All round 2020 was a good year for gaming, however during the traditional "Game of the Year" phase of publications it turned into a close battle between "The Last of Us Part 2" and "Hades", with Hades posibly edging it. It had been on my radar since September when it released, as it ticked pretty much every box for me;
- On Switch
- Short-ish run times
- (Apparently) very well polished and slick
I held off until December on purchasing...partly as I was still rattling out the hours on "Slay the Spire", and partly as I felt I couldn't justify £25+ on just a rogue-like dungeon-crawler. In that regard I stand corrected, I bought it at a 33% discount, but I would have still gotten my monies worth at full price.
I have now "finished" the game. I've battled my way out of the House of Hades 10 times, slayed Hades himself at the gateway of the Temple of Styx 9 times (the last time he just sighs and lets you pass), and I have this terrible feeling I've learnt an awful lot of Greek mythology. I've actually attempted to break out just under 100 times, and sunk about 45 hours into the game over those runs. As a solo dungeon-crawler it's superb...more of a "Slash and Dash" than a "Hack and Slash", the gameplay is fast. A full run covers about 60-70 chambers as you move up from Tartarus, Asphodel and the Elysium Fields, before entering the Temple of Styx through the back-foor and bribing your way past Cerberus...the 3-headed hound and also house-pet of the House of Hades. You play as Zagreus, who has been interpreted as a child of Hades, somewhat delinquent, but a decent chap (calls everyone "Mate", and would just like everyone to get along), trying to find his estraged mother Persephone. Each run begins (typically) with you pulling yourself out of the River Styx (where you go when you die), talking to various characters around the house...possibly including someone who just killed you (Hades himself, or one of the 3 Furies who are charged with the security of Tartarus), selling and buying goods and upgrades from various characters and objects, then picking from one of "Legendary Weapons" which significantly affect playstyle (classics such as a Sword, Shield, Spear, Bow and Fists, and a....Railgun?), before running out into Tartarus and beginning your escape.
The main game takes the form of a series of chambers, in a quasi-random order. You'll get a choice of 1-3 chambers each time, and you'll normally see the reward for completing it, but not the contents. Rewards take the form of Extra Life, Persistent Experience (Darkness), Persistent Money (Gems, used for unlocking and upgrading some items in the House of Hades), run-specific money (Coin for Charon), a shop (when he's not shipping the dead down the Styx, Charon runs a side-business selling items to denizens of the underworld), Weapon Upgrades or Godly Boons (and boon upgrades)
The last 2 deserve capital letters as these form the core of the power-up's you get during a run. Weapon Upgrades (left behind by Daedalus can fundamentally change how your weapon operates, or boost one specific attack type (each weapon has a "normal" attack, a "special" attack, and a "dash" attack), and can strongly influence how you play.
Godly Boons are favours from the Greek pantheon, and will either grant a specific power to a specific action (for example a bonus to Normal Attack, Special Attack, Dash, Cast (a limited type of ranged attack) or a "Summon" type power that is charged up by taking or receiving damage), or a separate bonus (for example damage reduction, or "Revenge" damage when you are struck...fast movement, larger areas-of affect etc etc). You're offered a choice of 3, and the key to a good run is getting good combos going between these. I've often found I'll get a great combo for clearing normal chambers, and then come completely un-stuck when I meet a boss...
...which leads us to what is in the various chambers you have to clear. Most contain a few waves of "wretches"...souls charged by Hades with guarding the Underworld. The very cunning thing about trying to escape is that the weakest/lowest souls were cast into the lowest pits of the Underworld, while the legendary heroes roam the fields of Elysium, so there is a completely legit reason for enemies to get harder as you ascend. A few chambers (typically one about halfway through a region, and always the last one) will contain a Boss or Mini-Boss. Guarding the exit of Tartarus is the 3 Furies, while Asphodel is guarded by a Bone Hyda, while the Elysium Fields have Theseus (who is a dick), and Asterius (who is less of a dick). Some chambers have a special encounter ( Sisyphus, Eurydice or Patroclus ). These 3 give bonuses out, while also having a longer story arc that can be completed (pardoing Sisyphus, getting Orpheus (who is the court musician in the House of Hades) and Eurydice back together, and re-uniting Achilles (who is also in the House of Hades) and Patroclus. Sometimes Charon has set up shop, occasionally you get a "pass", where a health fountain is produced (this is something you can unlock, but happens quite rarely).
So there is a lot of game....there are hundreds of upgrades (I think there are about 12 Pantheon Gods, each with ~20 possible boons, plus the weapon upgrades and purchases), and the entire flow of the game is really tight. One thing that really amazed me was the huge amount of dialogue. Every character is voiced, and even ~50 hours in I'm not sure I have heard a repeat in conversation....and Zagreus talks a lot. Apprently there are over 21,000 lines of voiced dialogue in the game. This, in combination with the well-developed upgrade system, give the game the magic ingredient for a rogue-like/procedurally-generated game...replayability. While I've finished the core story loop, I still haven't got Achilles and Patroclus back together, or sorted out Nyx and Chaos. There is a list of Prophecies sitting in my bedchamber that have juicy completion rewards, so definitely going to complete them. Also of final note on the voice-acting is that of Eurydice and Orpheus...both musical characters, they recorded a couple of specific songs for the game, including a rock ballad "In the Blood" for the finish of the game...it's really quite stunning stuff (and I can imagine Orpheus hacking away on his harp). The audio generally for the game is spot on.
The combat is really good and smooth...complex enough that there is a real skill involved, but not so complex that you can't adapt to each run as the boons and upgrades fall into place. The clean visual style allows you to quickly identify the enemies, and you learn the attack patterns as well. As with most rogue-likes regaining life is rare, so avoiding damage is a key skill (and probably provides the hardest bit of the learning curve, though once you're dialled in you're flying round the screen, dispatching enemies and dodging attacks. It's very rare when you feel that you've been hard-done by...and I've had runs where I didn't really like any of the boons or upgrades I was offered, yet still managed to string together an acceptable run.
It's a game I'd definitely recommend for the Switch...a run can be completed in 25-35 minutes (or failed in less!), and it nails the pick-up-and-play style for the console. Having played it on Switch, I'm not sure it would feel the same on a PC...it's definitely a game for a controller, and I think I'd find boot/load times frustrating when there is such an immediacy to it. I'll be interested to see how it's longevity compares to "Slay the Spire"...Hades is quite rare for a procedurally-generated game in that it leans into the story-telling quite strongly (typically a weakness of rogue-likes, due to their random nature), and while that story is huge, it must run out at some point, at which point it's down to the game mechanics to support it...they are good, with plenty of decisions and divergence, though perhaps not quite as much as StS, where by the end of a run you are 99% the decisions you made along the way.