I am not a huge fan of roguelikes. As time has gone on it has become more and more apparent to me that, sure, if I’m playing with my friends mechanics are important to me, but if I’m playing alone I place much greater emphasis on story, world-building and character. By their very nature roguelikes can’t have much of a narrative beyond a relatively simplistic one which repeats every single time you start a new run.
My other issue with roguelikes is the lack of “persistence” or continuity. Every run is a brand new effort, an attempt to get as far as possible starting from scratch. This central aspect just frustrates me, because it means that in order to really reach the “end-game” (such as there can be an end-game) the only real option you have is to keep playing until you git gud. This isn’t inherently bad on its own, challenge is important in video games (just look at the popularity of Dark Souls), but for my part I tend to start losing patience before I ever actually succeed in gitting gud, because it inevitably feels like I’m just doing the same thing over and over with absolutely zero change. So, I never reach end-game and because I get frustrated/bored repeating the same things over and over I don’t have the inclination to keep trying to. A vicious cycle.
Even amongst the few roguelikes I’ve really enjoyed, such as FTL, I never really succeed in getting to grips with every nuance of the game because eventually I simply get bored of the repetition (or get salty because “I had such a good run that time and STILL didn’t win”).
On top of this, in my (admittedly limited) experience with roguelikes that make en effort to change this formula, they still tend to fall just shy of the mark for catching my interest. Rogue Legacy is one example with a mechanic of continuing the game by playing as the children of your previous character. You also use money from your runs to expand your manor, making subsequent runs a little easier, both contributing to that element of “persistence”. However, for my part, the hereditary aspect always seemed more like a gimmick and once you got past that, enjoyment of the game still mostly relied on whether you enjoyed the core gameplay loop.
I say all of this to make it clear that when I say that Hades, by Supergiant Games, is the first roguelite I’ve played to really grab my interest, that’s kind of a big deal.
In Hades you play as Zagreus, son of the titular Ancient Greek deity, on a quest to escape from the underworld (is it also called “Hades”?). Every time you start a run you have to fight your way up through randomly generated parts of the Greek underworld, battling the dead and a few bosses, all in an effort to reach the surface. And you do this over and over until you win. So-far-so-roguelike.
Where the game really grabs me though is in the way it ties every run together. As the son of Hades, Zagreus is essentially immortal and so death for him isn’t really as permanent as it is for you or me. Thus, when he dies, he simply respawns back at his father’s house. He then gets to walk through the house, speaking to its denizens and advancing their sub-plots and relationships before once again launching himself into fighting out again.
Just on its own, it’s a super interesting mechanic because it means that dying and failing actually becomes integral to progression of the story. You get to wander around speaking to your trainer Achilles and then also exchange quips with the first boss in the lounge. Even the final boss, Hades himself, is sitting there grumping away at you for making such a bloody mess of his lovely, tidy underworld, over and over. They all will respond to your attempts at escaping, and gradually, through repeatedly failures or successes upon returning to the house you expand your relationships with them. This means that even a failed run doesn’t seem like a waste, because now you get to speak to all the characters again! As an added bonus, you never repeat interactions because of how many contextual options seem to be available (for which there seems to be an absolutely gobsmacking amount) meaning that every conversation can be enjoyable, no matter how brief.
On top of this, the persistence of characters and relationships means that there can be honest-to-goodness story progression. Every time you come back you learn a little more about why Zagreus is trying to escape, why Hades is such a misery-guts and seems disappointed by everything you do. Instead of having to “start fresh” each time, you are actually excited to see your friends again and vice-versa. You even get to pet Cerberus!
The enjoyment of this is hugely amplified by the voice-acting, which might just be some of the best out there. Supergiant apparently has a reputation for making games with absolutely lovely voice acting, and Hades knocks it out the park. The voice actor for Zagreus in-particular (Darren Korb) has such a wonderful, buttery voice… Could listen to him talk for hours…
Overall, this solidly removes my primary gripe with roguelites in that there is a central narrative. In fact, due to the nature of the progression of the narrative being so intertwined with the death in attempting to escape, it’s true to say that making repeated attempts in vain is actually a core part of this narrative.
The other benefit of this persistence of character is that it allows Zagreus to grow as well. Both as a character, for my story desires, but also in strength. You can upgrade your stats between runs, meaning that each time you take a run-up to get out, your boots are going to be that little bit faster. This neatly takes care of my secondary gripe with roguelites in that even if the combat were to bore me, it gradually will get easier and easier, meaning you can focus a little more on enjoying the story.
There’s also even an optional easymode which supposedly simplifies this even further by permanently buffing your defense after each run. So, while a core theme of the plot is repeatedly trying in vain, there is an inevitability that you will eventually succeed. Which is good for when you want your story to have an actual end.
And this is not to say the combat of Hades is bad. Quite the opposite in fact. You have a choice of six different weapons and every run you get access to a wide range of power-ups in the form of “boons” from the Olympian gods. The boons are random from run to run, with each different God giving you different buffs and abilities to alter your fighting style.
The weapons themselves feel very stylistically different but each one also feels great to use, with the blows landing satisfyingly with very lovely effects. So, not only is there an excellent look and feel to the combat, but there’s enough possible variation to keep it mostly fresh and interesting.
Plus, you even then get to further alter the weapons later on in the game to subtly change how each works, further increasing the control over your own play-style. My personal favourite very quickly became the Fists of Malphon because I just loved how aggressive they allowed me to play. Meanwhile the Spear clearly just sucks ass and should be avoided at all costs (but it’s also funny how literally everyone has a different opinion here)…
Admittedly this same variation also is possibly one of the main issues I had with the gameplay. After succeeding in escaping a few times it didn’t exactly feel like I was gitting gud and learning how to win, so much as I was getting lucky with my power-ups and was stumbling into a build which allowed me to breeze my way through.
I had situations where I would grind my way through one or two runs, getting to the last boss at the very least, albeit not comfortably, before getting swatted down ignobly at that final hurdle. Then, all of a sudden, I get juuuuust the right set of abilities and I smash my way out without breaking a sweat. Obviously, this was then followed immediately by a run where I got killed barely half way through the underworld… There’s no consistency here and it looked to me more like I was just being gifted the right abilities by the RNG gods.
On the subject of looks as well, it has to be said that it’s not just the combat of Hades that looks great. Just about every aspect of it has an absolutely wonderful aesthetic. The character art, the backgrounds, the magic effects, everything is colourful and vibrant and quite simply pleasing to behold. Turns out that it’s actually perfectly possible to make an underworld which looks interesting and exciting, and not drab or overly grim and ugly, whilst still maintaining that whole “place of the dead” vibe.
The design of the game is also infused with this amazing sense of humour which pervades every aspect. The dialogue with other denizens, but also then Zagreus interacting with the environment and even breaking the fourth wall to interact with the narrator. For all that the game touches on some slightly more serious themes and is obviously set in a grim and dismal place, it never forgets that you are there because you want to have fun.
It’s not even just the aesthetic which is top tier, but all the way down to the music. Generally you’re listening to heavy metal tunes which are genuinely absolute bangers, but there are even a few more melancholy pieces. Meeting Eurydice for example, her song actually caught my attention enough that I sat still in a fast-paced, action roguelite for long enough for her to finish it all the way through. Madness.
The writing itself is fantabulous in general, and I’ve already mentioned how I was practically more excited to die and get back to interact with my friends rather than my next attempt to escape. And here comes my biggest criticism which also happens to be something of a minor spoiler, so hold on to your hats…
Essentially, after beating Hades the first time it becomes apparent that you need to keep doing this in order to actually reach the “end” of the game. That’s the spoiler… I know, you might not be all that shocked by this… For me though, this was a bit of a buzzkill.
From this point on it feels like the momentum of the story drops massively. Largely because you will either be escaping or aaaalmost escaping in just about each run now, and that makes your playtime between “story” interactions that much longer. Also, as you keep succeeding there’s no real clue as to how much progress you’re actually making and that steadily began to erode at my patience for sticking with it. This is why I feel absolutely no regrets in having looked up how many times you need to escape in order to reach the end of the main story. It feels worth saying that if you’ve escaped once, it’s definitely achievable.
So I stuck with it, but I can understand that many wouldn’t. I don’t think it’s particularly surprising that the Steam achievement to kill Hades the first time has an ~40% completion rate, but then the achievement for completing the main story has only a 20% rate. I suspect people might beat it once or twice, but with no indication of the end being in sight, they give up.
Which is somewhat actually the point and a central theme of the game, but that doesn’t make it good! To paraphrase a wise man, just because it was designed to do a specific thing, doesn’t mean that specific thing is worth doing.
I will say though, beating the primary story of the game was a properly wonderful experience. The ending is super satisfying and feels extraordinarily well-earned (which it bloody well was). It rounds out the central dilemma of the game in what feels like a pretty perfect way. Admittedly it also means that the devs had to come up with a moderately contrived reason for Zagreus to continue to keep on escaping afterwards, but that’s just a nitpick.
The other issue here of course is that in order to progress your relationships with all the side characters you are also expected to grind runs, which means that even from the perspective of trying to complete the stories (beyond just the main one) you will be sitting there grinding out victory after victory for a significant amount of time. I think, again, it says a lot that after 40 hours to reach the end of the central narrative I more or less immediately went 3 weeks without touching the game because I no longer wanted to commit that much time to beating the same thing over and over. And this is in spite of being genuinely invested in the lives of all my friends in the underworld.
For me, the grind gives the game a pretty hefty rating drop. The first 25 hours were some of the best in gaming, but after that when it felt like I was just being pushed into repetitive labour (where efforts seemed in vain half the time due to arbitrary nonsense) my patience with the game wore pretty damn thin. And really it’s only then whether you enjoy the combat enough to decide whether you stick with it. For my part here, I’m still working on it, playing a few runs here or there because I am genuinely curious about the pay-off, but the amount you need to do to complete all these side stories does continue to seem fairly insurmountable.
It made the inclusion of Sisyphus as a character in the game feel actually rather apt because I too was constantly rolling a boulder up a hill.