What do you do when you’re a monogamous Xbox fan, but a game from your favourite developer takes an age to reach the Xbox? As problems go, it’s not exactly climate change or world poverty, but it’s been difficult, okay?
I am – full disclosure here – a Supergiant fanboy. I was smitten with Bastion, Transistor and Pyre, and then Hades landed. The world loved it, it was showered with accolades, but word of an Xbox version was quiet. I felt the tug to play it on PC or Switch, but made the decision to wait. It would inevitably land on Xbox, like the other Supergiant games, right? And playing it would be all the sweeter for being patient.
Quiet. Time passed, and still nothing.
Finally, there was the E3 2021 Xbox & Bethesda Games showcase. We got the double-header that it would be launching on Xbox (woo!) on day one for Game Pass (yeehah!). Since then, I’ve been making a gilded throne for Hades at the front of my gaming backlog. As soon as it dropped, nothing was going to stop me from dedicating a two-week fraction of my life to it.
That’s a lot of personal hype to meet. But the wonderful, unexpected thing is that Hades nails it. It nails it in ways that I both did and didn’t expect.
I certainly expected it to be a slick AF fighter. From Bastion through to Pyre, Supergiant have been perfecting their moment-to-moment combat. In Hades, it feels like the end of that journey. Zagreus, your character in Hades, is a nippy bugger, and can zip across the game screen with responsive dashes. While there are no Soulcalibur-like combos to pull off, the depth in the combat comes from situational play. There is a more powerful attack called a Cast, using the B button, but it’s on an inventive cooldown (the attack sockets a gem in the creature you hit with it, which you have to kill to retrieve), so do you lead with that attack or save it for a killing blow? A crowd control Y ‘Special’ attack is on a time-based cooldown, so do you use it now or save it for when you’re overwhelmed? So many of these micro-questions pop up as you play Hades, and it’s a simple kind of depth.
What I didn’t expect was how different the combat would feel, raid on raid. First of all, you get to choose the weapon you take in, which isn’t dissimilar from any class-based dungeon crawler. But then you’re handed a gift from a god, and you choose from three buffs within it. Not only are the three buffs wildly different, but there are rarities of buff, so some rare ones are often overpowered. Not only that, but the associated god has a different flavour: Aphrodite applies weaknesses with attacks, while Hermes likes to speed you up. Not only THAT, but these buffs stack and upgrade, with different god flavours mixing with others.
If you’re Hades-ing correctly, you’re creating synergistic builds that completely change how you play. One run had us doubling down on our dash. Every time we rushed away from an attack, we were leaving behind blades, singularities and poison-like effects, making us extremely powerful cowards. Another run, we focused on the B ‘Cast’ attack and its cooldown: we’d hit an enemy with the special, socketing a gem in them, and that gem made them a wobbly bomb of death. We’d kill them, get the gem back and repeat the process. Hades is just that good at making each raid feel different.
I expected the writing to be good and the world to be great, but I was magnitudes off. And it’s so elegant, too. Your character, Zagreus, is the want-away son of Hades. He doesn’t feel valued by Hades, he doesn’t want to live in the Underworld, and he’s got various uncles and aunts who keep handing him boons and gifts, tempting him to Olympus. It’s a rebellious teenager writ large, and it just works so well.
I love that Zagreus, at least initially, doesn’t feel like the main character in the Underworld. He’s a pest, a nuisance, and his constant frustrated dismissal from Hades – “pardon the interruption, everyone”, Hades says when Zagreus makes a scene – makes you understand Hades and Zagreus all the more. Hades has a lot on his plate, thank you very much, but Zagreus just wants to mean something, and the Underworld be damned. The peripheral characters all buy into this extremely simple concept, showing frustration at Zagreus or willing him on.
I possibly should have expected the back-talk. Bastion was the absolute champ at narrating something portentously, and then delivering a bit of snark afterwards. Hades borrows the trick, and it’s great. The narrator will say something ominous about a cage full of souls, but Zagreus will hear that narrator, then undermine it. There’s no in-world reason why Zagreus can hear the narrator, but the fact he can is so wonderfully petulant.
The longevity was something I expected, mainly because so many people had been talking about it. But it’s one thing to expect it, and another to experience it.
Hades’ structure is not new: it’s a rogue dungeon crawler, so you’re playing for the twin short-term and long-term benefits. In the short-term, you’re seeing if you can beat your personal best, and get further than you ever have before. In the long-term, you are acquiring benefits that make you better on the next run, not this one.
But Hades has such a ludicrous number of both. You have about thirty different reasons to play again. On the permanent side, a single run can improve your hub, your relationship with a god, your weapon, your passive perks (unlocked through purple gems), the information in your codex, the story itself (as you dispatch bosses and those bosses take up residence in the palace of Hades), your keepsakes, your… I could go on. It takes five minutes between each run just to unlock, buy and optimise all the spoils of war.
On the temporary side, you are accumulating credit to spend in shops, stacking on buffs, levelling buffs, deciding whether to engage in minigames that have risk-reward attached, and so much more.
With Hades feeling so different each run, and being so astonishingly generous with the rewards, there are few reasons to stop playing. I’m writing this review with a determination to play it again. If there’s a glaring flaw, it’s that an Xbox isn’t actually portable, as I can’t play Hades on the crapper and sate my addiction. Wait – a Kishi and Hades on Game Pass! That changes everything.
Before playing Hades, I wondered whether it was one of those games that refined other people’s ideas, but didn’t really bring any themselves. The ‘choose three buffs’ stuff has been done in plenty of mobile and card games, for example. But no, Hades has that in its locker too. I remember squee-ing when I realised that a golden fruit drop could be given to my choice of god, but I had to carry it to them. It was an upgrade item, but I had to hope that I’d survive long enough, and that I would randomly see my chosen god to make it an offering.
I could write poetry about the doors in Hades. Man, the doors. You know where a door will lead you, in a sense: there’s an icon that tells you what its reward will be. It might also tell you whether there’s a boss, or other titbits of information. But it’s not a full picture of what’s behind the door, and you’re often choosing between three or four different paths each with an incomplete picture. Some promise small permanent benefits, while others offer you chunky temporary ones. You will be asking yourself “is this THE run, Zagreus? Is this the one where you navigate all of the circles of the Underworld?” You keep having to ask yourself that question: are you doing well enough in this run to risk the temporary benefits over the permanent ones?
Are there flaws? Of course there are. It’s an unwieldy beast to start with, and understanding what is worth having and what is not will take you tens of hours. There’s little in the way of ‘skipping’ mechanics, so you’re trudging through the same areas and fighting the same bosses repeatedly. For some, that repetition will be too much. And while the palace of Hades does grow, gaining more characters and escalating in terms of Hades’ relationship with Zagreus, we wouldn’t go so far to call it a ‘story’. Hades could also have done with more community features, or multiplayer modes: you are locked into an experience that is very solo.
But you know what? I couldn’t care less. Hades is an opus, a delectable action game that rewards your skill and reflexes with a tidal wave of rewards and progression. I can’t recall a game as generous as Hades, in terms of how good it is to play, how much the game changes with each session, with how much it gives you for beating it. It’s a matryoshka doll where every doll holds more awesomeness.
I was expecting to love Hades. Supergiant know how to make slick experiences, rich worlds and overbearing narration, and I’m all in for that. But I wasn’t expecting to love it this much. Hades is a thrilling achievement, a game that developers will be pilfering from for some time, and we fully expect to return to its world, over and over, for many, many years. And then we will try to escape it, over and over, too.
You can buy Hades for £20.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S, or you can play it for free with Xbox Game Pass