I’ve spent a lot of time playing Hades during the past two months, and I think it’s fair to say that I enjoy it. I’d like to write about brilliant its storytelling is, but first I have to explain the gameplay.
Hades is an isometric Rougelike action game, which means that the player watches from a bird’s eye view as the character runs around and kills things in randomly generated levels. Like most Rougelike games, the level of difficulty is fairly high, but the game’s optional “God Mode” allows the player-character to become incrementally more resistant to damage with each successive death. Because of the way God Mode eventually allows you to calibrate the game to your exact level of comfort, I would recommend (and have recommended) Hades to anyone who enjoys video games, even if they hate Rougelikes. Hades is a long game with a lot to discover; but, somewhat like Breath of the Wild, you have to commit to around three to four hours of learning how the game works before you get to the good stuff.
You play as Zagreus, the son of Hades, and your goal is to leave the underworld to find your mother, Persephone. You start the game in the House of Hades, where you can talk with various NPCs, buy upgrades, and choose the weapon and status-boosting “keepsake” you’ll use on your next run through the game. A complete run will take you through four levels, each of which are about ten stages long, and a final culminating boss fight. If you die, the River Styx carries you back to the House of Hades to try again from the beginning. You collect various resources during each run that you retain when you die, and you can use them to make your character stronger between runs.
It took me 24 attempts to make it to the end of a run and beat the final boss for the first time. After you finish your first complete run, it takes another 10 successful runs to be able to watch the end credits. The game is only really half-finished after you watch the end credits, however. In order to complete the story, you’re encouraged to work toward an epilogue. It took me a total of 87 runs through the game to trigger the epilogue.
When you first start playing Hades, a full run might take 40 to 50 minutes. Once you become more comfortable with the game’s weapons and start to learn enemy attack patterns, it takes about 20 to 25 minutes to do a full run. If you balance out the longer run times with all the times you die within the first 10 minutes, I’m going to say that an average run takes about half an hour.
What this means is that it will probably take most players about 20 hours to get to the end credits and perhaps around 45 hours to complete the game. In my case, at least, these were 45 hours well spent.
If playing the same four levels over and over and over sounds repetitive, it absolutely is. Hades is a game about trying and failing and gradually getting better. There’s a lot of failure, and a lot of trying new things to figure out what works. If you’ve ever played an action game, whether it’s Super Mario Bros or Super Meat Boy, you’re familiar with how this gameplay cycle operates. What sets Hades apart is just how fun and flashy its combat mechanics are. Hades has the same addictive gameplay everyone loved in Supergiant Games’s debut title Bastion, except now you’re given the opportunity to explore the full range of each level and weapon and ability instead of quickly moving on to the next thing.
Thankfully, the randomly generated Rougelike elements of Hades are programmed to be fair, and the player is never punished by simple bad luck. After playing through the game about two dozen times, you start to get a sense for how its stage creation algorithm works, and the level design and enemy placement no longer feels random at all. Nothing unexpected comes out of left field; and, once you get to a point where you stop dying, you probably won’t die anymore. I know that sounds tautological, but what I mean is that the difficulty curve is well-designed, even for someone such as myself who is embarrassingly bad at action games.
If the sheer enjoyability of the gameplay helps Hades shine, the cleverness of its storytelling raises the game to the level of brilliance.
Hades tells its story through a series of conversations that are spread out across multiple playthroughs. You won’t learn a character’s story by speaking with them once, or even a dozen (or two dozen) times. Because the character interactions are (somewhat) randomly triggered, you have to be patient.
You can earn the trust and affection of most of the game’s primary and secondary characters by giving them rare bottles of nectar and even more rare bottles of ambrosia, and most characters have a “heart meter” that shows the progress of your relationship. Even if you want to focus on developing a relationship with a certain character, however, you can’t guarantee that you’ll encounter them in any given playthrough. You also can’t guarantee that they’ll be willing to accept gifts from you – each character’s heart meter is “locked” at a certain point, and it can only be unlocked by meeting certain conditions, which usually involve having conversations with other characters. There’s been a lot of message board speculation about what the heart meter unlocking conditions are for each character, because they’re not straightforward. I want to emphasize that it’s not difficult to max out each character’s heart meter, necessarily; rather, it requires having the patience to allow each relationship to develop organically and understanding that each character has connections with other people, not just with the player-protagonist.
Hades thereby forces the player to take time between conversations, to develop an understanding of a wider network of social relationships, and to keep returning to each character with additional knowledge and perspective. This type of fragmented storytelling allows for a degree of complication and nuance that a more straightforward story might struggle with. It also encourages the player to develop empathy for characters and situations that are “problematic” – or, as they might be more accurately described, “interesting.”
If you’ve been considering whether you want to play Hades, I hope you’ll be convinced to give it a shot. The rest of this post is filled with spoilers, so you may want to stop reading here.
To summarize what follows: As amazing as the gameplay of Hades is, its storytelling is even better. It’s fun game about fighting with good writing about family, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Okay, spoilers below. . .
As Zagreus, the son of Hades, you begin the game with one objective – to escape the underworld. Your father doesn’t want you to leave, because he’s apparently an asshole, so he sends various monsters and shades of the dead to stop you. You, however, are a badass, and you do what you want. The gods of Olympus have somehow learned of your desire to join them on their mountain, and they send you various power-up “boons” to help you fight your way out of the underworld.
The story becomes more complicated as you play. You learn that, due to an esoteric decree of the Fates, Zagreus was born dead and can’t survive outside of the underworld. His mother Persephone was so traumatized by this that she left Hades, not understanding that Zagreus was still “alive” in his own way. Unfortunately for Persephone, she has nowhere to go, as she had secretly asked Zeus to set up an arranged marriage with Hades because she hated Olympus. Hades is worried that, if Zagreus meets Persephone, the Olympian gods will learn where she’s hiding and force her to return against her will. Your goal therefore becomes to help Persephone and Hades communicate with one another, and then to help Persephone communicate with her extended family.
After the end credits, Persephone returns to the underworld and is reunited with Hades, who has always loved her. During the epilogue, all of the Olympians are invited to a party in the underworld, and Persephone tells them (a version of) the truth. Most of the gods already knew what was going on, but they still appreciate the gesture. There are no hard feelings, and everyone behaves like an adult and has a wonderful time.
Despite the unabashedly happy ending, the point of the story is that everything is more complicated than it seems at first. Characters who seem strong and unyielding have weaknesses, characters who seem like antagonists have their own valid motivations, and characters who seem as if they only live to serve the interests of the player actually have interesting lives and stories of their own.
It’s one thing to read a few sentences stating that these complications exist, but it’s something else entirely to experience these complications for yourself through scattered conversations across 45 hours of gameplay. While running around and killing things, the player has time to process each conversation and reflect on it before the story progresses. Nothing is resolved quickly, so the player has to sit with each new complication while slowly developing a more well-rounded sense of perspective on each character. Some contradictions end up never being resolved – and, by the time you get to the end of the game, you realize that that’s okay.
In particular, the character Hades becomes much more interesting as you get uncover more of the story. Although he’s not supportive of Zagreus in a way that perhaps he should be, Hades is a constant presence in the midst of a shifting cast of characters who come and go as they please. He’s there for his son at the beginning of every run; and, as the final boss, he’s there at the end as well. He checks up on Zagreus at various waypoints and helps him out in small ways. Most players will eventually realize that Hades isn’t too terribly committed to playing the role of an antagonist, which begs the question of why he’s so opposed to Zagreus leaving the underworld in the first place.
This realization is not immediate, however. In the game’s only flashback scene, Hades is having a bad day and takes it out on Zagreus by being needlessly hypercritical. As an adult, I know exactly where Hades is coming from, but I also remember being a teenager and not understanding what was going on when teachers and managers were like this. Hades is tired and overworked and lonely and doing his best, but he doesn’t have the emotional energy to communicate effectively and transposes his frustration at his own behavior onto his son. I’m not trying to suggest that Hades’s behavior in this scene is healthy, of course, and you can understand why he and his son have such a tense relationship. Still, the way the game allows you to gradually develop a broader sense of perspective helps you understand that Hades isn’t just a “villain” or “abusive” or “a bad father.”
This sort of nuance in characterization is present in other types of relationships. Although Hades allows you to romance various characters, it’s not so much a dating sim as it is a “learning to communicate properly before you enter into an intimate relationship” sim.
One of the romanceable characters is Dusa, a disembodied Gorgon head with self-confidence issues. Zagreus can follow the standard gameplay path to romance her, but this romance ends up becoming a romantic friendship. Zagreus’ foster mother Nyx cautions Dusa against talking to him, but her reservations have less to do with class (ie, Dusa is a servant and Zagreus is a prince) than they have to do with Nyx’s concern that Dusa is only exacerbating her issues with self-confidence by engaging with someone whose position makes her nervous about her own role in the household. In other words, Nyx is attempting to encourage Dusa to grow as a person so that she can make a choice about the relationship that stems from her own feelings, not a sense of obligation. Dusa seems to start out as a joke character – she’s a cute anime maid, but also a disembodied monster head! – but her narrative arc is surprisingly touching.
The player watches all of these stories unfold while Zagreus is doing his own thing, fighting and collecting treasure and leveling up weapons and gathering resources to add cosmetic changes to the game’s central hub, most of which do nothing except look pretty and earn irate comments from the comically grumpy Hades. The brilliance of the game’s storytelling is that, while you’re living your life, you come to the realization that other people are living theirs, and they’ve got just as much going on as you do.
Hades is a super fun and stylish game about killing things, but it’s also an empathy game in a way that only a super fun and stylish game about killing things can be. The action-oriented gameplay is a buffer that allows the story to unfold at its own pace, which is slowly and erratically. You can’t make a walking simulator 45 hours long, but the Rougelike gameplay of Hades not only gives you those 45 hours but ensures that you enjoy every single one of them.