"Oh boy, another procedurally generated roguelike,” I thought when I booted up my Nintendo Switch to play “Hades,” the latest game with randomized dungeons where every death is rewarded with incremental progress in a world of games with randomized dungeons where every death is rewarded with incremental progress.
Some of these games are two-dimensional side-scrollers while others are fully three-dimensional, some are shooters, most are melee-based and some are card games, but the standard formula is the same: Fight, get better, die and lose most but not all of your progress, make some permanent upgrades and repeat.
But just moments into “Hades,” it became clear just why this entry stands out in an increasingly crowded and increasingly competitive genre. Where other games have pulled together the pieces of gameplay, finding interesting blends of combat, enemies and maps, they’ve largely fallen flat when it comes to the story and the why of what you’re doing.
“Hades” has story and character to spare, and it does an impressively effective job at pulling together every element of the game into a fantastically polished game that is one of the most engrossing games I’ve played this year.
In “Hades,” you play as Zagreus, the immortal son of the Greek god of the Underworld, Hades. And like most immortal sons in the shadow of their father, Zagreus wants to set out on his own and escape the Underworld. To do that, he’ll need to battle his way up through the different layers of the Underworld, facing tougher and tougher enemies along the way.
The Underworld is also a hilariously bureaucratic machine. Hades is the belabored boss whose throne sits behind a desk littered with paperwork. He’s consumed not with inflicting enteral torment on the denizens of the Underworld as much as he’s consumed with the upkeep and needed renovations while his angsty son runs wild through the place.
Along the way, you’ll be greeted by the Titans and Olympians — Zeus, Athena, Ares, Poseidon, Artemis and Hermes to name a few — who’ll bestow boons that will increase your combat abilities for that run. These will stack and combo with each other and your weapon (of which there’s a ton of variety), giving you that pull-of-the-lever feeling where each different run has its potential to be a great run.
The game is tough, and you don’t get much healing along the way, so each run ends up being a race against the health bar.
If Zagreus dies — and he’ll die a lot — he’ll be climbing out of the resurrection pit in Hades’ palace—giving a witty quip about the enemy that just slayed him — and catching up with the characters hanging around the palace, advancing the storylines with each character.
What is so special about “Hades” is that every character has these beautifully expressive portraits that when matched with excellent voice acting conveys a complexity that I haven’t seen in many games. Each death gives you a new opportunity to progress each characters’ storyline and invest in permanent upgrades that make each run a little easier.
The story and characterization serve the game well, giving clear contextualization for things that were just abstract in other games. You’re upgrading the Underworld because it’s in disrepair, you’re forming relationships with the impressive cast of voiced characters in hopes of gaining bonuses and knowledge that will help you on your next climb and you’re trying to improve your own skills because that’s what the hero does.
The gameplay and combat is some of the finest you’ll find in this genre and the upgrade system is one of the most intriguing, but it’s ultimately the story and character of “Hades” that pulls it together into a fantastic and engrossing package — set against the familiar world of Greek mythology — that has had me coming back for more and more.
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
If You Play
Rating: 5 Stars
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed)
Release Date: Sept. 17, 2020