Hades (Switch) Review
Hades is an incredibly well-designed roguelite. Supergiant Games, who previously made Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre, has turned its eye towards the try-and-die-again genre masterfully, this time setting itself in the classical Greek Underworld. The game takes the formula established by other recent hits, like Dead Cells and Below, but with a mythological twist which fits perfectly.
For those unfamiliar with roguelites, the genre is known for its live-die-repeat structure that pushes the player through procedurally-generated dungeons. Unlike its predecessor–roguelikes–roguelites don’t normally incorporate permadeath, and instead usually provide some sort of character progression systems to motivate the player with rewards despite constantly being knocked back.
All of this is true in Hades. But what sets it apart from those other games in the genre, is how well its mechanics are tied to the narrative.
You play as Zagreus, son of Hades, who wants nothing more than to escape the underworld and join his extended family on Olympus. His father loathes the idea, and unleashes literal hell against Zagreus in an ever-changing labyrinth. But luckily for him, the young god is supported by his uncles and cousins with boons (power ups) in each run (escape attempt). These boons are given by a variety of gods, including Zeus, Poseidon, Ares, Athena, Aphrodite, and more.
For those familiar with the mythology, every run starts Zagreus in Tartarus, then moving on through Asphodel, Elysium, and beyond. Each region of hell is guarded by a boss, which are always challenging no matter what level of skill or progression the player is at. Upon death, Zagreus returns to the House of Hades, where the player can spend the various currencies–like chthonic keys, gemstones, darkness, nectar, etc–for upgrades and extra elements for world-building, such as aesthetic improvements around the House or character buffs.
The moment-to-moment gameplay is pretty straightforward at the beginning of each run. Before setting off, Zagreus can equip himself with a specialised weapon: sword, spear, shield, etc. Each has its own characteristics and utilises boons in different ways, adding incredible depth to the combat mechanics. Generally, despite which weapon you choose for a run, there’s usually an option for both close and ranged attacks, and even those can be modified further with the right mix of boons.
Each god provides their own sets of randomised boons, and the given god can be recognised by its own emblem–eg. a purple glass of wine for Dionysus, or a blue trident for Poseidon. These can then be upgraded with a Pom of Power to increase stats. On the other hand, you can also purchase temporary buffs from Charon’s stores/wells with obol, which is currency that can only be earned and used during a run which resets at death.
At first I found the wide variety of currencies, systems, and combat mechanics to be overwhelming, but a few runs in it finally clicked with me and I was able to start recognising which boons belong to which gods. And speaking of gods, the game’s character designs are unique and exaggerated in the best way. Interactions with every character feels personal, and remarkably there is a staggering amount of dialogue the game pulls from; after 15+ hours I haven’t experienced any repeated conversations. And for the dog-lovers, you can pat Cerberus.
In fact, Hades consistently keeps the experience fresh with such an abundance of customisation via boons and upgrades, as well as the constant development and conversations with NPCs. For example, the first dozen or so runs at Tartarus ends with a boss fight with the Fury Megaera, until eventually she’s replaced occasionally by her sister Tisiphone. Before each fight a quick conversation develops everyone’s relationships, which can then be further explored between runs in the House. And this is the same for most other characters, though some can only be visited either in the House of Hades or while in a designated stage during a run. To keep track of everything, a codex provides further information on practically every aspect of the game, such as characters, boons, and enemies.
Music and visual design of the game are all top-tier, as is expected of Supergiants’ efforts by this point. The art is intricately hand-drawn to great effect and all the characters and environments pop. However the Switch version does seem to struggle at times when fights get especially hectic, such as trove challenges that require the player to take out waves of enemies within a time limit, or during the latter stages of a boss battle. The framerate dips are only momentary, but a lot of Hades’ combat relies on twitchy reflexes, which can be annoying. Also, like most Switch ports, the game’s text in handheld mode is almost unreadable.
These two knocks don’t drastically affect the overall experience, but they’re enough to draw a comparison to how well the game performs on other platforms (particularly PC). And speaking of other platforms, the developers have promised cross-saves to be implemented in a future update (an option is currently grey-out in the home menu).
What I love about Hades most, apart from the great world building, is how the game never feels like it’s wasting your time. Whether it’s only getting through a few dungeons, or a few levels, you’re always collecting something that can then be put towards upgrading Zagreus in some way to make the next run just that much more bearable. And while there definitely is an element of luck embedded in what boons you come by, the way buffs and upgrades interact with each other, plus always collecting currencies, means no run is ever a futile effort.
Hades is a triumphant take on roguelites and without a doubt a top-shelf example in the genre. The game is always unfolding and you always feel like you’re progressing, even if you get smacked down a short way in. It’s aesthetically beautiful and challenging enough to spur you onward without feeling impossible. I can’t recommend this enough to anyone looking for a new single-player dungeon crawler.
+ Every system compliments each other.
+ Incredibly deep: narratively, mechanically, aesthetically.
+ You’re always progressing, even if you die early.
- Some slow-down when fights get crazy.
- Text is too small in handheld mode.