I’ve been patiently waiting to play Hades for the past year now. I remember the first time I stumbled upon a YouTube video of it around a year ago. I was astonished by the fantastic art style, it looked like a sleekly animated graphic novel or anime. The gameplay looked interesting as well, an isometric viewpoint and action-heavy gameplay that appeared somewhat hectic but also seemed like the type of game that could be mastered if you put in the time, or at least greatly improve your skill. In the middle of watching the video, I googled Hades and was sad to see that it was only available on Steam, “surely it’s coming to consoles I thought”, but the only console it was releasing on at the time was the Switch – more disappointment. I had a feeling it would eventually make its way to my console of choice though, and finally, at this year’s online-only E3, the developer Supergiant Games announced that it would be making its way to Xbox consoles, and as a day one Game Pass release no less!
I like roguelikes and roguelites, whatever you want to call them. Personally, I think having two similar sub-genre names like that is probably confusing, but I’m going to go with roguelite for Hades. There isn’t really any true differentiation between the two, but there’s one explanation that I’ve seen in a few places that I like. Roguelites have persistent upgrades (meaning that you can unlock new abilities, buffs, weapons, healing items, improved stats, etc. as you continue to play) and they always stay with your character, making the game easier the more you unlock and the more you play; examples include Dead Cells, Rogue Legacy, and Children of Morta. Roguelikes, on the other hand, have a more limited set of unlockable options or none at all. These might include characters and/or permanent item pool expansions (Spelunky, Downwell, and Nuclear Throne are some examples). These are by no means the official definitions of the two. I’ve reviewed more than a few “rogue-friendly” games during my time at Xbox Tavern and I figured I should clarify my labelling of the two.
Since I happened to mention persistent upgrades, I can tell you that Hades is filled to the brim with them. It’s one of the many systems within the game that is intricately designed – a benefit of the thousands and thousands of hours the designers and early access players spent playing the game. These systems are all finely tuned and one of the big reasons Hades has such appeal. It gives the game an action-RPG feel because there are so many customization options.
There are multiple types of upgrades/benefits that you can purchase and/or acquire for Zagreus, the playable character, and pretty much each one has its own currency that must be used. The game introduces all these systems incrementally as you play, but it still feels overwhelming at first. It seemed like every time I returned to the hub area (The House of Hades) after dying, a new system was presented. This isn’t the only confusing aspect. During each run, you can obtain boons from any of the nine main Greek gods of Olympus (minus your father Hades for obvious reasons once you get into the gist of the story). Overall this is a complex system that takes a little while to understand. It doesn’t take long to figure out the basics, but you’ll be constantly referencing your codex to see what boons might be available now or in the future.
Another aspect that took some getting used to was learning what all the icons stood for, this is especially important to know when choosing which door to enter. After you clear a room, one to three doors become available that lead to a new room. Above each door is the icon of that next room’s reward, so learning what each one means is very important. Despite the confusion, I enjoyed the learning aspect – a feature in many rougelite games, where you have to get acquainted with how the game works and begin to gain a sense of satisfaction as you understand more and more.
Before you start a run you can choose one of six weapons to take with you. You start with only the sword available, but you can also unlock a spear, shield, bow, gauntlets, and a machine gun… yes a machine gun, or rail gun as it’s referred to in-game. Six weapons might not sound like a lot but each one has a unique set of attacks; for example, the shield has a chargeable bull rush attack, as well as a Captain America-style throw. Once you get a good amount of runs under your belt you can unlock new versions of each weapon that have alternate properties and sometimes different attacks. Each version also has a unique look and name, like the Spear of Achilles which lets you dash towards your thrown spear instead of simply pulling it back to you. The Olympian’s boons have a huge effect on your weapon’s properties in any given run. There are innumerable combinations of boons that affect how you might approach each run. Sometimes you can end up putting together an overpowered build thus making the game much easier; it never gets to The Binding of Isaac levels of insanity but when you realize you’re doing tons of damage and clearing rooms faster than normal there’s a great sense of satisfaction.
The combat can get hectic at times, and at first it might seem like you’re just button mashing or spamming attacks. Hades is definitely one of those games where the more you play the better you get not only because of all the upgrades but also because you better understand the mechanics of the game. If you are having trouble though, there’s a God Mode that can be turned on or off at any time from the pause screen. This might sound like the easy way out, but it actually takes time for it to really become a major crutch. It starts out giving you a 20% damage reduction, and each time you die the percentage increases by 2%, maxing out at 80%. This obviously makes the game easier, but it also saves the player time, because experiencing the full story requires dozens of playthroughs and exponentially more deaths.
The story is one aspect of Hades that many people proclaim sets it apart from its peers. All of the characters are fully voiced and the dialogue is well written and acted. Most of the story comes from the interactions between Zagreus and his fellow denizens of Hell, but each of his nine boon-granting extended family members has seemingly endless lines of dialogue as well. To make a long story short Zagreus wants to escape the realm of his father, but his father forbids him from doing so; luckily though just about everyone else Zag encounters is willing to help him or at least give him advice or encouragement. Every time you die you return to the House of Hades and you can talk to any of the main characters that are present there. They almost always have something new to say, but in order to get the following conversation, you have to wait until you die, return to the hub, and hope that character is there. This can feel excruciatingly drawn out. Each character has a huge amount of dialogue and it is very interesting to learn about the characters and their relationships with Zag, there’s a good amount of humor and the characters and their stories stay somewhat true to their mythological roots.
Sometimes it seems like the story will go on forever; although I suppose that’s a plus for players that are really into the game. Another aspect of the story that I enjoyed is how the gameplay loop of dying, retrying, succeeding, and replaying fits in with the story. Roguelite games that accomplish this always get extra authenticity points. I should also mention that the soundtrack is exquisite. It’s a great mix of heavier, hell-inspired orchestral pieces and other more traditional ancient Greek-style tracks that you might expect in a movie. The sound effects are also great and once you get used to all the noises they act as a great audio cue to what’s going on, which is helpful because sometimes the screen can get way too hectic with the visual action.
For a $25 game, it does provide a large amount of game time and as a Game Pass addition it seems like a no-brainer to at least give it a try, but a lot of the gameplay can feel repetitive. Each run has you go through the same four areas; they are exquisitely detailed in a comic book/graphic novel way, sort of reminding me of a more intricate interpretation of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. There is an emphasis on thick black lines and solid black shading. But as a whole, each area has its own unique style and is full of eye-popping colors and minute details. Sometimes too minute – it can be hard to notice bonus objects in some areas, like the breakable pots that contain obol coins. I think if they would have created an alternate level or more enemies and bosses that would have gone a long way in increasing the replayability. Each area has about a dozen different enemy types, but a fair amount of those are reskins of other enemies or the same enemy but with a different weapon/attack. Each time you play you also fight against essentially the same four bosses. There is some variation, but it’s the same gimmick as the enemies – reskins and different attack patterns. After you beat the game for the first time you can enable Pact of Punishment challenges making the game more difficult. One of the more interesting ones makes each boss fight vastly different from before. There is also at least one hidden boss that I haven’t had the pleasure of fighting yet; hopefully, there’s more, but in the thirty-plus hours I’ve played I’ve experienced a lot of repetition. Everything seems to be doled out at a snail’s pace and there are just so many other interesting games coming out I don’t think Hades will hold my attention in the long run.
Based on all the praise and awards Hades has received over the past year, the bar was set pretty high, some might say as high as Mount Olympus (I had to include one bad pun, sorry). I’ve tried to set this aside as I played the game and write this review, but it’s been difficult. Hades is a great game, and I feel safe saying that it’s in the upper echelon of roguelike/lite games, but in the end, I think there are a handful of issues that hold it back from being immortal (sorry, one more).Become a Patron!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.