Triumphing Defeat

By: Keoni Eckinger

Reviewed on PC, Nintendo Switch

Release Date: 09/17/2020

Every ill-fated step the son of Hades, Zagreus, takes while surmounting the many denizens of the underworld summons the image of his home, its chiseled stone halls bereft of the sky, trees, and the living. Prince Zagreus finds himself tethered to this place as he seeks the truth of his lineage, this hallowed manor filled with the spirits of legends famed and dreaded, servants obsequious to their respective duties. Familial bonds strain with every rebellious action taken.

You’ll become very familiar with this part of the house.

Supergiant Games, a personal favorite in indie game development, specializes in designing games as an art form. Other game releases include Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre, which may be smaller in scope but no less dense in atmosphere and charm. Hades somehow manages to tread new territory for the studio in its absurd attention to detail while also feeling impenetrable in its scope and execution; this is the quality of work we should expect from triple ‘A’ developers. Launching in early access in December 2018, Supergiant regularly provided content updates and patches to flesh-out the experience — studiously attentive to fan and critic feedback from start to finish.

Zagreus, or ‘Zag as he’s referred to by close acquaintances, finds himself at an impasse. His relationship with his father is troubled, and he struggles to define a sense of purpose and place for himself. Lord Hades, scorned by his son’s impetuousness, becomes a significant obstacle to Zag’s escape — in gameplay and story. Hades wouldn’t be very engaging if it didn’t have an array of equally intriguing characters whose motivations become more apparent with every failed escape attempt Zag makes. In a unique twist, Hades has a way of encouraging you when you stumble on the difficulty. Falling to a challenging enemy in the ‘Diablo-Esque combat or stepping on a deadly trap (while still game-over in a sense) results in Zagreus returning home, his head held low in shame as, yet again, he faces his oppressors before embarking on another escape attempt. It is here you’ll meet the macabre tenants of the house of Hades; talking to them and learning what makes them tick is half the joy. Loyal to the House of Hades, Hypnos may mock you for falling prey to a particular enemy while Achilles will always encourage you to learn from your mistakes and carry on. You’ll amass gifts throughout your adventures, which you can give to most characters in the game; this usually results in a new dialogue with the giftee or even reciprocity. I found the process of wandering the estate, giving gifts, and learning about the characters as wonderful as the combat. There are numerous personalities to become acquainted with, and I implore you to engage with them as this system is intrinsic to the design of Hades.

Upon departure from the House of Hades, the gods of Olympus will offer you a boon to complement your combat strategy. Zeus may lend you his lightning, increasing your ability to fight crowds of opponents. Artemis could bless you with her keen hunting acumen allowing you to hit critically more frequently. The game arranges rooms in the dungeon randomly, with clearly indicated rewards if you can best the challenges. Maybe you’d like another boon from Athena to help you deflect incoming attacks, or perhaps you’d find a pile of gold to spend in the shop more enticing? Strategically choosing which rewards to chase is integral to building a successful run. If you take too many boons from different gods — magnanimous as they may be — gods are jealous beings that will spite you when they feel spurned. Providing you survive their wrath, you could see additional, more powerful, hybridized boons become available. Endeavor to understand what each god specializes in and how they can best improve your odds of escape. Anticipating synergies between various gods will enhance your time with Hades. Ultimately, I came to appreciate the random nature of Hades, struggling due to a scarcity of something I had previously considered essential one run prior lent a sense of improvisation, and it was immensely satisfying.

Combat is diverse and challenging. With six weapons to choose from, I often struggled with which weapon to take on a run as they all provide a unique approach to escaping the underworld. I’d find valuable time melt away as I vacillated in the armory, weighing my options between weapon choices and an additional trinket to supplement my run. With a combined playtime of 30 hours on PC and Switch, I find that I gravitate to the Heart-Seeking bow as I enjoy lining up and timing critical shots — though the Eternal Spear provided a welcome deviation in my strategy when I just wanted to poke adversaries. After a few escape attempts, you’ll have the option to further tinker with your armaments using upgrade materials, advancing your strategic opportunities even further.

Supergiant games never sound hollow owing to their outstanding soundtracks. Darren Korb, songwriter and composer at Supergiant, created a soundtrack as engrossing as the game it inhabits. It is passionate, exhilarating, and always a treat to hear even when you’ve seen and done everything. I’m pleased to say this is Darren’s heaviest score, and it genuinely complements the experience. The screeching guitar riffs and chunky bass lines emanated as Zag danced around the crimson flames of Asphodel, and it never got old.

Artistically, Hades is a cut above the rest. Ascending the underworld reveals hostile hellscapes drenched in lava with only bone and brimstone to stand on. The dreamy forests of Elysium offer a mellow reprieve from the lonely halls of Tartarus. I felt a burst of joyous freedom the first time I met Hades in battle on the surface. Jen Zee, Art Director at Supergiant, and her team should feel proud; thoughts of the underworld, gods, and goddesses have become synonymous with their artistic achievement in my mind.

I began to sympathize with Zagreus with every secret I learned about him and his family. Understanding his will to escape home wasn’t immediately apparent, but the secrets revealed helped me grasp his motivations. It’s easy to view bosses in video-games as obligatory skill-checks meant to ensure you weren’t sleeping through the lectures. In Hades, bosses are characters as well, and while they can be a real pain at times, you’ll come to realize they’re as enslaved to their circumstances as you are. Every character has a role to play in this world. These are story-telling techniques rarely applied to this style of game, and I feel it was successful. With every attempt to escape his prison, I was challenged and surprised, though I often failed. Rarely does a game elicit such a sense of curiosity and wonder in me when I falter. “Game-over” really means dust myself off and try again.

Thanks for taking the time to read this piece, for better or worse I poured my heart into its creation. Please feel free to comment or ask me questions, I’d enjoy hearing what you’re doing to battle the encroaching darkness, what are you listening to, playing, reading? My love of music, video games, art, and writing are serendipitously beginning to coalesce. My intentions are unclear to me at this point, but extolling these things I find lovely provides some solace. As I carve a path forward, I’ll discuss video games I’m interested in, old and new, as well as anything else I find fascinating. I’ll try my hand at more traditional reviews if readers take kindly to that format as well. I’d certainly like suggestions and constructive criticism from readers as nothing worth doing has been done in total solitude. If you’d like to donate to my Patreon so I can keep doing this I’d greatly appreciate it.

Hi, I’m Keoni, thanks for stopping by. I write about video games and other topics I find interesting. Tune in regularly for more reviews and editorials.