You don’t actually play as Hades in Hades.
Instead, you play as Zagreus, the god of the underworld's son. Zagreus wants to escape Hell, but his progress is stopped by supernatural foes, creatures of myth, and the like. If he dies by their hand, Zagreus is promptly sent back to the house of Hades, resetting his progress.
Zagreus’ effort to flee is the perfect setup for a roguelike, and the framing gives room for ample enemy variety. That alone would’ve made for a perfectly competent game. Developer Supergiant Games took things a step further by adding numerous narrative layers that make each playthrough feel richer than the last. This impeccable mix of narrative and gameplay cements Hades as the new standard-bearer for roguelikes.
A hellishly delightful tale
When I dropped into Hades, I was only informed that Zagreus was trying to escape. That made sense to me. Who would want to live in Hell? Further details of his motivations for escaping were revealed as the game progressed. None of them were groundbreaking revelations that twisted the story, rather they sublimely filled in gaps, coloring the world. Each addition made it increasingly easier to empathize with Zagreus.
As Zagreus ascends through the layers of the underworld, it becomes clear that this harmful behavior isn’t limited to how he treats his son. You’ll encounter several of his more prominent victims as you progress. These encounters make the stakes of Zagreus’ escape feel far bigger than a simple breakout but symbolic of change in Tartarus.
Each side character in Hades also has personal quests and storylines with Zagreus. These relationships are developed through gift-giving and conversations. Each conversation feels like a natural expansion within the framing of a roguelike.
While the story is richer and better integrated than in most games of the genre, Hades doesn’t punish the player for stepping away. If I were to drop Hades for an extended time when I returned I’d only have to remember that Zagreus wants to leave Tartarus to escape his father’s clutches. This simplicity gives Hades’ story an arcade-like feeling, It’s there if you want it and very easy to ignore if you don’t.
There and back again
No two runs of Hades are exactly the same. You’ll explore familiar areas each time, but the order is always varied. After finishing an area, the player is given the choice between 1-3 areas to head into. They’re only informed of the reward they hold, which keeps the basic gameplay loop feeling fresh while remaining challenging.
While procedurally generated sections are standard in roguelikes, Hades also gives the reins back to the player. As you progress, you’ll unlock special abilities that significantly increase the chance to encounter specific upgrades in each run, increasing the chance to establish my personal build. There are no levels in Hades, but you can alter your stats. The chance that you’ll find your exact desires is random, but your ability to control that chance makes it compelling.
This again nicely ties back into the narrative that Zagreus’ liberation isn’t just for himself, but for everyone and everything around him. Even unsuccessful runs through Tartarus feel rewarding for that reason.
Runs through Tartarus also have their own unique cast of characters from Greek mythology in each run. They all shared their perspective on Zagreus’ escape attempt and left after imparting a portion of their power to him. Again, If I had a specific god I preferred, I could focus on enhancing stats related to that god, or I could leave it up to chance.
It helps Hades’ longevity that there’s a lot to learn. There are six distinct weapons. Each one is wildly different, and their usefulness solely depends on player preference. Hades allows the player to control their fate in a way that feels truly unique.
Hades is a fantastic game and a near-perfect roguelike. Its gameplay is infinitely enjoyable. One run can feel wholly distinct from the next. Its rich narrative throughline allows players to engage with the cast of characters as they choose, perfectly reflecting the game’s own open-ended and versatile gameplay experience. The peerless intertwining of narrative with player experience cements Hades as one of the best games of 2020 and possibly the best roguelike ever made. 9/10
Hades is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch
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