With action abound and a surprising amount of story, Hades is one of the best roguelikes of recent years. And now, with its console release, it’s able to reach a bigger audience than ever.
At this point, another review of Hades almost feels rather superfluous, but here we are. Its praises have been sung since 2019, when it entered early access, then again in September 2020 when it released on PC and Switch. Chances are, you’ve already heard of it – and if you’ve heard of it, you’ve also heard how good it is. It’s already sold over a million copies and has been awarded Game of the Year from multiple outlets. And there’s good reason for that.
I shan’t make the claim that on Xbox and PlayStation, it’s “better than ever”. That’s only true if, like me, you prefer the comfort of sitting down in front of a console, familiar controller in hand. Aside from an enhanced 4K resolution on PS5 and Xbox Series X, this is the same game in every way; it’s not an “Ultimate Edition” and it doesn’t contain any extra content. Hades certainly deserves the big screen and high resolution that a console can offer over Switch, however; playing at a 4K resolution allows the game’s gorgeous worlds to shine – and that they do, with gusto.
Hades casts you in the role of Zagreus, son of Hades and Prince of the Underworld. Despite his high status, though, he’s had enough of life with his powerful father and longs to leave the underworld forever. Escaping from Hell is no easy task, though, and Hades plans to make it as hard as possible for his son. Cue chamber after chamber of deadly hellbeasts, traps and bosses, all desperate to destroy you and stop you escaping.
Since this is a roguelike, it’s no surprise that death comes very easily in Hades. The first time you pick up the game, you’ll likely die within the first few minutes. But you’ll get a little further the next time, and the next, spurred along by permanent upgrades, new weapon types and a slew of boons from the Gods, many of whom want to help you escape.
The strong array of permanent upgrades is one thing that sets Hades apart from other games in the roguelike genre, many of which rely on little else than your own skill to progress further each time. But here, you’ll earn crystals, gems and keys as you play, all of which can be spent on various upgrades, like the ability to heal for a small amount of HP each time you clear a room, or a second life if you die. You’ll also grow relationships with the gods, and by giving them gifts they’ll give you something in return. One of these gifts from the gods can be equipped at a time, and each one offers you some sort of helpful perk; perhaps upgrades you pick up during a run will be better, or maybe you’ll find more gold.
Progressing through a run of Hades means collecting a wealth of upgrades – or ‘boons’ – from the Gods. Whether it be Ares’ ‘Doom’ ability, which does a large amount of damage to foes just after you attack them, or Demeter’s ability to imbue your weapon with ‘Cold’, there’s a huge range to choose from. You’ll likely find your favourites (I can’t manage without ‘Doom’ on my special attack now) but the sheer range on offer means no two runs will ever feel the same. Some gifts from the gods will allow you to ensure their boons are always offered to you first (I always ensured Ares would be available), but for the most part they’re entirely random. Your success in a run may well be dictated by how lucky you are with skills, as some are far more useful than others.
But whatever skills you have in your arsenal, combat in Hades is consistently fast-paced and frenetic. There’s a range of weapons to choose from before you start your run, but whichever one you have equipped, Zagreus has a standard attack, a charged attack, a cast, a special attack and a dash at his disposal. You’ll want to make use of all of them in order to best the foes of the underworld; your dash will be particularly useful. A typical room will throw multiple enemies at you at once; some might charge at you, some might have projectile attacks, and others might simply swarm you. Add to that the traps that lay in wait in most rooms, and you’ve got a recipe for a quick death unless you’re precise in your movement and quick on your feet.
The combat in Hades is at its best when it’s chaotic; when you’re so tuned into the game and into Zagreus’ movements that attacking enemies feels like a dance around them. Slash, dash, slash, dash. Your exact fighting style will depend on what weapon you use; a bow and arrow allows for you to keep a safe distance from your foes as you attack them, but a sword allows for quicker, more visceral attacks. There’s also a shield, which can be thrown or charged with, a spear, fast-hitting gloves, and a gun. You’ll unlock them in succession by spending keys found on previous runs. It’s worth trying them all to find what works for you, as each one has its own quirks.
One more thing that sets Hades apart from other games in the genre is its reliance on narrative. There’s a very strong story running through the game which you’ll experience regardless of how many times you die. Every time you go back to your home, the base of all your activities, you’ll talk with gods and other characters, each time gathering a bit of important lore. Gods will also converse with you as you play, each one of them depicted to you with gorgeous 2D art and expertly voiced. There’s a ridiculous amount of character poured into every aspect of Hades – and getting to see more of the story unfold takes a little bit of the sting out every time you die.
But death can still feel harsh, particularly when you’ve made it further than ever before. Each time you die, it’s right back to the beginning, and eventually playing through the same worlds, fighting the same enemies, again and again can feel like a bit of a slog – but such is the nature of the roguelike genre. A shortcut to a later area would have been a nice option, even if it comes with a trade-off – sort-of how Selene can choose to jump ahead to another Biome in Returnal if she’s already visited – but sadly no such option is available here.
So you’ll keep on running through the same worlds, hoping each time that the gods align in your favour and offer you the best boons and upgrades. By the fifteenth, twentieth, thirtieth time you might start to feel a little exhausted – especially when it’s the final, toughest boss you’re stuck on. Knowing exactly what’s waiting for you, and knowing the odds are stacked against you is a little detrimental to your resolve, but you’ll keep trying anyway. The tougher the journey, the more sweet it is when you finally, finally lay the bastard to rest. For this time, anyway. This is a roguelike, after all, so he’ll be waiting for you again should you decide to jump back in.
Even as you groan in anguish as Zagreus succumbs to a fraught boss battle once again, you’ll dust yourself off and jump right back into Hades. It’s too alluring not to. Yes, we can levy criticisms about the roguelike genre in general at it, but the fact is, few games perfect the formula quite like Hades does; it’s one of the best roguelikes you’ll ever play. With a slew of upgrades available, gorgeous environments to fight your way through and a wonderfully told narrative that delves into Greek mythology, you’ll keep coming back for more, time and time again.
Hades PS5 Review: GameSpew’s Score