In 1963, American novelist John Updike published The Centaur, in which the banality of American life in a small Pennsylvania town was conflated with some of the gods and myths of Greek antiquity. It simultaneously suggested that everyday life was full of quiet heroism and ironically portrayed Charon, Prometheus and others as characters in a suburban soap opera of sorts.
The Centaur came to mind as I played through Hades, now in early access in the Epic store. This rogue-lite uses familiar names from Greek mythology and places them in a comedic family drama, in which young Zagreus, the son of the god of death, attempts to flee the Underworld and escape to join the gods on Mount Olympus. Like many restless teens, Zag hates his life in the Underworld and can’t wait to move out.
Although not yet complete, Hades offers enough content and playtime to suggest clearly the style and mechanics of the eventually finished game. Supergiant is a developer with a very consistent and recognizable aesthetic: colorful visuals, a quirky sense of humor, excellent writing and voice acting, and action that is generally satisfying and well-tuned. All of those qualities are present in Hades as well, which looks distinctive and yet very much in line with the developer’s other titles.
Because this is a rogue-lite - a term that suggests a less punishing style of game - death means a restart to the beginning but with some items and abilities permanently unlocked, thanks to the purchasing power of “Darkness” earned during combat, making the next run through the procedurally generated stages a little easier. Each attempted escape will include new weapons and modifiers, called Boons, as well as new configurations of enemies. In its current state, Hades consists of 27 rooms and a couple of main environments and a couple of challenging bosses. Back in the Underworld, Zagreus’ relationship with his father and the various denizens of Hades are explored in well-written and wryly amusing dialogue that is definitely worth listening to, in addition to the items and information that the interactions provide. It’s all underscored by music with a middle east/rock soundtrack that fits the action and style well.
There are many roguelikes that are so punishing that only the most determined gamers can enjoy them, but Hades does a good job of finding the sweet spot between challenge and simplicity and the impulse is usually to try another run rather than giving up. There is enough variety in the swords and bows and their modifiers that each journey is entertaining and interesting, although the enemy types do become pretty familiar over several hours. Like Supergiant’s other games — Bastion, Pyre and Transistor — the action is fluid and yet very precise.
Although Hades is an unfinished product, there is a significant amount of content and replayability in its early access state. It has a unique setting and characters and is an appealing game for those who are put off by other, more unforgiving roguelikes. Hades demands persistence, too, but there’s almost always the feeling that each run managed to push the character a little closer to the end.