In the incredibly saturated roguelike genre, Hades stands out by turning death, the most common gameplay penalty of all time, into the only gateway to the richest parts of the story. This puts a fascinating spin on the consequences of failure in video games: when you die, the story advances.
In Hades, you play as the son of Hades, the Greek god of the dead, as you make violent attempts to escape the underworld in order to find a less-chaotic life on Mount Olympus. The operative word in that description is “attempts” because, after each foiled escape, you’re promptly returned to your father’s literal office in hell for both a scolding and a new piece of the narrative puzzle.
And there will be a lot of attempts.
This should sound refreshing to fans of roguelike and Souls-esque games who typically feel an excruciating loss of progress when met with death. Usually, those are the stakes that sell the game. Spelunky, Dead Cells, and Enter the Gungeon are just a few titles that have taken off because of their difficulty level; so with the promise of not only difficulty but also “reward” each time players die, Hades offers an innovative twist that breaks new ground in the roguelike genre.
I love a roguelike on paper but can only take so much heartbreak. Yet, in Hades, when I find myself banging my head against the keyboard after a failed run, I can find some solace knowing that there’s something new to discover right around the corner. For example, an especially difficult boss will crush me for the fourth time in a row but, upon my resurrection, I’ll meet a Greek goddess who will piece together more of my backstory and introduce new means to increase my base stats. Run after run, Hades simultaneously deals out story and new gameplay mechanics to keep the player not only entertained, but motivated to try again.
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that part of why I play games is to escape my own personal day-to-day hell, so I’ve always had a hard time understanding the attraction to punishingly difficult games. Especially when, in some games, like Dark Souls itself, part of the experience is the frustrating movement or combat.
In Hades, not only have they found an innovative way to keep the player engaged between deaths, they also spent a ton of time refining the combat and movement into a buttery smooth, well-paced, and easy to understand system. There’s a small handful of weapons, with a few different moves, and a large variety of enemies that are all exceptionally polished. It’s the perfect pick up and put down game: I’ve gone days without playing and the movement muscle memory instantly returns to me without feeling like I need a couple practice runs in before I try it for “real.” This all sounds like basic game design and something that every developer should strive for, but Hades reminds you what makes the difference between an 8/10 and a 10/10 game when it comes to “feel.”
Roguelikes sink or swim in the gameplay department, but that distinction alone clearly didn’t satiate developer Supergiant Games. In every other department they took a victory lap and they aren’t afraid to show it: in their recent marketing materials for, what ended up being, a front page Reddit AMA, they flaunted that they recorded over 300,000 words of dialogue for the game and boasted that their soundtrack is two and a half hours long, among other things.
Numbers are cool and all, but man do they become impressive when you play Hades and quickly realize that not only is every voice-actor and piece of music completely dynamite, but that an overwhelming majority of that work sat on one person’s shoulders: Darren Korb, who both composed the music and voiced the main character. The attention to detail there, combined with a gorgeous and well-researched art direction, make for a complete experience that honestly feels deserving of something beyond its $25 price point. I guess what I’m really trying to say is that a good majority of indie roguelikes have no problem looking and sounding like sh*t while still finding great success. That’s not a complaint I have per say, but I think Hades clearly wanted to be a game — not just a one-off experience beyond the competition.
And that attention to detail means no player gets left behind. Supergiant Games originally released Hades in 2018 on Steam Early Access in order to ensure that their “hardcore” audience, typically associated with roguelike games, could provide finer-point feedback before the full release. This is evident when exploring the game’s Patch Notes Archive, a detailed history of every update that was made to Hades over the course of its time in Early Access, where Supergiant goes out of its way to specifically denote changes made to the game that were “inspired by community feedback”. Once they clearly addressed those needs, namely with thousands of rebalances, Hades then took the steps to ensure that “casual” players can experience everything the game has to offer as well.
Supergiant introduced “God Mode,” a toggle that can be activated at any time during play that buffs your stats and makes enemies easier to defeat. What makes this fantastic outside of other games who have attempted something similar is that even with God Mode enabled, every player still has access to 100 percent of the content and unlockables. For me, that cultivates trust in the game that it’s going to deliver even in its final hours; it makes me feel that Hades has one final ending that everyone, regardless of skill-level, deserves to experience.
Trust, especially in the modern era of video games, is the often overlooked ingredient in game development. Ignoring the micro-transaction multiplayer experience for a second, even big companies that develop expensive and expansive AAA single-player experiences tend to produce games that feel rushed to release date. These games feel unfinished, uncared for, and create unease in communities that invest hours upon hours into these titles. With Supergiant Games, who have an impressive track record of critically successful games like Pyre, Transistor, and Bastion, it feels like they know that they’re always one failed game away from losing their audience forever.
The result is a brilliantly polished video game that wants you to feel like hours sunk into it are hours well spent, in life and in death. Hades took the time to make something worth playing, whether you like roguelikes or not because they know that your time is worth something too.