Hades is a game that needs no introduction but the traditional structures of review writing prevent me from obliging. The latest lovechild from indie development house Supergiant Games, Hades is a victory lap for a team that is best known for the marriage of aesthetics and mechanics. It’s whip-smart in its design choices, wonderful to simply stare at and, perhaps most important to its mammoth success, Hades is incredibly sexy.
The game is dripping with sensuality matched only by its ferociously intelligent rogue-like combat loop. That groan you just heard was my involuntary reaction to roguelikes, a genre I’m both terrible at and don’t often enjoy, but Hades deserves this chance. Now the winner of countless awards and critical accolades comes home with a physical release for consoles in slick new packaging. So is my time in the underworld a gaming Hell or has this stunning work made me a convert?
For the dozen or so of you in the audience tonight who don’t know the general gist of Hades allow me to explain. The game is named after your dear old dad, king of the underworld and all-around bit of a dick, but you will be occupying the hot shoes of Zagreus. Zagreus, like most of us, yearns for freedom, and while that might mean going to art school or getting a piercing for us, old mate needs to literally escape Hell before he can begin his experimental phase. The trappings of most modern video game men are here, the swagger, the effortless taking to violence, the quips, but underneath this shiny exterior is a boy who needs answers. A boy who needs his mother.
While those with an understanding of the game’s mythological setting will likely know where much of this is headed, the casual viewer is in for a treat with the game’s narrative. It’s a twisted tale of family, loyalty and love, one that truly comes alive due to the game’s exceptional grasp on writing and the performances therein. But more on that in a bit. First, you need to get Zagreus out of his dad’s house and it’s here that the true rub of Hades comes into play.
Somewhat ahead of its contemporaries revival of the genre in 2021 but very much in line with the design philosophies that preceded it, Hades is a game about loops. You’ll be trapped in them for hours, chipping away at the underworld’s randomly generated combat gauntlets, often dying but retaining just enough strength to make the next loop all the more inviting. I’ll be the first to admit that roguelikes are definitely not my jam, the frustration that accompanies a new run is rarely ever outweighed by the joys of simply playing the game. Hades didn’t quite make me a genre convert, but damned if I don’t get it now.
Of course, the overwhelming charm of the game is partly responsible for this but what makes Hades so engaging is the tightness of its core loop. Zagreus has an arsenal of weapons, all quite varied, and literal God-like power-ups to kit himself out with on any given run. Each combination makes for slight or major adjustments to play, effectively allowing you to customise the lad as you see fit (provided the rolls are kind to you). There is so much catharsis to the game’s violence, each skewering of a new foe or crackle of mystical energy around the room a reverberation of dopamine in my skull. It’s just so much damn fun.
Weapon variety aside, Zagreus’ dodge and general controllability are also top-notch. In a split second, you can have the doomed son slide out of danger with ease, style and grace. It is immensely satisfying every single time it happens, especially after you’ve found some new tricks for your dodge, a favourite of mine being the boost to damage after I’ve just pulled one-off. Having such keen control over Zagreus is crucial as the dungeons are littered with hazards and the enemy placement, combined with projectile attacks, all becomes quite a lot rather quickly.
It’s overwhelming but in an exhilarating way. Given the nature of the game’s loops, there is the occasional risk of the combat becoming a touch repetitive despite its numerous strengths. The luck of the draw on those power allocations can make certain runs into doomed affairs and in these instances, I would sometimes just let myself be taken out early on so I could try again for better luck. I make no illusions to being good at this type of game so my frustrations are personal but I still lament how tricky I found it could be getting to everything else I love about Hades.
These core gameplay loops are further enhanced by Hades’ inescapable charm and style. Supergiant is hardly strangers to aesthetically pleasing games but in Hades, there is a master craft of tone, art direction and general vibes. Zagreus’ adventure is gorgeously rendered in hyper-stylised trappings of hard lines and bright colours, an exciting melding of the cartoonish and the decedent.
The same can also be said for the game’s utterly stunning cast of characters. If the general art direction of the game wasn’t impressive enough on its own, Hades’ eclectic collection of godly beings elevates the entire experience. Each new one you encounter gets added to your little book of lore but engaging with any of them was always a treat. When the grind of the loop started to wear me down a little I would always find solace or amusement by simply chatting with the other occupants of the underworld.
Which also speaks to the game’s writing, a tongue-firmly-in-cheek yet heartwarmingly sincere look at the fantastical and banal parts of the afterlife. Everyone in Hades is aware that they are in a roguelike, constantly prodding at the futility, or hopefulness, of Zagreus’ mission to escape his old man. It’s all very endearing, stepping over the usual triteness that comes with self-aware characters and instead fully indulging in the absurd beauty of it all. Everyone is also really, really hot. Not sure if I’ve mentioned that enough.
The game’s soundtrack is also as good as any chance I’ll get to talk about the justice the physical edition has done for Hades. Included in the box is a code for a digital copy of Darren Korb’s absolute banger of a score. His work on previous Supergiant Games has been exceptional, of course, but like the art direction, there is so much palpable energy to the music that accompanies Hades. It’s equal measures classic Greek fantasy and shredded guitar riffs, a juxtaposition that just goes to highlight how comfortable Korb is within his role now. Sidenote, Korb also voices Zagreus and oh my Greek gods, the charm of that role and the talent of his compositions is simply too much.
Sorry, where was I? Oh, yes, the physical release. Hades hitting home consoles is a nice enough turn of events in the first place, the game’s initial release being on PC and Switch alone. But the boxed copy of the game is a treat for fans. The previously mentioned soundtrack is accompanied by a printed character compendium, kind of like the old instruction manuals we used to get in games but much sexier. And a very specific note but as someone who appreciates the effort that goes into making sure the box on my shelf looks nice, the cover art has been treated with a beautiful shimmer that tops the whole package off nicely.
I grumbled at the start of this that Hades doesn’t necessarily fit the review mould anymore and I think that’s because there is a self-evident nature to the game. Sure I still struggled with elements of it but that’s a personal taste issue, the game is almost above such complaints. It is a triumph for Supergiant Games, a tour de force of the roguelike genre and perhaps one of the most stylish games we’ve seen this generation or any other.
But did I mention that everyone is hot?
Hades was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a physical copy provided by the publisher.