The back half of September 2020 was a uniquely dizzying experience for me, topped only by the, uh, first three days of October 2020. Hades, though, has been a gift, a reprieve, and a delight.
Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac
September 17, 2020
Hades is indie studio Supergiant’s most recent masterpiece, which dropped out of early access and onto the Switch like a unique gift for me, personally, on September 17th. Its lineage is clear, incorporating pieces of each previous game—Bastion’s approach to combat and weaponry; Transistor’s snackily crunchy progression systems; and Pyre’s steadily unraveling, character-based narratives—but it’s all been polished to a brilliant shine over a year and a half of early access feedback and rework. And all that gameplay is, of course, wrapped up in the things which have given Supergiant games their lasting place in the video game space: the art direction of Jen Zee and the musical talents of Darren Korb.
I say all this as a longstanding Supergiant fan, but my roommate, who thought Bastion was “fine” and never bothered to pick up the other two, has also been falling into Hades with increasing velocity. The gameplay is crisp, the characters are engaging, and the progression mechanics are lined up just-so, which means that you can practically feel yourself getting more powerful even while Megaera continues to stomp you into the ground. But here’s the real thing about Hades, for me: I can’t remember the last time a game has made me gasp quite so much and so happily.
It’s small moments: Orpheus’s character design, the second I heard Ashley Barrett’s voice for the first time, or the extremely silly reminders that the Underworld doesn’t have, like, days. Artemis, in general. The game isn’t perfect (who and what do we consider attractive, and who do we only cast as villains?), but it’s these pinpricks of light, shoved into breaks between my twelve-hour workdays and Yet More Insurance Maneuvering, that have gotten me through the last few weeks. Where I am, Hades runs are about half an hour long, with good stopping points every ten minutes or so—the perfect length to use as a breather when I literally cannot make another real-life scheduling decision without dissolving into goop.
The character narratives of Hades are also filled with an enduring kindness. The game puts players in the shoes (or… flaming footprints?) of the distraught hell-prince Zagreus, who for reasons not entirely clear at the start, wants to leave the Underworld in favor of the surface. It would have been so incredibly easy to make Zag a love-to-hate-type antihero, but instead he’s just sort of foppishly sassy as he grouses at his father, King of the Underworld Hades, and consistently polite when he speaks to his mentor and his mother. This felt flat to me at first—Hades wouldn’t have been the first Supergiant game to use a blank lead as a path to a more interesting cast of supporting characters—but then Zagreus just kept being nice. His politeness wasn’t a front, it sprung from his genuine value for those around him—something I don’t often get to see from lead characters, let alone male ones. And it was mutual! In between immolating monsters and unfailingly horny (but classy!) character art, Hades paints a picture of a weird little chosen family, a group of people living in the House of an overbearing master, who all genuinely want the best for each other, even if they can only show it clumsily.
The unspoken solidarity of the workers of the House of Hades pushed the game from a fun beat-’em-up roguelike to a kind, resonant story. Not only is it fun to be Zagreus, it’s delightful and comforting to see him ham-hand his way through the supporting cast’s stories, helping solve his friends’ problems with gentle, blundering creativity. Hades doesn’t let me make choices in these stories, save giving me the option to pursue them or not, but I don’t need that power for the experiences to be fulfilling. Zag is sweet enough that I’m happy to just help him on his quest.
It helps that the game also feels, like, really good to play. I’m a creature of habit, and once I find a weapon that works I don’t tend to swap. But with its alternating reward incentives and a run-based upgrade system that means I can tailor them to my play style on the fly, Hades made it worth it to try each of its six weapons and find that each scratches a different part of my brain. Even as I got routinely stomped by the guardians of Elysium, the joy of just getting there was intoxicating. And when I finally (finally) got to see the victory screen and ensuing story, it felt like I had accomplished something and that Zag’s struggle really had been worth it. And then Hades, being a good game by talented developers, gave me more to come back for.
Anyway, today, I got smushed by a minotaur, gave a Fury contraband booze, told my dad to screw off, and took another step toward reuniting two lost lovers. Maybe tomorrow I’ll break out of Hell again.
Zora Gilbert cares a whole lot about words, kids, and comics. Find them at @zhgilbert on twitter, and find the comics they edit at datesanthology.com.