Hades – Unrivalled Rogue-Like
Zagreus falls from the sky, landing with grace. The small isometric dungeon presents a single door to pass through, a shield symbol gracing its archway.
In the next room, several enemies lie in wait. With sword in hand, the Young Prince slashes away, dashing about to avoid incoming blows.
Once the threats are slain, the Goddess Athena appears – or at least a representation of her – offering two things. One, a few encouraging words in aid of your escape attempt; and two, a choice of 1 of 3 boons, or temporary upgrades, to last the remainder of this run. Either light, heavy or “cast” attacks can increase in damage and deflect incoming attacks; Zagreus must choose only one before continuing onward.
In the first couple of runs, Hades systems are likely to feel overwhelming. Basic enemy encounters expand into a plethora of challenging combinations of foes, each room creating a new combat puzzle for you to solve. Multiple currencies, boons and upgrades will be obtained.
What upgrades to focus on and which paths to walk will take a while to wrap your head around – at least if you are coming to Hades fresh, like I have, and haven’t already spent hours upon hours diving in during the nearly two years of early access Hades has already seen.
I’m here to tell you that there is no need to worry about that – knowledge will come with experience. For now, just keep putting one step in front of the other, continue swinging that sword; keep fighting.
And then die.
Stepping out of the blood pool and into the House of Hades, Zagreus shakes off the latest death before spending some time checking in with the residents. His father, Hades, looms over a commanding desk, scolding him for your foolishness. Night Incarnate Nyx is mysterious, yet affectionately encouraging. Terrifying Cerberus is a good boy, always appreciative of pats.
In Zagreus’ bedroom, permanent upgrades are available through the Mirror of Night, while just outside his chambers lay new weapons, chained up and inaccessible. The visual design around these elements begin to bring into focus the uses for obtained currencies – darkness releases inner potential, keys unlock these tools of destruction, gems provide permanent upgrades to the halls of the underworld.
Having prepared, Zagreus jumps through the veil once more.
In Hades, death is many things; at once an end to an escape attempt, yet never bringing with it a feeling of failure. Death is also a Goth God with a Cool Scythe, but we’ll get to that.
Running through the underworld of Hades again and again, you’ll begin to parse more and more of the intricate design at play. New upgrades, systems and choices roll out gradually, as if the game knows exactly when the time is right to introduce its next mechanic. From the get-go, slicing and dicing your way through Hades already feels mechanically rewarding; every small addition on top of that only serves as an incentive to dive further and further in.
Growing ability and fine-tuned fights are not all that draws you back, however. Tiny morsels of an overarching narrative, driven by short conversations with the denizens of the House of Hades each time you die, leave breadcrumbs of tantalizing mystery. One-way messages sent to Zagreus from the Gods of Olympus via their boons build out characters and their relationships with each other and Zagreus. These characters you will come to know and love deeply, thanks to brilliant voice and artwork bolstering such phenomenal writing.
Everyone that plays Hades inevitably finds a favourite. Whether it’s the God of Wine Dionysus, laid back and affable; the aforementioned brooding God of Death Thanatos; or even the steadfast teacher Achilles – everyone has multifaceted and affecting story threads of their own alongside Zagreus’ quest. The tragedy of the musician and his lover particularly stands out. None are necessary, but all are worthwhile and compelling.
As Zagreus edges closer and closer to his escape, more motivational threads surrounding the Gods and the story being told reveal themselves. Answers to unanswered questions feel tantalizingly close.
Though Hypnos has noted down every way Zagreus has perished, this time through feels different. Uncle Poseidon has blessed the Heart Seeking Bow with a 13-arrow special attack which forces enemies back, dealing extra damage when they smash into walls; Demeter has transformed your cast into devastating crystal beams. You’re a powerhouse, and feel like you can’t be stopped.
You reach the final challenge, again. This foe has struck you down several times already, agonizingly close to your goal. But you are determined. You’re ready.
Every escape attempt through the bowels of Tartarus and the realms beyond brings with it something new and exciting, even twenty plus runs in. As you unlock more weapons, build up more permanent upgrades and learn the lay of the land, you only broaden the possibility space.
Other rogue-likes sometimes get “figured out”, where one or two builds become the optimal way to play. Hades presents such sheer variety that there are dozens of optimal builds. No run is ever the same, yet no run ever feels unrewarding. Interplay between all of the various modifiers always results in a net positive. Never are you left with a negative in any choice you make; every upgrade is only ever additive to your experience. Wildly different play styles are not only catered for but are all successfully viable.
There’s no such thing as a dud run through Hades. Even before beginning again, you already know the next attempt is simply going to be pure fun.
And so, with a grin on your face and a pep talk from Skelly, you dive back in.
The arc from the unknown through to mastery of Hades is an immensely satisfying journey. As you head further down that path, you’ll realize that design decisions from minute one through to this very moment retroactively make more and more sense. Early access has helped fine-tune every single aspect of this game down to the most microscopic level.
The in-medias-res opening presented a Zagreus who already had a history, thoughts and motivations unknown to you. Now, the two of you are aligned, synced in your determination to escape the underworld, seeking truth.
Zagreus begins voicing the thoughts you were already having.
“I hope it’s Meg.”
Together, you triumph. Finally. It’s been a journey. Now is the time to get that cathartic release. It’s time for answers.
Hades delivers. Your efforts and Zagreus’ sacrifices have not been in vain.
It’s not over. In an incredible example of well thought out game design, Hades gives you the cleverest of reasons to return to the beginning, and attempt to escape yet again. This isn’t a game that happens to be a rogue-like – it is a game that could not work any way other than a rogue-like. The design philosophies of the genre are baked into every aspect of its design, mechanically and narrative – up until and including its very end.
Hades has given you a stepping off point, a completion, should that be your wish. Yet it also proffers that you could treat your entire experience thus far simply as a prologue. There is so, so much more you could do, could see, could try.