Coming off of critically acclaimed games like Transistor and Pyre, Supergiant Games brought Hades to PC in the form of Early Access back in 2018 but fully released the title in 2020. After countless praise and Game of the Year nominations, Hades has proven to be a game that doubles down on the studio’s overall vibe while still pushing the rogue-like genre forward in great and innovative ways. Upon dying on your first run, it’ll become very clear why Hades is one of 2020’s best games.
Hades’ design and sound is one of the most comforting parts of the game that kept me coming back. From it’s vibrant colors to it’s unique hand drawn looking visuals, the game will keep you looking around as you fight through the Underworld. From the ash and lava-ridden landscape of Asphodel to the lush green and blue hues of Elysium, the game is gorgeous no matter where your journey takes you. On top of that, from the title screen and throughout the game, Darren Korb’s soundtrack ties together the overall vibe and tone of the game in superb fashion.
When a particular room has multiple enemies that prove to be a challenge, the music matches it. When you’re having a thoughtful conversation with Nyx in the House of Hades, the music matches it. Most importantly, when you’ve been bested by a boss like Megaera, or any of the other Fury Sisters, and you’re back for one more go, the music matches it. It matches what’s going on in the game using aspects like tempo and instrument selection while also remembering that you’re playing as the son of Hades in the Underworld. The music is very Greek in style with its use of guitar strums that remind me of the music in Assassin's Creed Odyssey; another game engulfed in the Greek World.
The music in Hades is the perfect blend of rock and an acoustic emphasized Greek style of music. On paper the two don’t seem like they would mesh together, but they work perfectly in the final game. It’s such a good soundtrack and it makes sense why Hades has gotten praise for having not only the best art direction but also the best music and score for a game in 2020.
While I played Hades 99 percent of the time in docked mode on Switch, the game runs great in handheld as well. For me personally, I felt like the docked way of playing Hades on Switch was butter-smooth. The game never has noticeable frame rate dips, even when the combat gets hectic, which it definitely does. Even after more than 15 hours of play, I honestly didn’t run into any bugs or glitches that I could recall. The only thing I did notice is that sometimes, when I wasn’t moving in game, Zagreus would sprint to the bottom of the screen for no reason. I’m unsure if it’s actually a bug in the game or some weird Joy-Con drift-like issue with my Pro Controller, but it did happen on occasion. After seeing how hectic and fast combat encounters get the further you progress in Hades - and seeing some online talk about it - I can imagine the game chugging on the Switch in handheld mode. It’s pretty likely that the game runs perfect on PC as well, having spent more time there when the game was in Early Access. From my perspective, playing the game docked on Switch using a Pro Controller ran like a dream.
Hades is the first rogue-like that not only makes the notion of repeating gameplay segments make sense story wise, it makes it incredibly enjoyable and fresh every time. From a level design perspective - like other rogue-likes - the layout of each room within the four main regions changes and shifts every time, while keeping the same visual aesthetic of the region it belongs to. However, the number of rooms in a region stays the same, so as you play you get a better sense of how long it will take to get to your next boss fight or the next region. While not particularly unique to Hades, I appreciated how organized it felt in terms of the game’s structure while also having the ‘RNG nature’ of rogue-likes in terms of weapons, resources, etc. Where I felt the game kind of lacked in terms of organization is seen in some of the Menu systems. At times, certain menus looked super convoluted and cluttered; making it a bit overwhelming to try and discern my options and make decisions in said menu.
While understanding that the game has a lot, and I mean a lot, of interesting choices and systems to comprehend, I felt that it could’ve been delivered in a more streamlined manner. Even as an early player of Hades, understanding what reward you’ll reap when you complete the next room was a little difficult. I would’ve appreciated a prompt on what the resource is as opposed to just the logo of it.
In terms of the UI, when you’re on a run, it is very good at getting out of your way; showcasing the intense gameplay front and center. Most importantly, the UI is as clean as the aesthetic of the game; offering beautiful artwork for the Gods of Olympus and the Boons they give you to empower you on your journey.
Speaking of the Gods of Olympus, they and the rest of the cast in the House of Hades are how you are delivered the main story of the game. The story is simple; you are Zagreus, the son of Hades, who grows sick of the Underworld and vows to escape it. Escaping it means going through the different regions of The Underworld that grow increasingly difficult as you progress. Upon death, you return to the House of Hades where you started. The characters acknowledge your attempts and provide interesting ways of communicating to the player on how they died, as well as torment from Hades himself on why you keep trying to escape anyway when there's “no escape” according to him.
The story grows as you get stronger and stronger after every attempt, providing some interesting story threads for someone who doesn’t know the Greek mythos that well, like myself, along with well-storied players who know the mythology like the back of their hand. I never thought a rogue-like could even work with the amount of dialogue and story Hades has with it’s gameplay style. In practicality this game shouldn't work, but Supergiant has created a narrative that perfectly fits the genre and gameplay loop, with it all making sense from the character’s perspective in the game.
If there's anything that can be pinned down as to why Hades stands out amongst the rest in 2020, it’s the charm this game has. Never in a game have I wanted to straight up talk to every person after a run then in Hades. It’s all because of the impressive and Game Award nominated work in the voice acting department that is consistent across all of the characters.
From Zagreus to the likes of Megaera and the humorous Hypnos, even the Chthonic Gods provide great story beats and personalities that rival the extremely likeable Olympian Gods. Zeus, Ares, Aphrodite, Poseidon and much more provide great levity and entertainment between the action and bloodshed. A personal standout for me was Hermes as he’s the God of commerce, trickery and travel talks faster than the rest given his speed and quick nature that makes the God sound perfectly given his archetype. Zeus sounds full of bass and power where Aphrodite has a soothing and seductive way of speech that fits so well. The voice acting is phenomenal across the cast and the fact that the voice cast doesn’t have that many recognizable names makes it all the more impressive.
Playing Hades feels just as good as the game’s visuals, soundtrack and story. Fully utilizing each weapon's attack and special, chain them together with your dash mechanic, and enhance all of it with the Boons you’ll receive from the God’s to help you escape the Underworld is where Hades shines the brightest. Although the game has a specific structure in terms of the run itself, the flexibility comes in the form of the variety of different stat boosting Boons or abilities you can acquire with them.
The amount of different builds you can create as you continue your run is truly where I had the most enjoyment with the game. There are so many options to choose from. Do you want to take the path that will grant you a health boost, or the other path that will take you to get the Call of Zeus Boon or an upgraded special attack? Do you want to dedicate a run purely to farming resources to make Zagreus permanently stronger through Darkness? You can even plot a run to mine gemstones so you can complete Underworld Renovations to install fountains throughout the different rooms; giving you the edge on your next attempt. The game has so many interesting decisions that it poses to the player that keeps the game fresh every time you play. It also keeps revealing itself as you get better and better with more characters and choices to make like choosing between two Gods to receive a Boon from leaving the God you didn’t choose angry with you for a short time. The game does a great job at making it feel fresh with a wide array of options to change your play style and approach, making the replay potential incredibly high.
On top of it all, the controls on Switch are also great; particularly with the Pro Controller. I assume this would translate to other controllers as well. When you have an upgraded Boon that allows you to strengthen your dash, you can do this satisfying technique by hitting “B” then “Y” in quick succession to do Dash Strikes faster. It couldn't be a coincidence as to how effective this is and I have to give kudos to Supergiant for the way they tuned the controls overall.
When I finally had a successful run - after nearly 30 attempts in total with the game across 15 hours - Hades delivered on the promise of what was to come upon leaving the Underworld. Without spoilers, the game provides a shockingly thoughtful reason to keep playing the game, but it had a similar impact with me the way Journey did. I’ll never play Journey again; my experience was so impactful that I’ll never do it again. While not as intense, because the game has much to offer players in terms of shaking up the gameplay even more, it’s a similar feeling.
To say it bluntly, Hades is the Celeste of 2020; an indie game with an incredibly interesting story, great characters, beautifully crafted soundtrack, vibrant visuals, and most of all a ridiculously addicting gameplay loop. If anyone ever questioned seeing Hades get nominated for Game of the Year amongst the likes of Final Fantasy 7 Remake and The Last of Us Part 2, it’s more than deserving and truly is one of the greatest games in a year we all needed it the most.
And that’s the Borderline Bottomline for Hades
Review Written by Kevin Diaz