The first time I beat the final boss in Hades, I felt an enormous sense of relief. I’d been fighting to see this ending for hours (months, technically, if you count my time in early access), and in roguelikes, it feels better than usual to see an ending. But while I was definitely a little too proud of putting together a set of abilities and perks that shredded the boss after they wrecked me just a few tries ago, that wasn’t why I felt tears welling up. I’d gotten so caught up in the story of my character, Zagreus, and the heroes, villains, and gods that had helped him get here that I was elated to have finally gotten him to the end of his journey. What sets Hades apart isn’t just that it’s a great roguelike with the kind of repeatable depth that makes it engrossing to play for hours, but also how it uses its structure to tell an ongoing story about family, secrets, and resolution.
That Hades’ narrative is so entwined with its combat is nothing new for the developers at Supergiant Games, who’ve established themselves as masters of putting your actions in sync with the stories they tell. In a roguelike such as Hades, it means playing as Zagreus, a god of rebirth. Tired of living under his father Hades’ thumb and seeking answers about where he comes from, he sets out to escape to the world of the living, battling various undead monsters, living creatures, and mythological figures on his way out.
Your godliness justifies the endless runs through the depths of the underworld, since dying and coming back to life is par for the course in Greek myth. One of the best parts of Hades, in fact, is returning to the House of Hades time and again after you die. It’s not just a pit stop on the way to the next run–it’s the centerpiece Hades hinges on. There, figures such as Achilles, Hypnos, and Nyx console you after your deaths, praise you for making progress, and confide in you about one another. You chat with them, undertake side quests, and exchange gifts to deepen your relationships. Eventually, they become vital allies on your quest, even if they’re not in the thick of combat with you.
These interactions, as much as the precise combat, are the reason I kept coming back to Hades; while I was skeptical about how the roguelike structure would meld with Supergiant Games’ focus on characters and stories, they’ve written and voiced reams of dialogue and lore, and almost all of it is delivered with vigor and is intriguing enough to pore over between your treks through hell.
When you finally decide to take another stab at escaping, runs are broken up into a few different worlds, each made up of several randomly ordered chambers. Hades’ combat builds on Bastion’s tight, isometric fights and infuses them with the endlessly repeatable appeal of random buffs, modifiers, random enemy layouts, currencies, and progression that slowly turn the seemingly impossible task of reaching the surface into something manageable.
Combat is quick and reactive, letting you chain attacks into dashes, dashes into special moves, and so on as you learn how to whittle enemy shields, avoid traps, and work over bosses. Each of the six weapons you can equip pushes you to play differently, and weapon-specific modifiers nudge you towards using different parts of your toolset; you might be comfortable poking enemies from afar with the Varatha spear, for example, but with a boon from Daedalus that triples the damage of your dash attack, you’re going to want to close the distance and juke constantly. That, and how buffs interact in myriad surprising and effective ways, means I’m still not tired of making these runs, dozens of hours later. In more crowded fights, the Switch’s smaller screen makes text and combat readability an issue, as these chambers are large enough to lose details (and runs). Other than that, though, combat is an outstanding mix of random variables and consistent action.
And even as you’re contemplating whether you want your spear to deal bonus critical damage or imbue your dash with a deflecting shield, tantalizing narrative threads seep through. Most buffs, called boons, are tied to individual gods; if you want that deflect, you’re going to have to ask Athena for it, while Artemis is in charge of critical damage. These short exchanges give each god a distinct personality and reflect your actions and progress; you also occasionally catch clues about a potential side quest or plot thread that ties into the larger narrative. I liked Athena, Artemis, and Dionysus not just because their boons were consistently useful, but because I took to Athena’s austere will, Artemis’ prickly reclusiveness, and Dionysus’ laid-back flirtiness.
These conversations are more than narrative icing; you can give the gods gifts and build your relationships with them, too. Occasionally, you’ll run into rooms where you can score two boons, but only after choosing one god and facing the wrath of the one you scorned as you fight off another round of enemies. Or, if you happen to end up with both that deflective dash and some critical damage, like I did, Athena and Artemis might have a quick chat with each other, then offer you a Duo boon that grants bonus critical damage to projectiles you deflect. As you progress through hell, you’ll start seeing those boons used against you, which itself says something; for as much as the gods pay lip service to want to meet them on Olympus when offering boons, your journey to escape torment is little more than a spectacle to them, a game to watch and manipulate from the sidelines.
Does that thread lead anywhere? It’s hard to say because Hades unfurls so many other threads like this that tie its characters, your actions, and the world together into one cohesive, powerful whole that takes time to unravel. Eventually, you meet characters that sprinkle interesting bonuses into your runs while simultaneously launching new side stories back in the House of Hades, and even bosses change over the course of multiple runs. Supergiant has managed to turn the roguelike, a genre not usually known for riveting plots, into a compelling vehicle for storytelling.
Supergiant has managed to turn the roguelike, a genre not usually known for riveting plots, into a compelling vehicle for storytelling.
The random nature of the genre does mean the kind of climactic moments that define traditional stories are hard to come by, but I loved that. Rather than face an imposing boss, learning about a new twist of fate, and then moving on to the next act, you have hundreds of conversations with your family, roommates, and enemies about whatever comes to mind. This is where Hades’ bid to tell its story differently pays off, as playing it eventually feels like living in a crowded home for months, one where arcs happen, but nothing truly “ends.” It’s the kind of story that makes small moments more significant. After being chided by Hades with a dismissive “Back again?” having failed to kill a boss, then listening to everyone around simply wring their hands about the lord of the dead, I understood why Zagreus would want to leave the shadow of his overbearing, distant father. That convergence between player and character motivation is a powerful feeling, and it’s what Supergiant delivers so brilliantly.
That long-tail approach to worldbuilding may not work for everyone; before I played Hades, I didn’t see myself as someone who’d continue to play a roguelike after beating it. But I wanted to keep learning more about these characters and this underworld enough to keep coming back. That, along with a robust postgame that alters every weapon and boss, lets you make the game even harder for more rewards, and offers even more reasons to play an already entrancing mix of RPG and action combat, has absolutely hooked me. When I’m not playing Hades, I’m thinking about how cool it’d be to build the Exagryph machine gun with lighting boons combo that got me that first victorious run, but also throw some critical damage on top of that.
I’m also thinking about how much I still have left to learn about Hades, both the character and the game, even dozens of hours in. Like in the Greek myths Hades takes inspiration from, endings aren’t tidy, and they’re almost never final. They’re protracted, often unsatisfying, and are hard to find real closure in, and the fact that Hades understands this is its greatest strength. I’m sure there’s a point where, after running through hell enough times, I’ll have seen all Hades has to offer, both in its clever and endless fights and its many alluring characters, intimate moments, and rewarding quests. The story does end. But what matters so much more are all the moments between the start and end of a story, and the people who help us see those climactic moments but also stick with us between them. They’re the reason we keep trying, and the reason we keep coming back.