Death is not an obstacle in Hades. When I was starting out, death certainly felt like failure. I’d miss a dodge or get caught by an errant backswing and the rebellious son Zagreus would collapse to the ground, only to rise back up again, greeted by another unspoken “I told you so” glance from his father.
I’ve had ships explode in FTL, clipped a spike in Spelunky, and lost on rough draws in Slay the Spire. The draw is the repetition; with every run I’m getting smarter, adapting better to challenges as they appear, even learning to improvise when I can’t craft the ideal build. Roguelites have a great deal of mechanical appeal. Hades stands apart by not just mastering this, but seamlessly grafting on a narrative that feels organic.
The loop of a roguelite is absolutely crucial to nail; I know from experience, as it’s felt like half the games I’ve played over the last couple years have been roguelites. Getting me to utter the phrase “one more run” is when I know I’m all in.
Hades flows from Game Over to New Run effortlessly, as it makes death a natural part of its world, even part of its progression. Every time Zagreus collapses, he returns to the House of Hades. Before running back out the door, you can buy more permanent upgrades, talk to your friends, and even give them presents. Then it’s back to the arsenal to pick a weapon and head out once more.
It might be the place Zagreus is trying to escape from, but the House of Hades is home. It’s where his closest companions work and live. It’s where he lays his head down to rest, and where he can go to receive sage wisdom from Achilles and Nyx. It’s where his dog is, and home is always where your dog is.
That’s really the key to Hades: you keep coming home. Rather than a roguelite about eventually overcoming some obstacle and beating an opponent, the goal is always to go home. Death is inevitable, so why not make it part of the loop? Why not make it the goal of the loop? It becomes so much more freeing when you realize that no matter what you do in Hades, no matter how successful your run is, you are always moving forward.
It helps that you’re dealing with literal gods. With permanent death out of the equation, the characters have more room to breathe, standing as obstacles while still acting as compelling markers of narrative progress. Meg, one of the Furies who is tasked with being Zagreus’ first major obstacle preventing his escape to the surface, is also one of Hades’ most in-depth characters. She’s a friend, former companion, and potential romantic partner for Zagreus, but she has a rich internal life all her own, as her friendships with Thanatos and Dusa—and her rivalry with her sisters—can attest.
You fight Meg many, many times. Sometimes she kills you, likely pretty often to start, but that ratio will shift as you learn her patterns and get better at the game, knowing which boons to take from your Olympian benefactors and how to best dish out damage with your arsenal of arms. Then, after you’ve both gone and died, you can catch up with her in the lounge, having a drink before you both go back to work killing each other. You end up having a bit of a Sam and Ralph relationship with the House of Hades.
Through every escape attempt, Zagreus gets stronger, and you learn by extension. In my first few runs, I was getting hit by mortars and accidentally dodging into attacks. Now I have innate muscle memory. I’m not panicked, trying to think whether I should bash with my shield or throw it; I’m zooming around the room, hurling my shield like a pinball and slamming enemies like Captain America. The combat feels good to master, and even once you’ve got it “solved,” Hades can find new ways to not just challenge you, but encourage you to break patterns and establish new ones.
Even on my way out, I’m constantly greeted by characters and dialogue. A Zeus boon drops, and before selecting which power I’d like Zagreus’ uncle to bestow upon his bow, I listen to Zeus vent his frustrations with Hades. Maybe Hermes has some new gossip, or Athena might comment on the present help I’m receiving from other gods. When I choose one over another, they bicker and feud, leaving Zagreus in the crossfire. It’s a perfect representation of the vain, petty nature of the Greek pantheon while also serving as another narrative hook to pull me along.
Then, when I collapse, I’m back home. The loops carry on, only the upgrades I’m buying aren’t necessarily building towards an escape. Zagreus will never escape. The Underworld is his lot in life, and whether by force of nature or the nature of a roguelite, he will always return to the blood pool.
So he copes. He takes a house in disrepair and shows it love, ignites its warmth, and tends to its dwellers. Yes, you’re going to have to fight and kill Meg, but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk to her about Zagreus’ fraught relationship with his father. Zagreus’s motivations become clear over the course of each successful and unsuccessful escape attempt. Every run brings you closer, and as one goal is met, more are put ahead of you.
The goal of Hades is not to leave, however—it’s to build something that can stand, to repair what’s been lost, and to leave a home for those Zagreus obviously cares about. It took very little time for escaping to stop being my primary motivator. How could I leave the Underworld without mending the rift between Orpheus and Eurydice, or without helping the sad Stranger in Elysium find what he’s been looking for?
These incredibly flawed, yet incredibly endearing beautiful disasters of legend and myth become Zagreus’ family. The more you play, the more eager you are to see what they’ll say next. What did they think of your most recent attempt? Does Hypnos have a funny quip about you dying by dashing into a pool of lava? Or will Zagreus’ father acknowledge his son’s combat prowess? (Even just a nice compliment about the drapes Zag picked out would be welcome, sheesh.)
Hades takes all that makes Supergiant Games tick, and all the trappings of a heavily stacked genre, and combines them into something that feels like a smooth jaunt through the depths of hell itself. It is the best kind of journey; one filled with smiling faces, brutal combat, and both art and music to die for (and die again, and die some more for). It’s a new standard for Greek myth and roguelites to match up to, a home we can’t wait to run away from, and it’s USgamer’s Game of the Year for 2020.