Supergiant Games has been known for their aesthetically striking games ever since their very first title, Bastion, back in 2011. Their 2020 release, Hades, forms the pinnacle of their design style and is one of the best games I've played in the last several years. It is an engaging action game, an achievement in dynamic storytelling, and uses randomness judiciously to provide a remarkable level of replayability.
In Hades, you play as Zagreus, the son of the eponymous god of the underworld, who has lived his life in the very depths of the land of the dead. Zagreus is not content with his lot and seeks to escape to Mount Olympus. His plight has not gone unnoticed on Olympus, and several of the Olympian gods and goddesses send their boons to aid his escape. With the power of the gods and the Infernal Arms supplied to him by the shade of Achilles, can Zagreus escape the underworld for good and ascend to Olympus with his helpful relations? Or is there truly no escape?
Zagreus repeatedly attempts to escape the underworld, battling his way through hordes of foes sent by Lord Hades to keep him from leaving. On each attempt, he selects one of the six Infernal Arms and leaves the House of Hades, progressing through a sequence of chambers higher and higher in the underworld. Each chamber has a reward associated with it that Zagreus receives after defeating all of the foes in the chamber. This can be something useful in the current escape attempt, such as boons from a particular Olympian or money to spend at shops run by Charon, or something that allows Zagreus to increase in power between runs. The chambers are collected into underworld regions, each of which ends with a boss fight and a larger-than-usual reward.
In combat, there are four major actions associated with the four face buttons of the standard controller. Attack and Special are weapon-specific, with Attack generally being a faster, weaker strike and Special being a slower, stronger one. As an example, the sword which is the game's starting weapon has a basic forward slash on Attack and its Special is a slow slam that damages foes on all sides. There is also a Cast ability that uses limited, regenerating "bloodstone" points and an evasive Dash. These four actions have default forms, but can be empowered with boons from the various Olympians. Poseidon, for example, adds a watery knock-back effect and bonus damage, while Zeus adds lightning strike and chain lightning effects.
Typically, the player has a choice of chambers with the kind of reward visible for each one. An important part of the game is selecting chamber rewards and Olympian boons in order to produce a sufficiently powerful character build. The boons are the most important component of a build, and so choosing the particular Olympians to associate with and the particular boons on each encounter is crucial. Each time a boon is offered, there is a selection of three boons presented to the player. The selection, combination, and occasional discarding of boons lends the character-building process something a deck-building feel, which I find very compelling.
In between escape attempts, Zagreus returns to the House of Hades, where he can purchase upgrades for his next attempt. While there, he encounters a variety of characters to interact with, from the three-headed hound Cerberus to his mentor Achilles and a variety of underworld deities. Each of these characters has their own story, involving their relationship to the House, to Zagreus, and to the other inhabitants of the underworld. The various stories in the House of Hades each proceed on their own schedules, meaning no two players will have exactly the same experience.
Throughout the game, Zagreus can befriend the various characters through giving gifts of Nectar, a resource found in the underworld chambers that is primarily useful for this purpose. Befriending characters unlocks "keepsakes"; Zagreus can equip one keepsake at a time for their wide-ranging effects, and change them out after each boss. Just as importantly, though, gifting characters Nectar helps move through their stories and deepens our understanding of their particular circumstances. Zagreus even encounters several romance options with his fellow underworld dwellers through these interactions.
A larger plot awaits for those players who make it far enough through the underworld, but much of the narrative experience is through visiting characters and learning their stories. Well-known mythological figures like Sisyphus, Orpheus, and Eurydice make appearances, and the overall plot respects the source material while also having fun with the latitude mythological ambiguity allows the writers.
All Supergiant's games have had a lush, striking visual style and Hades is certainly no exception. The underworld they depict isn't bland or boring, but has a range of environments including grey dungeons, fiery hellscapes, and twisty labyrinths. Character art is lush and sexy without feeling objectifying, which is a hard line to walk. Foes in the dungeon are varied and have fluid, expressive animation. The overall impression is pleasing, even in the less-than-pleasant environments of most of the underworld.
In a first for Supergiant Games, Hades has full, excellent voice acting on the entire script. Each character is well-cast, with the actors bringing to life the personality written in the script. Athena is measured and controlled, Ares is intense, Dionysus is laid back, and Hades himself is gruff. The acting is anchored by studio composer Darren Korb's performance as Zagreus, bringing the right combination of grit and levity to the defined protagonist.
Korb's score for the game is less defining than his vocal performance but is still full and involving. With the lengthy playtime and repetitive setup of Hades's gameplay, there is no room for music that you get tired of hearing. I find that the music, with its Mediterranean and progressive rock influences, fits appropriately into the background of the experience most of the time. The few voiced songs make an exception; they underscore and enhance important and emotional moments.
Hades is not only the best game I've played in the last year but the best I've played in the last several. It is involving, deep, and sets a new standard for the integration of roguelike elements into a more conventional progression framework. It spent nearly two years in Early Access before its September 2020 release, and Supergiant clearly used the feedback from those players to optimize the gameplay for a dizzying array of strategies. Even after 120 escape attempts, I still find new challenges and new ways to do things from the combination of all the random and non-random elements. I've only scratched the surface of the variety found in the game in this review to preserve the surprises Supergiant has left players.
Outside the core gameplay loop, the game's writing keeps me coming back for more interactions with the well-drawn and generally endearing characters. Visiting the inhabitants of the House of Hades is a wonderful consolation prize for dying and the overall plot is motivating beyond the incentives of the gameplay.
Overall, I would recommend Hades to anyone interested in a deep, single-player action game. Each escape attempt takes 20-45 minutes, making it easier than most games of this scope to fit into a busy schedule, but you'll want to do several if you have the time!