I attempted to escape the seemingly black hole-like pull of the house I grew up in many times over the course of the latter half of my life. In fact, these attempts stretch back into the first half, considering my sporadic turns as a half-hearted childhood runaway. As a teen, I allowed myself to be manipulated and misled by a misguided idiot into a new “life” on the other side of the continent before I was catapulted back to where I started. As a slightly older teen, I would defiantly move out to share a room, a bed, and family drama with a very kind and very lesbian best friend—before said drama and the notion that maybe this was a terrible idea from the outset pulled me back home.
As a young adult, I moved into my girlfriend’s mother’s house, only to find the stepfather figure shockingly inappropriate and unable to talk to women in a way that didn’t make me want to break his legs. Again, homeward bound. We would make another attempt at living together soon after by living with a friend. This would prove successful for some time, until the smell of animal shit permeated our living space and we discovered that our erstwhile friend had wilfully ignored our landlord’s strict “no pets” policy in favour of constructing what I can only describe as a rodent shanty town. Back to mummy, once again. It took me far longer than I would have liked to finally make my escape.
To wit: Zagreus, son of Hades, Lord of the Underworld, really wants to leave home.
Zagreus doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his father, to put it mildly, and his desire to leave has put him in limited contact with his extended family on Olympus. In Hades, they’re on hand to bestow divine Boons unto the chthonic runagate as he battles through the hordes of Hell and makes his escape, granting different powers and abilities to better bash infernal baddies with. Each completed chamber yields new Boons in the form of attack, dodge and projectile modifiers with a wide variety of effects that serve to bring Zagreus closer to freedom.
Except nobody leaves Hades’ House of Heck.
Should you fail in your escape—and you will, more times than you can count—you’ll be sent right back home. Zagreus will emerge from the pool of blood opposite his father’s desk, its occupant expressing mockery, dissatisfaction, or simply silent judgement as his progeny does yet another walk of shame. This small detail, over the course of many inevitable failures, ensures that before long, the player and Zagreus are of one mind: you never want to see this man again.
Beginning another run, always from the very beginning, requires Zag to go to his room. Oh, the shame. It is here that currency earned on previous runs may be spent to permanently unlock additional abilities, increasing your chances of escape.
The range of weapons, known as Infernal Arms, offer distinct playstyles. Initially you’ll only have access to the sword, but obtaining the requisite keys to unlock others comes relatively quickly in the early game. All are viable choices, and all are guaranteed to be your favourite at some point.
I put hours into the shield, declaring its throwable thwackery (much like that Blue Guy from Those Films You Like) the best of the best—until I picked up the bow and finally bested the game’s first real roadblock by dashing around and pelting it with arrows (much like that One Nobody Likes from Those Films You Like), now declaring it the best. This back and forth between all six weapons continues even as I play now.
In addition to the aforementioned blessings, obtaining a Daedulus Hammer grants a choice of temporary upgrades and modifiers that last for the remainder of the run. Upon unlocking the final arm—an honest-to-goodness-I-shit-you-not-pal GUN—you’ll also unlock the ability to apply permanent upgrades to these weapons. Unlike upgrades granted by the Daedalus Hammer, these changes persist between runs. Now you’re playing with power.
Combat is fluid, excellent, and entirely what you make of it, depending on the weapon, Boons, and upgrades you have equipped (as well as your own skill). Attacking enemies from the rear will do more damage, as will embedding your modifiable projectile within them. Attacks and movement each feel great due to the expert combination of visual, audible, and haptic feedback. While encounters can become dazzlingly chaotic, I never felt as though I lost track of where Zagreus was or what he should be doing. Everything you need to know is clearly communicated, and your inevitable demise is entirely on you. The sheer amount of options available is staggering, and ensures that encounters continue to feel fresh and exciting with each new run.
Between runs you are free to explore your home and chat with a number of charming characters that frequently populate it. Getting to know these characters deepens your appreciation for this world and its lore (I know you Gamers™ love your Lore), but it also offers tangible rewards in the form of Keepsakes. Gifting an NPC some Nectar will boost your affinity with them and you’ll receive a Keepsake in return. These equippable items, of which there are many, offer additional modifiers on a run. Only one may be equipped at a time, and their effects range from boosts to health or attack damage to guaranteeing the appearance of a specific deity’s Boon on a run.
Now, if you’re familiar with Supergiant, you’ll know their storytelling acumen is second to none. While it’s hard to know exactly what their next project will be, an enthralling narrative and engaging characters are a given. Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre are masterworks all, but the degree of challenge present in Hades is a departure for the studio—it comes with the territory of a rogue-lite, after all. Repeated failure, and learning from those failures, is essential for both mastery of the mechanics and the reinforcement of the game’s themes. The excellent story and character development are so intertwined with the gameplay that simply granting the player invulnerability wouldn’t work at all.
Instead, enabling the game’s God Mode activates the Resistance Meter. You’ll still fail in this mode, but every failure fills the Resistance Meter, automatically increasing Zagreus’ ability to take a beating. You’ll have a better chance at success with every attempt in a more concrete way than on the standard difficulty. Whether your accessibility needs conflict with the games’ more demanding nature, or you’re simply not all that great at these kinds of games, you’re covered. God Mode invites those who might otherwise miss out to enjoy the stellar storytelling, impeccable art direction, and music that I can confidently say is the best in the business, all while providing a gameplay experience that isn’t too far removed from what was originally intended. God Mode also does not lock players out of any content or rewards, and can be toggled on or off at will from the options menu.
While this isn’t an option I see myself using, I am delighted that it is there. Accessibility options have always been a must, but in a post-The Last of Us Part II world there really is no excuse. Hades proves that options don’t have to mean compromising a game’s “artistic vision,” or whatever the excuse elitist gatekeepers are giving these days.
I’ve adored Supergiant’s previous work, and it was for this reason that I held off playing it during its year in Early Access. I wanted that fully realised, honed-to-perfection Supergiant experience I’ve come to expect and I was not disappointed. If the result of Early Access is a game this well-rounded—a game I truly feel as though I could play forever—then it might be time I rethought some of my preconceptions of the Early Access label.
In a time where young people find themselves trapped in the familial home for much longer than their forebears through no fault of their own, Zagreus’ hellish plight is unexpectedly resonant. The very real struggle to simply strike out on one’s own and escape the shadow you were born under is eerily reflected in the roguelike structure of Hades. Repeated failure is crushing… until you figure out how to learn from it. Until you move forward, inch by inch.
Until you win.