Hades review

By Luke Albigés,
You know what's really weird? Having to sign an NDA for a game that came out last year. For the last couple of weeks, I've not been allowed to say that Hades — one of my favourite games of 2020 — is really bloody good, for fear of being in breach of a legal document. Now, though, the embargo has lifted, and guess what? Hades is really bloody good.

hades xbox

Hades chronicles the plight of Zagreus, son of the titular God of the Dead, as he attempts to fight his way out of his father's wretched domain. As an immortal, death is but a minor setback for our boy Zagreus, with each inevitable failure sending him hurtling back home for a dressing down from daddy and a quick catch-up with friends before venturing back out into Tartarus to start another escape attempt. It's a gameplay loop that will feel instantly familiar to anyone with even a modicum of experience in roguelikes, although one that developer Supergiant raises to all-new heights here by injecting an unprecedented sense of progression — in terms of skill, story, abilities, characters... everything, really — into each attempt, no matter how fruitful they may or may not be. Allies and enemies alike will chat about Zagreus' struggles and successes in oft-surprising detail, referencing everything from the enemies that seem to be tripping the prince up to the boons and godly gifts he carries with him on his way towards the surface. These conversations feel almost bottomless and you'll still be hearing new dialogue hundreds of runs down the line, lending the game this wonderful air of consistency and coherency where allegiances are forged and rivalries stoked every time you make for the surface.

Better yet, these interactions are almost universally exemplary. Every character is brilliantly written, fleshed out, and acted, each with their own flavour and demeanour. Zagreus himself — portrayed by composer Darren Korb, who is also on-point as ever with Hades' superb score — is affable, charming even, in his own roguish and somewhat unrefined manner, full of deadpan dialogue and casual colloquialisms that make every interaction a delight. It may seem weird to begin discussion of an action-based roguelike with so much talk of characters, but honestly, it's such a huge part of what sets Hades apart from its peers that it just seems logical and apt in this instance. Hades is a game that always has something to say, and while that's been known to be something that can start to grate in other games when people end up repeating themselves or speaking up purely for attention, it feels so organic here that it serves as the glue that holds all of the game's other (also excellent) elements together.

hades xbox

Given that Zagreus is fighting his way towards the surface, combat is another key pillar of the Hades experience, and another area in which the game excels. While you start with just a basic sword, it only takes a few runs to expand your arsenal, and it just keeps growing. There are six weapons in total that you can choose from before heading out, each with their own move sets, traits, strengths, and weaknesses to learn and master. Later, you're able to modify this starting gear even further, with a choice of four different Aspects to unlock for each which can radically alter how they function. Take the bow, for instance. The standard form offers a chargeable single shot and a spread volley, but one variant gives up that area control barrage to have your special attack instead fire a seeking salvo at the last enemy you tagged with a normal arrow, while another allows you to load your Cast into the bow for even greater single-target pressure. I'm not going to talk about the fourth, as the final 'hidden' Aspects of each weapon could be considered spoilers, but suffice to say that these tend to be the most radical revisions of the lot (to the point where many feel like completely new weapons), and most are an absolute riot to use.

The basic moves of each weapon can also be augmented during the course of each run by accepting boons from the pantheon of Olympian gods, with a deep pool of options that allows you to improve and expand upon your starting kit massively. Zeus' power imbues your abilities with lightning, Hermes is all about speed and mobility, Poseidon's boons grant tidal knockbacks and sunken treasures... it's all thematically fantastic, and gets even better when you begin to mix and match them as a run starts to really get going. Just like the characters themselves, interplay between boons is amazing, and while some pairings just naturally work well together, there's also a spread of powerful unique Duo boons which slam multiple godly powers together in really satisfying ways. Pair Zeus with Poseidon, for example, and you might get a Duo boon that adds an additional lightning strike to all of your knockback effects, or you could combine Aphrodite and Ares to have the God of War's Doom damage constantly strike heartbroken foes. The gods, fickle as they are, don't always play nice, mind. You may find chambers where they force you to play favourites, and this is often as much about whose wrath you think you can deal with as whose favour might benefit you most. They'll even try to one-up their peers mid-run, tempting you with more potent boons in slots other gods already have covered, so builds can end up changing quite a lot over the course of a run.

hades xbox

Unlike so many other roguelikes, there's no such thing as a dead run in Hades. Sure, you might not end up powering up to the point that you're able to reach the surface, but even in death, you wind up bringing so much back with you to the House of Hades that it never feels like wasted time or effort. Darkness earned can be used to buy and upgrade persistent perks at the Mirror of Night, where there are even multiple options per slot to let you start to shape your build before you even set out. Keepsakes can be powered up to enhance their effectiveness, whether you want to take one that guarantees the aid of a specific deity (perfect for getting a build started) or one that incrementally boosts your abilities as you play well. Offerings can be gifted to progress relationships and unlock even more stuff. There's even a shopping list of smaller tasks to complete thanks to the Fated List of Minor Prophecies, and many of these can be ticked off without the need for a winning run.

That win will come in time, especially as you pour resources into those permanent enhancements, but when it does, it's just the beginning. Supergiant's handling of this cyclical narrative is just divine, with failed runs offering gradual enhancement and victorious ones adding context, complications, and even more incentive to push for the surface one more time. You even get to fully customise your experience for later cycles using the Pact of Punishment, a checklist of negative factors from which you can build your own personal New Game+ experience. That may involve making enemies tankier, faster, stronger, or more numerous, powering up bosses or hazards, disabling your persistent perks, or imposing a time limit, or you might just want to leave these options alone entirely to forgo rewards in exchange for an easier run. The flexibility of this system is excellent, and it really allows you to throw together a custom challenge level that works for you as your knowledge and skills improve.

As for the achievements, Hades' list is pretty interesting and, like the game itself, challenging but fair. I won't go into too much detail as you can read about the experience of going for the Hades completion in my in-depth Road to 1K article if you want to find out more, but most stuff here would be covered by a regular 'full' playthrough of the game. Those that aren't can feel a little grindy — having to max out every single Keepsake just feels unnecessary, while several of the side quests rely on RNG-based conversations that might take you dozens of runs to trigger. There are a few that require you to push the limits of the Pact of Punishment and these will be the ones that trip most people up. It's not a quick completion by any stretch as there's a lot to do even just to reach the credits, and the random elements mean there will be a fair bit of variance either side of the 60 hours it took me to mop up the lot. It's an amazing game and a fun completion, even if that Keepsake grind can feel like a bit of a chore by the end.
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Summary

There's no shortage of great action roguelikes on Xbox, but the arrival of Hades sets a new benchmark for the genre, and sets it high. Artistically gorgeous, narratively captivating, and always a delight to play, Hades goes above and beyond what you'd expect from a game like this, resulting in a unique experience that you'll likely still find yourself diving back into long after the completion is wrapped up. Supergiant has an incredible track record, but with Hades, the studio takes its throne alongside the gods of the indie scene. Cheers, mates.
10 / 10
Hades
Ethics
Luke spent 60 hours escaping from the depths of Hell on both Series X and Series S, earning every Hades achievement in the process. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.