What makes a Supergiant game so unique? Many different players will have their own preferences, but the common factor between all of those answers is the insistence and focus of the studio to completely merge narrative and gameplay into one; no element exists without a narrative explanation, no narrative beat exists without serving the gameplay design or mechanic associated with it. Their latest, Hades, in this context is something of a magnum opus for the studio as it finally executes on this ethos in a natural, satisfying way, alongside some of the studio’s most memorable characters, worldbuilding, and best gameplay. It is, without question, their best offering so far (not their most unique or fan-favorite); it is rare for a game to ask players to complete it 9(!) times and have so many people actually do it, even one in a genre that is built on replayability and repeating the same levels over and over again, but that is how good Hades is.
I want to start with my answer for the opening question: A Supergiant game is instantly recognizable and holds a lot of appeal due to its “style”; whether it is the gorgeous visuals or the virtually perfect music of Daren Korb, Supergiant games are dripping with style, regardless of how different each title is. Hades is, not only a prime example of this fact, but also their best work yet in this department. The way the characters animate or how the scenery is packed full with details and color; Tartarus is this foreboding, green pit of hell that souls lament and loose hope in, while Asphodel is bright red from the lava and fire it keeps throwing at its burning inhabitants, before finally arriving at Elysium, the heroic arena of heroes. There are games with more areas and linear designs that have less of an understanding of how to design and build a place than any single one of those areas, and even after 50+ hours with the game, I never got sick of any one area, even though I could start to see the patterns of their design from 20 hours in. Finally, I was not prepared at how amazing the music for the game would be; each time, I get a Supergiant game (with the soundtrack included, because I know I’m going to love it), I always feel like Korb will not outdo himself and each time he makes my favorite soundtrack of the year. Hades is no exception and once again, I have my new favorite soundtrack! This time it’s more rock and with more high-pitched voices and melodramatic lyrics (due to the setting), but they work so well within the game and outside as well; especially the boss music tracks are exceptional and are some of the best work Korb has done ever.
Beyond the style, which I never questioned if it was going to be good but was pleasantly surprised by how excellent it ended up being, my main concern when I first saw Hades (back in 2019) was the sentence “early-access roguelite”; I have no problems with either of the two concepts, but that is not what I wanted from a Supergiant game so I waited for the full release to even see a single screenshot and to remove one of those concepts, thus I cannot speak about its time in early access or how it affected the development of the game, but I can comment on the roguelite part. Simply put, this is one of my favorite roguelites ever (with the emphasis on it being a lite and not a like); the progression systems are thoroughly entertaining, satisfying, and tangibly reward the player with each run, either by new narrative threads or progressing current ones, and the ability to unlock weapons and to upgrade them as well as your character. This is stuff that you’ve already seen no doubt, but what makes Hades unique is that I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to actually talk about the game in detail without discussing it as if gameplay and narrative are one and the same; just like Supergiant’s goal has been for many years now.
Hades takes place in Ancient Greece and stars Zagreus, son of Hades, prince of the underworld, who’s going through a rebellious phase where he and his father are having a hard time agreeing on anything, which is part of the reason he decided to leave home (otherwise known as the underworld), even though no one has ever managed to do that. Zagreus will be helped along the way by many mythological characters, who all want to help him for their own reasons, as well as some characters that want to stop him. These characters are well-written, exceptionally voiced, and have tremendous characterization work to them; these characters were pivotal to get right, not only from a narrative point of view, but also because they are your reward/progression throughout the game. Each time you die and return home, these characters will be in and around the house of Hades, ready to be interacted with and maybe give you some more snippets of information about who they are, why they are helping you; the story rising from these interactions is okay, but the characters themselves are utterly captivating. For example, Meg is one of the bosses you face and she has a friendly rivalry going on with Zagreus, however the game does not stop there; although, that is, more or less, all there is in their interactions. Through their characters, the game also explores this fascinating concept of endlessly battling each other to the death, but then inevitably returning to the same place, and what that would do to both these characters. Its these explorations, little details and tangents that give context to the world and its inhabitants, and it’s the stellar character work that is used to explore these themes through that make the characters themselves a reward worthwhile. That’s not to say that “traditional” rewards are not present, on the contrary, they feel much more meaningful in Hades, because they can be spaced out more deliberately and be much more meaningful; Zagreus is provided with ancient weapons that he discovers (and upgrades) over time, as well as Nyx’s mirror that allows him to spent darkness (a permanent currency) to permanently upgrade many aspects of himself. These upgrades are harder to get (especially in the mid game), but because the characters are so interesting and the upgrades so worthwhile, the game never gets stale even if you do get stuck on one level for a few tries (like I have).
Having said that, the reward systems would be meaningless if the game was not fun to play, but Hades is the most fluid and fast game made by Supergiant to date; the game has the “not-quite topdown” perspective from Bastion and Transistor, and features close-combat and ranged weapons that are all unique, useful, fun, and extremely versatile in interesting ways, which is why there are only 6 of them. For example, there are one-run upgrades that make your sword into a very aggressive weapon (it removes 60% of your health, but you regain 2 health points each time you attack), or a very tactical one (like your special activating twice, but no longer knocking back opponents), besides the meta-game upgrades and decisions that act as rewards. Sometimes Zagreus is a bit janky and the visual detail can overwhelm at points, but the feeling of weapons and upgrades are extremely satisfying, the tactical considerations are interesting, and the power that gods give you alter the game to a great and exciting effect. Personally, I still feel like Transistor is my favorite game to play from Supergiant, but Hades is still one of the best rogue-lites of the year and after 50 hours I’ve not bored of it yet, so gameplay is still excellent.
As far as things I don’t like there aren’t too many things I can complain about; as I mentioned Zagreus does get a bit janky and the game does get a bit overwhelming visually at points, but my most effecting complain is enemy progression. Enemy design is top-notch and before the last two levels, I thought the difficulty progression was on point, but then the last two levels are such a difficulty spike that I would guess most people would simply give up there. However, there is a GOD mode in the settings to help players struggling – although it is never referenced and in a game where everything is contextualized, this mode is not, so it feels a bit like cheating – and I want to give props to Supergiant, because you don’t see the same type of enemy twice, meaning no two types of enemies (in any level) serve the same function with the same execution, but slightly different visuals, so that is a lot more interesting and part of the reason I persevered through, but it did feel like I needed the upgrades, rather than I wanted them for the last two levels. Beyond that, my final criticisms are story related so I’ll be as vague as possible; there are certain events in each level that I would love to guarantee (now that I’m done with the main ending) as I’m just filling the gaps now and it feels a bit silly to have to keep doing the same runs without at least getting those, especially when there is a narrative excuse for allowing that to happen. Furthermore, while the ending is actually beautifully subdued in terms of the narrative, I don’t like how anticlimactic it is from a gameplay side and I can’t think of a solution to that, but I wish they had one figured out (I’m talking about the main ending).
But that is the standard that Supergiant have set for themselves throughout the years and it is a standard that each time they blow away and Hades is no different; even though I spent hundreds of words trying to convey how awesome this game is, I don’t think I can. Just like every other Supergiant game, their work is art in motion, perfection in sound and music, satisfying and tactical gameplay that should become inseparable from its clever and emotional narrative; although they came really close many times, it was always possible and (at times) preferable to treat the two main components of games (story and gameplay) as different, but with Hades they have finally done it. This isn’t just a fantastic game or an interesting take on mythology; it is, inseparably both.