Death Is Only The Beginning
I’ve never been one to play games just because they are challenging. That has changed with my newly found love of the Indie game scene. Just as Hollow Knight’s art, music, and gameplay was so well done that it introduced me to Metroidvanias, so has Hades introduced me to rogue-likes. Hades is the newest hit game from the stellar indie developer Supergiant (Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre). Supergiant is well known for making beautiful worlds and engrossing gameplay and they have done it once again. Hades released on September 17th, 2020 on PC and Switch to a successful reception so I decided to plunge into the Underworld in hopes of escaping it myself.
The story of Hades revolves around the son of Hades, Zagerus. Zagerus has grown tired of living under his father’s rule and aims to escape the Underworld by defeating various mythical monsters and champions that Hades sends to prevent Zag’s escape. Zag is assisted by his extended relatives like Zeus, Poseidon, Ares, and others who send boons imbued with their powers to help Zag escape. By placing the story in the Underworld, Supergiant has created a way of making excessive player death a part of the narrative. Everytime Zag dies he respawns in the House of Hades and must walk by his father’s throne room to be taunted by him. This respawn gives you the opportunity to speak with various NPCs who’s dialogue changes according to your successes and even based on how you are killed or who killed you in the Underworld.
One of the most interesting parts of the game’s story is the time that is spent talking to NPCs. Conversations lead to unraveling more about the Underworld. Giving NPCs Nectar will increase friendship with these characters who will in turn dish out keepsakes that can help with future runs through the Underworld. Zagerus himself is a likeable protagonist who is level headed, cordial, and polite to everyone including enemies that have killed him. It’s almost like each run is a sport or a game to Zagerus which shows that even repeated death is preferable to living in his father’s realm. Zagerus in many ways is the anti-Kratos (God of War Trilogy). Before God of War was rebooted in 2018, Kratos was fueled by rage and revenge when he decemated the Greek Pantheon. Zagerus is fueled by a dream of freedom and trying to find a place amongst family that will love him. Each character that Zag encounters has distinct personalities that comes out in small snippets, whether it be Zeus with his pompous dialogue, Hermes who sounds like he has had too much coffee, or Athena who is both caring and a bit pretentious.
The basic game play loop consists of attempts at escaping that will look completely different on each run. As you progress to the next chamber you are sometimes given the option of branching paths with different rewards. You will have to make decisions each run based on your long term and short term goals of collecting or upgrading boons to help you on your current run or by grabbing resources that can give you permanent upgrades or unlock new weapons.
The hack-and-slash combat is quite punishing if you are not using your full range of abilities, like dash and cast, constantly. Dashing and attacking from behind is almost always the preferred method and using your long-range Cast ability seems negligible at first but later becomes invaluable with the right boons and upgraded capacity. One of my favorite boons is the Cursed Slash which reduces your max health to sixty percent but allows you to heal with every slash of your sword. Different boons can be combined and enhanced creating unique combinations and experiences. On one run, I had the Cursed Slash and Zeus’s Lighting Strike so I was dealing big damage on base attacks while simultaneously healing. On another run I combined the Cursed Slash with Athena’s ability to deflect projectiles with my base attack. It’s very important to try a variety of boons to determine what fits your play style. Even silly abilities like Dionyus’s boons that cause Hangover can be useful if upgraded or combined well. Calls are temporary “god mode” forms that deal massive damage for a few seconds and are themed after the god you received the Call from. Athena’s Call surrounds Zag with shields that reduce damage and deflect projectiles while Posedian’s envelopes Zag with water as he rushes around the field dealing huge swaths of damage.
I have been listening to the Hades OST on loop during my commutes as of late because it’s just so stinking good. The award-winning composer who wrote scores for Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre; Darren Korb, has returned to compose the OST for Hades. Songs range widely from folk-like instrumentation that reminds me of Bastion, mixed with some intense metal riffs, some fast-paced hip-hop like beats, and then somber, more classical scores with vocals that significantly enhances the tone and experience of the world that Supergiant has built. As mentioned prior, the voice acting work for each character gives a solid and believable depiction of that god or character, providing a charming experience.
I have already doted on how much I love the art style of Hades. I was first introduced to Supergiant games by members of the Reformed Gamers on Facebook and then committed to these games because of how much I loved the hues and the atmosphere of Transistor and Bastion. Somehow, Supergiant took a setting like the Underworld of Greek Mythos and still made it into a hand-painted, stunning, and vibrant Underworld. After beating a boss, you progress to a different area of the underworld starting with Tartarus, then progressing to Asphodel, Elysium, and finally Temple of Styx. The areas feel distinct and make you feel like you’ve made it closer to the end with each new area. A side note as it relates to the art style, Supergiant did a brief cinematic trailer depicting Hades as anime and I am totally down for that.
Supergiant has yet another massive success on their hands and I never thought I’d enjoy dying as much as I have in Hades. Returning to the House of Hades never seemed like a set back as much as it seemed like a time to set up my next run. As someone who has little experience with rogue-likes, I can’t praise this game enough. Things like repetition and dying that would normally frustrate me do not in this game. Beating a boss like a Fury or the Bone Hydra in the early stages of the game are challenging and exhilarating. I imagine this is what Soulsborne players feel all the time. As you progress further and further into your run you will feel your heart race. “Is this the one? Am I going to make it?” If you are prone to raging while playing I recommend doing two to three runs a night and giving it a try the next day.
There is a rather obvious opportunity to discuss the reality of the real Hell when talking about Hades. Zagerus’s story revolves around escaping the Underworld but no such opportunity exists in the Christian worldview. We are only able to “escape hell” by faith in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection while still here on earth. The flawed nature of the Greek pantheon also points us to the perfect, holy, and just, God the Father. Zagerus also gives an interesting picture of suffering gracefully. It reminds me to thank the Father for his goodness and his mercy.
Note to Parents
Hades is rated “T” for Teen by the ESRB for blood violence. While there is blood and violence as part of the story the hand drawn art style does not simulate excessive gore. The depiction of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, shows a lot of skin but her hair covers what needs to be covered, though admittedly it’d be nice if more were covered. Hades is a game that depicts gods, goddesses, demi-gods, and monsters from Greek Mythology, so it is important to have a discussion with children that “. . . there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5 ESV).