‘Hades’ review: supergiant’s latest is, quite literally, a god-tier game

The road to hell is paved with reinventions

Hades is god-like, in every sense of the word. It’s attractive, it’s compelling, it’s wrathful (when it wants to be) and it’s got such a gift at getting in your head that you can understand its cult-like reputation amongst gamers and non-gamers alike. Weaving together considered, inspired storytelling with action that could go toe-to-toe even gaming’s most loved roguelite titans, Hades is both exceptional and essential, pitting you as one of the most complete, rounded protagonists you’ll ever meet, rebelling against something he doesn’t even comprehend.

The problem with many roguelites is the sense of disconnection in what you’re doing versus what the game world recognises you doing: endless attempts to bind Isaac or enter the Gungeon are all well and good, but the genre isn’t famously a story-heavy one. Using Zagreus – your charismatic, sensitive yet occasionally clueless prince of the Underworld – as a vessel for you to explore the lower reaches of Ancient Greek hell, Supergiant Games manages to make the world and its dysfunctional cast of characters just as important as the swaggering action that fuels it.

It starts simple: you pick up your weapon of choice, and set about pillaging the lands of the undead in your somewhat directionless quest towards the surface. Gods, located on Mount Olympus, bestow blessings on you as you fight through the shambling denizens of Tartarus, Asphodel, Elysium and beyond, modifying your powers and guiding you into different ways of playing the game.

Are you going to side with Dionysus and sup of his booze, granting you the power of inflicting hangovers (read: poison) on your foes? Or would you rather hunt with Artemis, and up your chance for critical damage when you manage to get those big hits in? Rather than just picking up random perks and seeing how they interact, Hades encourages experimentation via narrative: you may have done a Poseidon-based blunt-force dash run last time, but you’ll pick up his boons again now because you want to hear how he interacts with, say, Zeus (who gave your bow some lovely lightning-flinging properties at the start of your new escape attempt).

The dysfunctional sitcom that is Ancient Greek gods’ family life is a cornucopia of bizarre little stories and incidental anecdotes that makes every single second you’re putting into Hades feel like time well-invested. You could have the most catastrophic run ever – dead in two chambers! – and come out of it feeling like you at least made some crumb of progress, or learned something cool about your favourite distant aunt or something. In every aspect that matters, Hades refines and reinvents the roguelite genre, and that manifests a better economy, a better loop, a better story and a better experience for you.

Developer Supergiant manages to balance refined storytelling and pitch-perfect dialogue with cacophonic, unflinching violence. Room to room, the eclectic ballet Zagreus performs to dispatch his infinite enemies is nothing short of beautiful: dashing over roiling magma as you charge a shield toss, watching it ricochet from enemy to enemy and then bring down a pillar, crushing a particularly devilish foe? It makes your fingers feel like they’re dancing in time with a gorgeous visual music video being played out on-screen. This is especially true when Hades is leveraging the powers of the new-gen consoles or PC.

Any misgivings you may have had about playing a game that requires you to dash, last-minute, away from swinging clubs and sadistic traps in an unstable framerate on the Switch will be dispelled by the game’s performance on Xbox Series X/S and PS5. It’s as smooth and delightful as the game’s own Pomegranate Porridge, and goes down just as well – in 40 hours of play on PS5, we’ve not encountered one problem or performance dip that became standard in the 100+ hours we played on Switch. This latest port elevates the game from simply being divine to being practically sacred.

Small adjustments – different coloured lights on the DualSense depending on which boon you’re picking up, adaptive triggers kicking in when you go fishing – are welcome, but it’s the framerate and the way the new ports let you focus on the action that matters most. Concocting a build that somehow lets you repel enemy projectiles as you dash towards them, only to stack doom damage as one-two punch them with your fists before electrifying them with an uppercut? It’s ludicrous. It’s an in-game manifestation of the ludicrous myths about gods that have been percolating in popular culture for generations. Letting you procedurally generate your own godly mythos, your own tapestry of lore every run? It’s nothing short of genius.

Zagreus is a bitter, angry prince fuelled by a rage so distilled it makes him ruthlessly efficient. In playing that role – dispatching foes with cold calculation as you try to claw your way to the surface, again – and learn how to better direct your bile (whilst falling ever more in love with the misfits of mythology that surround you), you start to understand the point of Hades, and what it’s doing to you across both action and story.

The through-line in Hades is connection; whether it’s Zagreus connecting with his off-beat family or his weapons connecting with the ribcages of doomed ghouls, every beat (physical and narrative) serves to push the game forwards. A delectable spread of power-ups and vendors exists in your hub, the House of Hades, which means overall progression never feels dented or strained, and that you learn a little bit more – and get a little bit more powerful – with every trip back to the river Styx.

At no part of the Hades experience do you, as a player, feel uninvolved. It’s peak game design, carried aloft a reflective and thunderous score (courtesy of Darren Korb), some of the best character designs you’re going to see in the genre (thanks to the lusty interpretations of the Gods by art director Jen Zee), and that incisive, feel-good writing spearheaded by Greg Kasavin.

Hades is available now for the Nintendo Switch and PC. It launches for Xbox and PlayStation on August 13. This review was conducted on the PS5 version of the game.

The Verdict

All that time in Early Access allowed Hades to age like a fine wine, and further refinement on Switch and PC has matured the final draught into something Dionysus himself would be proud to serve up atop Mount Olympus. This is one of the most essential games of our generation, and to skip it is to spit in the faces of the gods themselves.

Pros

  • Varied, easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master action
  • Incredible production values, voice acting, and writing
  • One of the most satisfying loops in the genre, near-endless replayability

Cons

  • A couple of weapon Aspects aren’t as fun as others
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