I’ve been a fan of Supergiant Games since their legendary initial release of Bastion in 2011. It was a title that changed the landscape of the indie scene and as such fans were equal parts concerned and hopeful for a follow-up that would establish the studio as a force in the gaming world. That follow-up came with Transistor in 2014.
With a familiar aesthetic and musical landscape but still very different in story and gameplay, Supergiant Games proved with Transistor it was not a one-and-done developer. It’s a familiarity that strikes similar to director Wes Anderson – when you see a Supergiant product, you simply know who made it. It allows Supergiant to present new experiences that at the same time can occupy a nostalgic and comfortable place in the mind. That same familiarity was present even in their most out-of-the-box game, Pyre. Despite being based around a sporting contest, Pyre still felt like home for fans of the developer.
Hades is the latest title from Supergiant Games, announced and released on the same day in a unique and risky move in December 2019. Hades is a game that follows Zagreus, a son of Hades who is trying to escape the grim conditions of the Underworld by utilizing a variety of snappy combat abilities. Each attempt to escape the Underworld is a randomized instance that changes the enemies, rewards, and strategies required to succeed. While dying does reset progress there are elements of the game that can carry over from attempt to attempt.
The title screen alone reminds players immediately that they are about to play a Supergiant title. The twang of the guitar, the flash of the logo, and that familiar feeling comes rushing back.
Gameplay starts immediately with Zagreus’ latest attempt to escape the Underworld. Combat is simple, responsive, and comes to the player quickly. Zagreus’ starting weapon, Stygian Blade, is a fast and close weapon that reminded me of a more mobile version of the War Machete from Bastion.
Every room has a particular reward after clearing the enemy waves within. These rewards range from direct upgrades for the current attempt to items more focused on long term growth. After clearing a room and collecting a reward Zagreus will have between 1-3 choices of reward to continue, giving the player the choice on how to spec their escape.
The most interesting of the rewards are the boons, granted by separate Olympian gods. Each god has their own theme, such as Artemis granting critical hits or Dionysius applying damage-over-time effects to enemies. These boons can vastly change how Zagreus engages enemies and keep each run fresh. Some boons can even combine to form synergistic new abilities.
Inevitably Zagreus will fall and be returned in a pool of blood to the palace of the Underworld. The palace serves as a sort of hub and rest area for Zagreus to upgrade himself and chat with other unfortunate residents. It’s here that Hades seemed to really shine, as it immediately harkened back memories of Bastion’s eponymous base. Talking with Nyx or Achilles as they conspire against Hades to help Zagreus escape feels like a lived-in story as they give more information across return visits. Hades himself seems more annoyed and indifferent than concerned of your attempts, mocking you for falling to various enemies. This alternation between palace visit and escape attempt gives a good flow to the gameplay that makes it difficult to find a good place to put the game down, giving that “just one more” mentality.
While I’m generally not a fan of Early Access titles, Hades already feels like a fully-realized game. There are several weapon types with very different play styles, trinkets to augment skills or gameplay mechanics, and a good selection of gods and boons. The latest update added Demeter, goddess of seasons who adds cold and slow to abilities. It also added smaller features like a barebones fishing “game” which is a small distraction that helps break up the constant fighting.
There are currently three large zones to escape from, with a smaller fourth final zone. Each zone is capped by a boss and it’s here that I have the most issue with the game. The first zone to its credit does have three variants of the first boss but the other zones have one set boss each which does make the game a bit repetitive at this point.
Sometimes the amount of visual effects can be a detriment, especially with explosive enemies. It’s fairly common in my experience to get unexpectedly hit by an explosive when there are a lot of things happening on screen. It would be nice to have a larger visual indicator for the explosives that don’t paint a large circle of danger around them before blowing up.
Overall the game is in a good place and with Supergiant Games at the helm there’s virtually no risk with buying in now. There is a roadmap for future updates, including a timer on the main menu counting down to the next large update. If Hades ended development today it’d be worth the asking price, but with more content planned there’s a bright future for the Underworld ahead.