In Greek mythology, the wicked king Tantalus was punished for eternity by being tied to a tree in Hades, with ripe fruits and cool water forever mere inches from his grasp. Supergiant Games's new dungeon-brawler Hades will similarly taunt you with wonders just out of reach — but you'll be having too much fun to care. It's available on Steam for Mac right now.
Zagreus, the rebellious son of Hades, is so over his dad's Underworld — and he wants out. As he fights his way through the ever-shifting corridors of the afterlife, he'll get sporadic aid from his distant relatives on Olympus, who've heard of his plight and are eager to help him reach the surface. Unfortunately for Zagreus, he'll also die. A lot.
Hades is a "roguelike" — a game where all the challenges and enemies you face are randomized, and each time your life bar drops to zero, you have to start all over from the beginning. This sounds interminable, but Hades makes it tons of fun.
Combat feels fast and fluid, with plenty of opportunities for both careful strategy and frantic button-mashing. (The game's seamless controller support helps considerably.) You can only pick one weapon for any given bid for freedom, and each changes how you play the game. Some require you to get up close and personal, others demand you keep your distance, and a few combine ranged and melee attacks in varying ways.
The varying power-ups and enemies you encounter on your journey also keep things lively. Before you enter each room, you'll see what prize you'll earn after defeating the foes within. When you're faced with multiple paths, juggling your priorities on the fly and trying to think ahead to what you'll need most — do I want more life, or an extra boon from the Gods? — becomes part of the fun.
As you slowly upgrade your powers and abilities, you'll start running into new enemies pursuing different strategies, just to make sure your journey never feels too easy. When a boss fight risks getting predictable, the game introduces a new character to fight or tactics to counter to stave off monotony. And if the game feels too hard, and you just want to see where the story's going, you can turn on God Mode and make things a lot easier. So far, I haven't been tempted (or frustrated enough) to do so.
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A tale worthy of legend
As fun and well-crafted as its gameplay is, Hades shines brightest by grafting a continuing and compelling narrative onto all that randomized, ever-repeating combat. Zagreus has a good reason for wanting to escape the Underworld — beyond not wanting to clean up his room — and discovering it merely kicks off the intriguing twists and turns that await you. I'm 12 hours into the game as I write this, and I still feel like I've barely scratched the surface as the game teases me with hints of vast discoveries yet to come. (I've seen similar reports from folks who've played for 100 hours.)
As you journey, you'll meet a sprawling cast of Greek gods, demons, and heroes, each gorgeously illustrated and wonderfully voiced. And in the best tradition of mythology, these larger-than-life figures prove only too human. You'll quickly realize that Hades isn't just the all-powerful Lord of the Dead; he's also a harried, overworked paper-pusher, embittered by the responsibilities dumped on him by his party-hearty relatives on Olympus, and understandably upset that his son won't give him even a little respect. And you'll find that many (but not all!) of the gods, for all their welcome assistance, can be oblivious, arrogant, and kind of insufferable.
Every time you die, you end up back in the House of Hades, forced to start again. But even this becomes its own reward because you'll have just as much fun talking to its denizens and advancing their storylines as you do slaying monsters and shades. I wasn't prepared for just how funny and downright sweet this game can be, from the dialogue and personalities of the characters you meet to Zagreus's habit of talking back to the game's gravel-voiced, overly serious narrator.
The game has clever mechanics to push you toward exploring as much as you can and trying new things. One of your weapons will give you extra loot on each go-round if you use it, encouraging you to switch things up. Giving characters any nectar of the gods you pick up on your travels initially earns you a charm from each that can help you on your quest — though, in yet another trade-off, you've got to pick one such boon and stick with it on each escape attempt. I'm not sure what happens if you keep on giving any single character more and more nectar, but the gauge of yet-to-be-filled hearts the game provides for each of them sure makes me want to find out.
You can even spend some of the loot you acquire on your ill-fated adventures to spruce up Hades's palace — or buy the fearsome, three-headed Cerberus a big cushy dog bed (you will absolutely, 100% do this. Cerberus is a Very Good Boy, and yes, you can give him scratches).
Everything old is new again … and again, and again
If I have any criticism for Hades, it's the game's similarity to Supergiant's first title, Bastion. From the isometric combat to the jangly guitar music to the nature and feel of the weapons, Hades — built on an upgraded version of Bastion's engine — often feels like a reskinned remix of that excellent game. But Hades definitely looks better, swapping Bastion's big-headed cutesy characters for gorgeous art that seems equally inspired by anime and comic books.
And unlike Bastion, whose linear story ultimately disappointed me, Hades really feels like my decisions, both in gameplay and in the story, change how things turn out. Characters remember my previous interactions with them and comment on my choices. Supergiant recorded more than 20,000 lines of dialogue for this game, totaling more than 300,000 words, and their efforts pay off handsomely.
This game feels miraculous: perfectly balanced, meticulously crafted, providing hours upon hours upon hours of fun for its $25 price tag. More often than not, the year 2020 has felt like a harrowing, life-threatening slog through the pits of Hell. Hades triumphs by turning that sort of ordeal into something you'll actually enjoy.