Report Card: Hades (REVIEW)

I don’t like starting over. Roguelikes are all about starting over. Following this logic, I shouldn’t like roguelike games, right? I’ve tried to like roguelikes, I really have. I’ve tried Rogue Legacy, Spelunky, FTL, and more. I’ve gone from one critical darling to the next, but not a single one clicked with me in a meaningful way. I just hate feeling like everything I did in my last “run” was a waste of time as I am forced, yet again, to start from the beginning. None of the games I’ve mentioned so far got even five hours of my time. I’ve played Hades for over sixty, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon. So what’s different about Hades?

Structurally, Hades is like most other roguelikes. Prince Zagreus, son of Hades, attempts to battle his way through the ancient Greek underworld in an effort to escape. Each of the four sections of the Underworld are broken up into chambers, and the chambers are arranged in a random order. Upon clearing a chamber, the path or paths forward are unlocked, and each door previews the reward you’ll receive for clearing the next chamber. Upon his death, Prince Zagreus is returned to the House of Hades (referred to simply as “The House” by the game’s cast). The House acts as your home base, a place where you can spend your many currencies on base and character upgrades before setting out on your next escape attempt. That’s a pretty standard roguelike gameplay loop, perhaps the gameplay itself is the secret ingredient?

Clearing chambers full of enemies and fighting bosses are most of what players will contend with on their attempts to escape the Underworld. Zagreus’ moveset is rather small, limited to a normal attack, a special attack, a ranged attack, and a dash. Only one weapon is available at the beginning of the game, but new weapons are introduced gradually to add variety. Later still, each weapon will get a variety of “aspects” that can change your attacks or even add new mechanics. Not every weapon or every weapon aspect is going to click with you, there are even a few I refuse to ever use again, but when a weapon clicks with you it feels fantastic. Hades does offer some incentives to play with a variety of weapons and aspects, but even if you only use one weapon type no two runs will be the same.

The gods of Olympus have taken it upon themselves to aid Prince Zagreus in his attempts to reach the surface. Olympian aid takes the form of “boons”, which greatly enhance the Prince’s abilities and attacks. Each god or goddess’ boons reflect their personalities, such as Zeus bestowing lighting, Dionysus inflicting hangovers, or Athena deflecting projectiles.  Which Olympians present themselves in each run is randomized, as are the boons they offer. The random nature of boons can lead to some rather interesting loadouts that can really change the best way to approach combat encounters. This kind of random element is a staple of the roguelike genre, and can be a turn-off for some players, but I feel that the overall high quality of the boons kept me from ever feeling like I had been given bad choices that could just kill a run.

So the combat is good, and the “random element” is satisfying to interact with, but that’s rarely enough for me by itself. What really gets my motor running is presentation and my GOD does Hades deliver. The backgrounds and character portraits are all beautifully hand-drawn feasts for the eyes. Everyone from Hades himself to the maid cleaning the House are given so much personality just through their portraits. Even the rank-and-file enemies communicate so much vital information to the player, like how they may attack or what weakness they may have, just through their appearance and animation. Hades is hands-down one of the most beautiful video games I have played this year. 

For as good as Hades looks, it sounds even better. The sound effects are satisfying and punchy, complementing the action of the combat exquisitely. The voice acting is simply stellar, there isn’t a flat performance to be found in Hades. Everyone’s voice work lends an impressive depth to the characters and their personalities. The Olympians come across as jovial and aloof, whereas the denizens of the Underworld tend toward the more serious. Zagreus is portrayed as sarcastic and somewhat bitter at the beginning of the game, but the facade falls quickly as he opens up to those around him. But the real star of the show is the soundtrack. Darren Knob (also the voice of Zagreus) has written a soundtrack that is intense, haunting, and beautiful. It is no exaggeration for me to call it one of my favorite game soundtracks of all time. I’m going to be listening to tracks like In the Blood and The Unseen Ones for quite some time.

I’ll admit the gameplay and presentation of Hades is enough to keep me playing, but the narrative and the writing is what kept me obsessed. I would love to see the script for Hades, because it must be MASSIVE. Over my sixty hours of play, I haven’t heard so much as a single repeated line of dialogue. I’m serious. The amount of contextual dialogue is staggering, conversations can change based on everything from how successful your last run was to the weapon or boons you used. Of course, it’s not all contextual, nearly everyone in the House of Hades has their own story to tell. The main story is no slouch, either, though it is a bit limited in scope due to the restrictions of the setting.

If I had to come up with one criticism for Hades, and I suppose I should, it would be that perhaps there’s too much dialogue. The way the dialogue system seems to work, some conversations have a higher priority than others. Nine times out of ten, this system works as intended, keeping relatively unimportant comments for when there is no story or side quest progression to be had. But I have definitely been left waiting for the next step in a side quest before, sometimes for several runs at a time. Now, I do enjoy playing those runs, and I’ve always had other things I could focus on in the interim, but I don’t always enjoy having to put a side quest I find interesting on the backburner (looking at you, Achilles).

The roguelike genre isn’t for everyone. I’ve heard Hades touted as the “roguelike for people that don’t like roguelikes”, but I have a hard time accepting that as a universal truth. It’s certainly true for me, but if you are adamantly opposed to core tenets of the genre, such as repeated deaths and restarts, Hades isn’t going to change your mind. But if, like me, you find the world and narrative of Hades interesting enough to keep going, to spur you through just one more run to see what the next piece of the story is, you will find one of the finest video games I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Hades is a masterpiece that is absolutely worth your time, even if that time isn’t spent playing it yourself. I urge you to look at the art, listen to the music, watch a let’s play, experience Hades in whatever way you like. You will be richer for having done so.

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