[This article is based on an Early Access Build of the game and may not reflect the final product.]
You don’t need an article to tell you that where public domain properties are concerned, Greco-Roman lore stays in pop culture’s rotation (Norse mythology probably has more saturation at the moment, but that’s another story). The popularity of these myths rarely decline because of the archetypes that populate them. Such legendary pantheons are a primary color wheel of personalities, with names like Zeus or Aries carrying brand-name recognition. Which is why it’s a surprise to see Supergiant Games developing a title called Hades when the Greek god who bears that name holds a very specific, Mouse-owned association in pop culture consciousness. The company behind Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre has never repeated the iconoclastic settings for their stories; so why go to something that has loads of representation in pop culture already?
SuperGiant has used their now-standard isometric framework to create a fast-paced roguelike dungeon crawler that’s equal parts Gauntlet and Diablo. The gameplay loop is simple: live, die, repeat. Through this, the answer for ‘why something as overplayed as Greek history’ is actually tied to the gameplay itself: the point is the cycle (and the variations thereof). Where the variations emerge is the how and why of each go-round. For instance, this version of Hades is less Disney’s ego-tripping hustler and more in-line with a certain God of…er, Conflict. Big beard, pale skin, and the second Greek dad in as many years to have a son he only addresses as ‘boy’.
Old Gods, New Tricks
That last part is where the player comes in by taking on the role of Zagreus, Prince of the Underworld. At the ‘in media res’ beginning of the story, Prince Zag has decided to run away from home. Between him and freedom lies every soul in his father’s employ: damned souls, fabled heroes, and even the Prince’s own ex-girlfriend (one of the legendary Furies). And they will kill the hell out of you. This may sound like the game is promoting a Dark Souls style of play. In truth, there’s very little chance of keeping Zagreus alive on his first break out, so players will soon find themselves back at the House of Hades.
Zagreus isn’t alone, though: Supergiant has populated the game with their stylish character designs to chat with between escape attempts. Chief among them are the other Greek gods, who are lending their nephew a hand by bestowing various ‘boons.’ As you might imagine, the boons are representative of each god’s aspect. Athena’s are all hunting-themed, for example, while Dionysus lets you literally give enemies a hangover. Appearing randomly through the procedurally generated labyrinth of the Underworld, these boons add a fun bit of customization to a player’s particular ‘version’ of Zagreus. As Zag builds relationships with the gods and other folks throughout his father’s realm — including his previously mentioned ex — better boons and other bonuses can be gained for the next run.
Zag Outta Hell
Ability customization isn’t new for Supergiant’s games, which usually feature in-game challenge modifiers rather than difficulty settings. To date, Hades is probably the strongest they’ve chosen to reinforce this aspect. As the game is currently in Early Access, they’ve been revising and releasing iterations to balance the final product. Players are encouraged to help this process by leaving feedback on their experiences for when the game receives a wider release later this year. In a metatextual way, it’s the cycle written large: the developers are improving their game, while the audience improves at playing the game.
All of this is to say that Hades is not a ‘one and done’ campaign. There’s little chance of completing the game while finishing every side quest in one go. It’s a major difference from previous Supergiant titles, where most would be satisfied by a single playthrough. Through the divine abilities that can combine with Zagreus’ customizable arsenal, there’s possibility for countless combinations of ‘builds’. Additional bonuses can be gained by sharing gifts and conversation with the supporting cast — including Zagreus’, and Hades himself. If the cycle of popularity for Greek gods must continue, Hades has made their adaptation unique enough to watch for at rollout of the official release.
8.75 out of 10 Bottles of Ambrosia