Hades

Hades is a roguelike by Supergiant Games, the creators of Bastion and Pyre. It is very good and I enjoyed it immensely. You play as Zagreus, the son of Hades and Persephone, as he attempts to escape the Underworld to find his mother, who has left for the surface for unknown reasons.

I’m not usually a fan of roguelikes; I’m of the opinion that procedurally-generated content just can’t compare to a handcrafted experience, and so roguelikes quickly start to feel bland and repetitive with their samey environments. I believe what makes Hades different is that it does have a lot of handcrafted content: Unlike most roguelikes, it has a very elaborate storyline with tons of characters and enough lines of dialogue it’s feasible that a given player will never hear a repeated line in the course of a playthrough. Each character you meet has their own storyline, and each storyline is constantly advancing every time you talk to them. Characters are also incredibly reactive, with tons of custom dialogue for just about every gameplay choice you can make.

This all makes the world feel very real. Most roguelikes show the wires too quickly; they are too obviously gamey with their repetitive encounters and environments, stripping away immersion until everything is just a set of pixels and numbers. But by making the roguelike mechanics so strongly integrated with the story, by having characters comment on everything constantly, it dodges that pitfall. I want to push forward to see where the stories end up, or even just to see how the characters react to the next silly thing I do.

And aside from all that, the story itself is also very enjoyable. This is the first time a Supergiant game has had a player character who isn’t a blank slate, but I think they knocked it out of the park even so. The creators have said they purposefully gave Zagreus the opposite personality to what his character design implied: He looks like a typical edgy untouchable action hero (that’s him in the cover art), but he’s actually incredibly kind, polite, and soft-spoken. Despite very much being his own character, he never jarred me out of the experience or made me annoyed to play him, because his curiosity and love towards his world perfectly mirrored my own.

The one time Zagreus drops the niceness is when he interacts with Hades, because this is also Daddy Issues: The Game. I was wary of this as I always am when media depicts abuse, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well this was handled. Hades uses the typical “I’m just so miserable my wife left me that I take it out on everyone” excuse, but Zagreus outright says to his face that that doesn’t excuse how he treated him, and Zagreus is never forced to forgive him for it. At the same time, from our omniscient perspective we can see how Zagreus stewing over his hatred has hurt him as well and that making inroads with his father may help him heal. The way he regresses from a polite, level-headed man to a bratty teenager every time he talks to Hades is, I think, deliberately meant to be jarring and to show how toxic the relationship has been for him. (Amusingly, though, Hades is equally catty in his responses every time, showing that he’s not really any better than his son.)

I also appreciated the handling of Persephone. So many Daddy Issues stories completely remove the mother from the equation; it’s always some variant of “The mom died/left the story so now the men are Very Sad.” While the story here initially fits that mold, Persephone does end up a major character and a meaningful part of the conversation between Zagreus and Hades. Zagreus also has an adoptive mother who is a major character from the start — and despite the premise of the plot revolving around Zagreus’ desire to find his birth mother, he frequently affirms that he still loves Nyx and considers her his mother as well. Despite centering around daddy issues, there is a lot of motherhood in this story, which I found to be really refreshing.

As for Persephone herself, the story does lean rather heavily into the Tumblr Girlboss Persephone revision where she totally wanted to elope with Hades if only frigid controlling evil Demeter hadn’t disapproved (it’s just like how my mom won’t let me date bad boys you guys!!!). It even goes so far as to make the “eating pomegranate seeds binds you to the Underworld” a total lie Persephone made up so she could spend more time with Hades, which I found a bit much.

I think the writers were aware of how awkward and ahistorical that version is and so they tried to add more nuance, but the wrinkles are mostly just confusing — Persephone was initially kidnapped against her will, except Zeus kidnapped her and not Hades so it’s cool Hades isn’t a rapist, but also she hated Olympus and wanted to leave anyway, and she ended up falling in love with Hades anyway which sure sounds like Stockholm Syndrome but isn’t because we say so. It’s… about as good as can be expected, I guess? There’s basically no other way the story could go without being incredibly bleak and miserable.

On the topic of sanitizing Greek Awfulness for modern audiences, they also made the male and female Olympians cousins rather than siblings in an attempt to make all the incest slightly less squicky, except they’re still treated like family and call each other “foster-siblings”, so it really doesn’t. (They even try to explain the official version as Zeus telling everyone they’re blood siblings, which is… pretty weird even for Zeus.) So it’s cool, guys, Hades only married his second cousin instead of his niece! They also dealt with the fact Zagreus’ love interests are technically his foster siblings by… trying very hard not to mention it.

My only other criticism of the story is that the romance plotlines fell totally flat for me. Not only are you encouraged to romance people basically to tick a box (romance is tied to the same affection meter used to progress storylines and general relationships), but I just can’t see any romantic chemistry between Zagreus and the love interests, like, at all. I was completely thrown when he revealed he used to date Megaera, because that came out of nowhere, and his sudden declaration of love for Thanatos felt equally out of left field. There’s not really any transition between their initially incredibly hostile relationship and “Suddenly I’m cool with you now.” The only character I felt had any romantic chemistry was Dusa, but she turns out to be a fakeout. :( One the one hand it’s very cool to have a love interest turn you down while establishing that platonic friendship is still valid, but why did it have to be the only good one?

Overall, though, I was incredibly pleased by the characters and writing. I loved all the gods, especially Chaos (they just want to have a good time, I can relate), and I was particularly happy to discover all the characters who initially appear miserable have questlines where you can improve their circumstances. Everyone is so kind and helpful to Zagreus, and so it felt really good to be able to pay them back.

The gameplay is also excellent, and works with the roguelike loop very well. It’s an action RPG like Supergiant’s previous games, and I think that genre is particularly well-suited to roguelikes. The emphasis on combat over exploration makes the samey environments less noticeable, and the fast-paced nature of real-time combat gives the game a lot more momentum that makes restarting a run less frustrating.

There are a lot of mechanics that work extremely well with the roguelike format, and seem very deliberately designed to encourage an enjoyable experience where every run is varied and unique. What I think is most notable is that it does a lot to actually encourage suboptimal play. There’s no real penalty for losing and you’re almost certainly going to fail any given run in the early game, so the game instead becomes about what you accomplish during a run. The sidequests given by the prophecy scroll are almost entirely variants of “use every kind of mutually-exclusive loadout in this category at least once,” pushing you to take things you haven’t tried yet even if they’re suboptimal for your current build.

Speaking of which, the boon system is fantastically clever. The way it works is: One of the possible rewards for clearing a room is a boon from an Olympian, which gives you some special ability or makes one of your attacks stronger. There are a ton of them, and they are all highly varied and thematically flavored to each god. But the catch is: Every time you die, you lose all of them, forcing you to start every run fresh. Because boons are random, this ensures that your loadout will be different in every run, preventing the gameplay from getting stale. The boons you get can radically change your fighting style and what options are available to you, so it’s always exciting to try new ones.

The fact you’re expected to die and retry a lot is baked into so many mechanics. You deliberately can’t advance character plotlines more than a single step per run, as you only get one conversation — you can’t stockpile relationship-boosting items and feed all of them to one character at once. Most lore entries unlock based on number of conversations or number of visits to an area, both of which are limited to once per run. Then, having established that, there’s so much to encourage suboptimal play — carry the Chaos Egg into areas where you can’t use it, blow tons of resources advancing storylines instead of improving your stats, pick up silly boons like the one that does nothing but let you fish more often.

The downtime area also does a fantastic, if slightly devious, job of keeping you going: After you lose a run, you want to keep playing so you can talk to everyone in the House of Hades, and then you want to spend time planning your loadout for your next run, and then you’re starting another run before you know it.

This whole thing is a really incredible case study in game design both in general and in roguelikes in particular. There’s so much here that I’d love game designers to take notes from to create better and more engaging procedural games.

9 Comments

  1. Actislazyandwontlogin says:

    Hades:roguelikes::Hollow Knight:metroidvanias, in that they’re both so far and away the best thing the genre has ever produced that you almost wonder where the f games could possibly go from here. I’m utterly fascinated to see what roguelikes do next, because it’s going to have to be something ridiculous to get out of Hades’ shadow.

    Also worth mentioning is the truly gorgeous sound design. The voice acting is phenomenal and the soundtrack is beautiful. Darren Korb is really a genius.

    1. Actislazyandwontlogin says:

      Also! The relationship between Zag/Nyx/Persephone was one of my favorite parts of the game, it was so refreshing to see Persephone and Nyx appreciating each other instead of being competitors.

      1. Yes, I loved that too! The narrative is just so kind. Even Theseus, who has the most antagonistic relationship with Zagreus, was kind enough to redeem his sworn enemy. It’s such a comfortingly optimistic portrayal of people.

  2. Roarke says:

    Hades really nailed the gameplay/narrative integration to a degree I haven’t seen since Radiant Historia or the like. You know you’ve reached the pinnacle when it’s not just a great story and not just a great game, but a great story that can only be told as a great game.

    I loved that you didn’t have to fight Hades at all in the final run before Persephone decides to come home; his speech where he admits his agency in the family’s problems was so satisfying. The three’s reconciliation with each other was brilliant and kept me going long past the time I’d more or less grown complacent with the actual gameplay.

    1. I loved that you didn’t have to fight Hades at all in the final run before Persephone decides to come home

      Farla was actually really steamed about that, because she had a really great build that run. :p

      1. Roarke says:

        Hades can’t even extend an olive branch without screwing Zagreus over in the process. Classic.

  3. Seed of Bismuth says:

    i don’t know why people nowadays are getting so up in arms about the gods relative relations with other gods when their mythic beings, they don’t have dna.

    1. I mean, I don’t think it’s terribly surprising people are grossed out by incest.

    2. A Wild Birb Appears says:

      I think a lot of the disgust most people have comes from the concept of the gods as having a more concrete family structure? I am not a classicist or very knowledgeable about Greek myths so I could very well be wrong but I got the impression that “originally” when these myths were evolving and first getting written down the relationships various gods had were fairly fluid, so in myths where specific gods were dating or had kids together they might not be related the way they might be in other myths. “Nowadays”, when people are telling stories about the Greek gods they’re often conceptualizing those gods’ dynamics and relationships in a more concrete, unchanging way, saying “these people grew up together, they consider each other family and call each other brother or sister”… and then very quickly running into the problem that the rest of the statement is “and also pretty much all of them married each other or each other’s children”.
      Gods don’t have DNA or genetics (usually), like you said, so I don’t think there’s inherently an issue there, but once the recognized family and social dynamic is also there then it can get quite uncomfortable to most people. That’s my best guess, at least?

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