Lunging forward with blinding speed, I slam into the Wretch. The force of the impact sends it hurtling backwards into a nearby pillar, dislodging a piece of the ceiling which smashes it to a million pieces. I don’t take time to watch this, however. Oh, I’m fully aware of what’s going on, but the moment my lunge made contact I’m already on the move again, whirling with my sword to interrupt another Wretch’s attack, and then slamming my blade into the ground, sending out a shockwave which finishes off both the attacker and several lesser foes in the nearby vicinity. As I dart sideways to avoid the blast from a mine (which handily vaporizes whatever foes my sword-shockwave attack missed) one of the several Witches fires a stream of lethal purple orbs in my direction. I don’t try to avoid them. Instead, I dodge straight into them. Normally, this would be a fatally stupid manoeuver, but thanks to a boon granted to me by the Goddess Athena, as I dodge a ring of ethereal shields materialise around me, deflecting the orbs straight back at the Witch who cast them. As she disintegrates with a satisfying ‘pop’, I take 0.2 seconds to catch my breath before launching myself at the dozen or so enemies that remain.
This is perhaps one of the tamer encounters in Hades. Fast, visceral and very, very more-ish, Hades is a Greek mythology inspired rogue-like. Casting the player in the role of Zagreus, the son of Hades (the god of the Underworld), players are tasked with trying, again and again, to escape his father’s realm (also named Hades) in his quest to track down his mother, Persephone. Really, the choice of Greek mythology as the setting was a stroke of genius creating a far richer cast of characters, foes and abilities than you would usually encounter in this genre (which we’ll talk more about a bit further on).
As a rogue-like it follows the well established loop of fighting and acquiring resources, dying and getting sent back to the very beginning, using acquired resources to increase your power or unlock new abilities, and then starting all over again. While these loops usually blend into one another, Hades splits them into two distinct, complementary sections.
The first is the actual combat and escape section (where the bulk of time will be spent). In this, players traverse a randomised series of rooms as they attempt to battle their way to the surface. While some of these rooms house friends such as Sisyphus (a king of Corinth doomed by Zeus to forever roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it fall down again) and Charon (the boatman) who will help you in your attempt to escape, more often than not these rooms contain foes, and lots of them. Combat is fast, fluid and adrenaline filled, an edge-of-your-seat affair filled with snap decisions, split-second timing and tactical awareness. While the upgrades and boons you get are definitely of help (more in a moment), skill plays a major part. As such, controls are tight and responsive, and the feedback the game gives you, from the sound effects to the satisfying visual cues, mean that no matter how hectic the action gets (and it will get very hectic), you can still easily read and respond to the situation. It should be noted here that whilst the game recommends the use of a controller, I found keyboard and mouse work very well, and I actually preferred it over the controller.
Should you survive a combat encounter you will be granted an award. This may take the form of a resource which you can use after your (inevitable) demise, or gold, upgrades or boons which are highly useful, but only apply to your current attempt. Should you fail, you lose them all. Boons come in the form of gifts from the gods of Olympus, and give you a choice of benefits. Athena, for example, may gift the ability for your dodge to also shield you from harm and reflect any incoming attacks back on your foes. Hermes may make you faster. Ares can grant a boon which summons a Sword of Damocles above the heads of foes you’ve attacked, which, after a short moment, falls and does serious damage. Prefer to call lightning to strike at your foes? Then Zeus is definitely the way to go. On the other hand, if you prefer to enhance your weapon (and there are quite a few weapons and enhancements to choose from), Hephaestus is the god you want.
If you had to pick a few words to describe the experience, the choices would have to include: fast, visceral, tactical, and, above all deep. The dozens of boons available allow players to experiment with combinations and find the style which suits them. It also adds a level of strategy at the end of each encounter. Once an encounter is complete and the boon received, the gates leading out of the level and on to the next section unlock. Above each gate (except in some circumstances), a symbol shows you what reward awaits upon successful completion: whether it’s a specific resource, Charon’s shop, or the boons of a particular god, letting players choose what they think their next best move will be. While the vast array of boons give quite a lot of choice, there is also the choice of weapon. These include a sword, spear, shield, and bow just to name a few (as well as a really, really fun weapon you get to unlock towards the end – sorry, no spoilers). Each weapon not only comes with its own move set (happily the controls stay the same for each) and range of unique upgrades (both temporary and permanent), but also boons can feel quite different. There’s pretty much a weapon to suit anyone’s preferred style.
This level of depth extends to the second main part of the game, which is where players will find themselves whenever they are defeated. Cast back into the Halls of Hades, players are given a chance to investigate the rooms, spend whatever resources they have acquired on the numerous available upgrades, and interact with the local denizens. These range from friends such as Achilles, Hypnos (the embodiment of sleep) and Cerberus, to foes such as Megara (one of the Furies whose job it is to torment the wicked). Each time players meet them, they will be treated to some short dialogue, which will build on the characters, world, or reference what just happened – such as how you managed to meet your demise this time. It’s brilliant and clever, and while defeat may sting a little, it is very quickly followed by curiosity as to just what is going to be revealed next. The setting is inspired, and gives Hades a rich cast and lore to draw upon, of which the developers took full advantage.
It’s worth adding here that all the dialogue in the game – both during the Halls of Hades and during Zagreus’ attempts to flee the Underworld – is fully voiced, and there is a lot of it. In fact, there around 21,000 lines of spoken dialogue in the game. The voice acting of these is excellent, and fit brilliantly with the imagery for each character. Also worth mentioning is the cell-shaded artwork, with each screen a vibrant picture, giving Hades an instantly recognizable look which will simply never age. Finally, given its subject matter of the Greek Afterlife – including ancient Greece’s version of Hell, called Tartarus – there’s also a bit of a cheeky nod towards the other game series revolving around Hell and focussed on lightning fast combat: Doom. This includes disembodied skulls which attempt to rush Zagreus (a reference to Doom’s Lost Soul enemy), and even the occasional piece of music reminiscent of the music from Doom’s iconic E1M1 level (and also, now, the opening of Doom Eternal).
Brilliantly conceived and executed, Hades shows a level of polish and depth few games achieve. Fast, furious and definitely fun, it comfortably sits alongside greats of the rogue-like genre such as Enter the Gungeon. If you’ve never tried a rogue-like before, then Hades is an excellent starting point. And If you’re a fan of the genre, then Hades should definitely be part of your collection. Highly, highly recommended. ■