By Jaime Skelton (MissyS)
Long is the way
And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.
-JOHN MILTON, Paradise Lost
It isn’t often that I get to channel my love for literature and mythology. I put my English degree aspirations behind me long ago, and I’ve been quite happy exploring the (relatively) young story-telling medium of video games. For better or worse, the stories of the past have rarely intersected with the modern video game narrative, and quite often, those intersections that do occur are narrow references meant to invoke a common symbolism. Sometimes, however, a new narrative emerges fused from the bones of the past. Enter Hades.
No, I’m not wishing you to literally go to hell – I’m referring to Supergiant Games’ Hades, an action-RPG currently in Early Access. Oddly, as much as I have adored the style and gameplay of Supergiant’s other titles (Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre), I wasn’t “fan enough” to see Hades until Terris (NWOrpheus) pointed it out as a game we should cover. And with the busy work schedule I have here, it’s rare that I have a chance to pick up a game to look at myself. I’m glad I sniped this one from under our other writers, though, because Hades has been an unexpected delight.
The invisible depth of Tartaros presseth thee down with iron chains of necessity.
-Pindar, Fragment 207 (trans. Sandys)
The premise of Hades is that Prince Zagreus, son of Hades, is seeking to escape the underworld against the wishes of his father. As “Zag,” the player must attempt to break through four biome regions, fighting off fiends in twisting passages to seek freedom. On his journey, Zagreus is aided by many Olympians (eight total, at the time of this preview) who grant ‘boons’ to strengthen the Prince and bolster his chances.
Hades is a rogue-like (or rogue-lite, depending on how you define these terms): defeat proves a true set-back, not just an inconvenience. After “dying” (though not in the true sense of the word), Zagreus will be sent back to his father’s chambers to restrategize and begin the journey again. This also resets boons and obol (the game’s common coin currency); however, the Prince retains Skeleton Keys and Darkness, which can be used to unlock permanent perks and weapons. I’ll reiterate: there is no save state that will let the player zip to their furthest unlocked location. The journey must resume from the first step into Tartarus.
Combat can be very intense. Controllers are recommended.
There are four biomes of the Underworld to challenge Zagreus, each requiring a set number of ‘chambers’ before reaching the final boss. Here, too, are rogue-like elements: each room is randomly selected, creating a unique map on each journey. In order to pass from room to room, players must defeat all waves of enemies or complete other special room conditions. When complete, at least one door will open. Each door has a floating orb in it that indicates what’s ahead in the next room: a helpful clue, as sometimes you must choose between multiple doors to set your path.
… an artifact of metal and of flame so dreadful that the gods themselves abandoned it once their fell work was done…
-Codex on the Adamant Rail
Prince Zagreus begins his journey with only one weapon: Stygius, Blade of the Underworld (a two-handed sword). Four more weapons can be unlocked with Skeleton Keys: Coronacht, the Heart-Seeker (a bow); Aegis, Shield of Chaos; Varatha, the Eternal Spear; and Exagryph, Rail of Adamant (yes, a rail gun). Each of these weapons has their own style, with unique attacks; rather than lecture you on the specifics, I’ll instead review how weapons work in general.
Each weapon has at least two attacks: a regular ‘Attack’ and a ‘Special’ attack. Attacks are executed by clicking — or holding — the primary attack button and offer basic damage. Some Attacks are split into two: the Blade and Spear both have a point-blank AoE attack, and the Shield has a ‘Bull Rush’ that is an aimed charge attack; the Bow offers a critical shot when timed right with a flash on screen. The Special Attack is accessed on a different button, and differs per weapon, from weapon throws to grenade tossing; it is usually on a small cooldown.
A sped-up demo of the current five weapons, in order of unlock.
Whichever weapon you choose, you’ll be stuck with until you’re defeated and start a new run. Thankfully, there’s a dummy you can practice on right before you head out into Tartarus. My personal favorite? The Shield, which lacks a strong basic attack but has incredible deflection capability.
Also of note regarding weapons: One of the possible rewards you can find is the Daedalus Hammer, which will offer weapon-specific upgrades. These can significantly change the playstyle during your run, especially combined with the Olympian Boons. In my opinion, using one of these is a real essential gamechanger to make it to the final stages.
Though not weapons, there are two more combat actions that are important to learn and utilize. The first of these is the Dash, an activated rush in the direction Zagreus is facing, which can be used both defensively (to dodge) and offensively (to rush or perform a dash attack). The second is the Cast, a limited crystal attack that does some damage unenhanced, but which can be greatly affected by boons.
O various-formed, from whom all natures spring; propitious hear my prayer, give blameless health, with peace divine, and necessary wealth.
–Orphic Hymn 15 to Zeus (trans. Taylor)
If you’ve ever played The Binding of Isaac, you’re already familiar with the Boon system. In Isaac, the player will encounter random items which will change key factors about their attacks, stats, and other gameplay features. The boons of the Olympian Gods of Hades are similar, though more moderated and a thousand percent clearer on what they do. The trick is to learn each god’s theme, and plan accordingly around the options you’re presented.
Starting in the first chamber of Tartarus, and as a possible reward in each chamber after, Zagreus will encounter floating orbs containing the symbol of one of the eight Olympians. On interacting with it, the God will offer a choice between three boons. These boons have their own rarity scale, meaning you might find common boons or legendary ones. Each God has a theme that stays obvious to their nature: for example, Zeus’s boons focus on lightning, Hermes’ focus on speed, and Ares on pure damage. Particle effects are added based on the God and boon’s effect. Each God also has a focus on certain status effects that either enhance Zagreus or debuff his enemies.
There is a wide variety of boons between the Gods, but most fall in the category of enhancing your Attack, Special, Cast, or Dash. A few boons will enhance Zagreus directly by boosting damage or speed, for example. Finally, there is the rare Call boon: an unlockable action which calls upon the God to offer a very powerful (and short-lived) boost during combat. The Call has its own meter which is filled during combat, and is best saved for bosses or otherwise dangerous situations.
Boons can be enhanced by revisiting a God and choosing the same boon option, upgrading that existing boon. Many boons are ‘slotted;’ that is, Zagreus can only have one of their type (the Call is one such example). If a similar boon is chosen, it will replace the previous ‘slotted’ boon, allowing you to change your options to something better suited (if you’re so lucky). Some boons can only be unlocked after obtaining previous boons from the same God. And even more curiously: the Gods you interact with on each run may interact with each other and offer you a ‘Duo’ boon, which combines their themes in a powerful way.
The Master of the Heavens, god among gods; so much of my mortal life was impacted by him. And now, even in death, I serve his brother.
-Codex entry on Zeus
Hades has a story. That reads as a pretty weak, boring statement to put in this article, unless you’ve played a rogue-like before. The thing is, they don’t really have a story. They have settings, and characters, and tidbits of lore, but nothing that really comes together as a cohesive story. At least, nothing like what I’ve found in Hades.
I’ve already laid the story premise open, but it’s just the beginning. At certain milestones, you will encounter short story events that further the plot of Zagreus’ escape. That’s fairly standard. However, there are over two dozen characters and most of them, Zagreus has a measurable, changing relationship with, depending on how often he has spoken with them and how often he has given them a gift (Ambrosia). But most impressively: each interaction Zagreus has with other characters and the environment is responsive to all of these factors.
The end result is that Hades, in terms of story and setting, almost feels more like an in-depth RPG than it does a rogue-like. Zagreus will overhear conversations between other characters, speak with NPCs in ways that reflect his other relationships, escape progress, recent boss and god interactions, and more. Oh, and most importantly: you can pet the dog.
Here is the place, where the road parts : there to the right, as it runs under the walls of great Dis [Haides], is our way to Elysium, but the left wreaks the punishment of the wicked, and send them on to pitiless Tartarus.
-Virgil, Aeneid 6. 530 ff
With all of that said, there is still so much more depth to Hades that I haven’t covered: Artifacts, the Codex, Charon, Heat and Toil, Chaos, challenges, hidden characters, collectables, secret lore hidden in the game’s files. With over eight hours spent so far, I’ve yet to bust through to the fourth biome or make my escape. All of this with the polish of a completed game, and the style Supergiant is known for.
And here’s the final crazy thing: Hades is still in Early Access, and it’s still not done. While a launch is slated for 2020, Supergiant is planning another major update in less than two weeks from this article’s date. They have an extensive roadmap that includes addressing replayability and resources at end game, tweaking game balance, adding a new weapon, and adding more story, at the least.
So I’ll be honest here: I haven’t felt this enthusiastic about a rogue-like since Binding of Isaac (which I’ve retired from for a couple of years now). Hades offers an experience beyond what I’d expect, and I can only hope that its next few updates continue to satisfy long-term playability – because I can assure you, I’ll be logging plenty of hours in the months to come.
Note: A game key was provided for preview purposes.
Classic quotes as presented on the Theoi Project.
Hades Early Access Screenshots: