect of that God, Water for Poseidon, Lighting for Zeus, and blasts of pink love for Aphrodite.

It’s an addictive and rewarding system that offers a great deal of fast-paced action with meaningful decision making and thoughtful risk-taking. Every choice matters. Which boon to take, do you want money or power? Can you risk this particular trial for extra loot?

Greeked Out

Hades presents a kinship between Zagreus and the player not usually seen in the genre. Often times the permadeath aspect of a rogue-lite exists but is glossed over. In Hades, you feel Zagreus’s desperation, his frustration, and his urgency to get topside.

You connect with the encouraging messages from the Olympians that are trying to help you, and early on, even imagine what life might be like on Mount Olympus. What it might be like to hunt alongside Artemis, or chill with Dionysus.

Of course, there’s more to the story than just getting topside, but I won’t spoil that here. Just be aware that your first “win” isn’t the end of the story, in fact, it’s only the beginning.

Characters often comment on recent events

In a way, upon learning that, I felt cheated and a little angry. That’s the point though. I was supposed to. When you see it yourself, and hear the words the characters say, you will understand what I mean. The game asks you to beat it many times and under different changing circumstances to continue the story, with the extra tools and challenges it gives you, and it works.

Every success or failure fills your hands with a variety of new currencies. Most of which you influenced by your own choices and allow you to grow Zagreus’s power in a variety of ways. Through simple statistical bonuses, enhancing weapon aspects or by adding entire new rooms to the underworld that may appear in any given run.

But it’s not just the meta progression that matters upon every death and every win. The characters and story all progress, many times contextually based on your actions. You meet a variety of Greek heroes, deities, and other characters you might recognize. They all push the main and side plots forward, with something new to say upon every meeting.

Giving gifts to people can earn you rewards.

There’s even a relationship system that you can foster, Harvest Moon style, through gifts that eventually impart even more gameplay mechanics upon you. The Olympians themselves seem to have a never-ending stream of messages to send you with your boons, and they too change based on the context of what has happened, and even what weapon you’re carrying.

Hades tells a story in a unique way, and it certainly wouldn’t work for every game. Cliff hangers tend to happen at the end of a story. In Hades, they happen all the time. As Zagreus’s frustration mounts, so too will yours as you must complete a run to expose each small piece of the puzzle.

Yet the game’s combat is so solid, it never feels like a chore. There is always some new upgrade to pursue. Usually at the behest of a self-imposed challenge you can choose to apply in order to unlock the said reward, via a special challenge system that pushes you to experiment.

Hades is all about mastery through repetition but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel repetitive. In part due to its excellent gameplay design, but also due to its wide array of personalities voiced by a great cast that bring them to life with far more dialogue than you would expect.

Hade’s replay value is truly astronomical, and this is a review I’d rather stop writing to go play it instead. But its reliance on repetition does have a few pitfalls.

Back stabbing or slamming foes into walls deals extra damage.

The enemy variety is lacking. It feels weird to say that because the game has a ton of enemy types, all of which are designed very well. However, for the number of times you need to replay Hades it could really use even more. You will undoubtedly grow tired of some of them.

This is especially apparent with the bosses. There is a “slight” variation of some of them, but it’s not massive in most cases, and you have to fight them every, single run. Granted, that’s also kind of the point. You are supposed to master how these bosses work, and your playstyle is obviously different each run. The boss fights themselves are expertly designed though.

The bosses are awesome, but you have to fight them A LOT.

But it does wear sometimes. In my case I am incredibly exhausted of the boss on world three. It has no variance that I’ve discovered, and I tire of fighting them every single run. Given how the game works and how my playstyle is still different, I still lose to it sometimes. But even a couple more boss types per world would make a drastic difference in my enjoyment.

I also have an issue with the 4th layer of the Underworld. It follows a different design principle from the rest of the game and feels rickety and less cohesive. The enemies aren’t as fun to fight. It introduces a frustrating poison effect, and it just feels less polished than the rest of the game. I try to rush through it every run.

Verdict

Hades is a game that should probably be awful. Rogue-lites in general, are all about replaying them, but Hade’s lights that concept up with hellfire and brimstone. It would be awful, if Supergiant games hadn’t crafted it with enough skill to make Hephaestus blush.

The gameplay is polished to a shine that could petrify Medusa with a single glance, and the storytelling works in such a masterful way that even the three Fates would be ashamed for not thinking of it first.

Gods like Artemis can imbue your weapons with power.

Like the mythology it’s based on, Hades gameplay is as sharp as Poseidon’s trident and as wise as Athena’s wit. Its world incorporates characters from Greek mythology in such a way that should excite any fan of the myth. Those particularly keen on the subject will truly appreciate the game’s cleverness.

Everyone knows who Zeus and Hades are, but the subject matter also allows you to interact with characters such as Orpheus, Eurydice, and Sisyphus. Plus the game’s depiction of Cerberus is sure to bring a smile (hint, you can pet the dog).

Even the name Zagreus may raise an eyebrow to some. It uses its source material in a great way. Telling a serious story, but with a penchant for humor as well. It does so wrapped in the wool of one the greatest action rogue-lites ever made. Golden fleece eat your heart out.

Hades is an example of a masterfully designed cohesive package. Its few flaws only manage to surface because of how much the game expects you to play it. Its greatness remains untarnished because you’ll want to. Zeus owns the sky, and Poseidon the sea. Well, eat it Olympus. Hades has a kick-ass game.

You might also enjoy my review of Crown Trick!

Pros

  • Simple to learn controls
  • Fantastic fast paced, but thoughtful combat
  • Numerous ways to tweak your playstyle
  • Large variety of fun Greek God boons and upgrades
  • Six varied Weapons
  • Satisfying Meta-progression
  • Unique story telling
  • Great cast of characters
  • Lot of mechanics revealed overtime
  • Visually pleasing with aesthetic changes based on boons and aspects
  • Well designed enemies and bosses
  • High replay value

Cons

  • Enemies and bosses can be repetitive
  • The 4th world sucks and can go to the Styx
  • The nature of the game makes it grindy