By Ronald Gordon
Every family has its black sheep. Even families in Greek mythology do. But not all families have problems that run so deep that one member is willing to run the gauntlet of fighting his way through Hell just to get out. Zagreus, the son of Hades, is more than willing; he’s fiercely determined in his quest to free himself.
Hades is a Rogue-like Dungeon Crawler developed and published by Supergiant Games, which also created Bastion and Transistor, two well-loved action RPG’s from 2011 and 2014, respectively. In Hades, the entirety of Hell is against you, and everything wants you dead. But nothing is going to stop you from escaping. You play as Zagreus, who is trying his hardest to fight his way out of his father’s realm. Luckily for him, the Pantheon of Gods in Olympus is disappointed in Hades’ lack of contact, and the Gods are just now learning of Zagreus’ existence. With his quest now open to them, they’re more than willing to help him out with Boons and Blessings galore.
Hades is addicting, so much so that I barely even noticed a weekend pass by as I played it. The level design is always changing because, in true fickle God fashion, Hades reshapes his realm each time someone enters, in order to make it impossible for anyone to escape. Anyone except Zagreus of course, thanks to his knowledge of battle and various Blessings from his extended family on Olympus.
Zagreus is a very skilled fighter, seemingly adept with every one of the six weapons held in Hades’ vault. Each weapon has a different gameplay style and mechanic, and it’s entirely up to you to choose which one suits you best. You also get to choose which Boons and upgrades you get as you battle your way through Hell. The combination of Boons and weapons is practically endless, as each game gives you different options to choose from. My favorite is Varatha the Eternal Spear, a weapon once wielded by Hades that Zagreus – ironically – uses in order to escape from Hades. I like to pair it with either Dionysus’ Hangover, which is basically Poison damage, or Ares’ Doom, which delivers a big chunk of damage in a short time.
The art of Hades is gorgeously detailed, like the heavily inked scenes from the DC Comics (Batman, Green Lantern, etc.) from the early 2000s, and each character gets their own stunning portrait, displayed during dialogue options. The background designs and level aesthetics make it feel like you’re not just fighting through a dungeon, but challenging the full arsenal of the nine circles of Hell and fighting a parade of demons and specters that want you as dead as they are. The music is exciting during your fights, and gets you right into the heat of battle whenever it kicks up. A dramatic and melancholy mix of music, sometimes Greek-styled and folk-tinged, from Darren Korb along with a well-placed flurry of guitar riffs will get everyone wanting to bob their heads. And Hades makes sure you feel the tempo of the fight with each song. Searing vocals by Ashley Barrett can chill you to the bone.
Although the gameplay, style, and music are all fantastic in their own right, Hades brings something else to the table: an outrageously compelling story and an intriguing narrative. For instance, the fact that Hades kept Zagreus hidden from the Pantheon, who are his blood relatives and loved Hades despite his cold demeanor, made the Gods eager to help Zagreus on his journey to the surface. They’re also competitive: when Zagreus is given a choice of Boons from two Gods, the one that isn’t chosen will get angry and jealous. But when they’re not at each other’s throats, two Gods might pair up to grant a Duo Boon, with extra bonuses for using both of their Blessings. This kind of family drama makes Hades’ character design and storytelling that much more interesting, as does Zagreus’ habit of conversing (and sometimes arguing) with the Narrator as if the two were in the same room.
Hades is a Dungeon-Crawler that I can’t crawl away from, no matter how hard I try. Each time I die, I think: “Oh well, better try one more time.” It’s a refreshing experience, because it doesn’t entirely depend on making the main goal feel like an insurmountable challenge. Escaping is presented as impossible, but to Zagreus it’s nothing more than an intense workout. When he falls, he picks himself back up and gets right back at it, each time advancing a little bit further and pushing a little bit harder. And the all-seeing Dungeon knows this, so it adapts to make each attempt as challenging as the last. Levels evolve, bosses change and shift as you move forward, enemies inherit different patterns. It’s up to you to keep up. Anyone who wants to feel the rush of fighting through Hell with the might of the Gods by their side will experience that in Hades – over and over again.
Ronald Gordon, a Bronx native who attends City Tech College, is a senior intern at the New York Videogame Critics Circle.