How do you review an early access title? Do you base opinions on the current state of the game or on what lies ahead? What if promises are broken, funding withdrawn, or the title simply morphs into something unrecognizable? These are all factors worth considering when delving into a video game with an early access tag.
So, here’s what i’m going to do. I’ll factor in everything, meaning the current content and the potential improvements that will no doubt follow. This review will come to a two-part conclusion – is the game worth playing and supporting in its current state, or is it best to wait for future updates and engross yourself in a more complete experience? Boring part over, let’s talk about Hades.
Hades is a beautiful looking rogue-like dungeon crawler set in the underworld of Greek myth. It’s currently available to purchase on the Epic Games Store in its early access state; if you’re unfamiliar with early access, think of the game as a work-in-progress. Essentially, players have the opportunity to improve a game by playing it in its early state and providing feedback to the developers. You also get to witness a title take shape over time, which obviously has both positive and negative effects on a players enjoyment.
Hades is yet another lovechild of Supergiant Games, the studio that brought us the fantastic Bastion, Transistor and Pyre. The game is instantly recognisable as the work of Supergiant, with it’s drop dead gorgeous art design and it’s high quality musical score, which includes fantastic voice acting as always. It’s got that ‘crafted with love’ feel to it that we’ve become familiar with when playing a Supergiant game.
You control a character named Zagreus (Zag for short), the son of the God of Death himself, Lord Hades. Zagreus wants to leave the Underworld in search of his mother and to join the Greek Gods on Mount Olympus. Each escape attempt sees Zagreus jump from a window in the house of Hades and make a run for escape through the Underworld. As you can imagine, the Underworld is a very dangerous place, so much so that Lord Hades—although not particularly happy with Zags defiance—is more than happy to allow him to venture into the Underworld, safe in the knowledge that escape has never before been achieved. Being a rogue-like, failed escape attempts happen often, especially in the opening hours of the game. It’s with each failure that the storytelling portion of the game reveals itself.
When death occurs—and believe me it will—Zag arrives back at the house of Hades, dusts himself down and readys himself for another attempt. It’s during these intervals that the games story takes place; the house is full of characters from Greek mythology, and each of them are voice acted and interact with Zag in unique ways, often based on how successful or unsuccessful he was on his previous escape attempt. You will learn about these characters, their relationship with Zag, and the reasons why he’s so determined to escape through voice acted dialogue. Gifts can also be given to the inhabitants of the House of Hades; this feature is limited in its current state, but the prospect of having to find certain items to gift to certain characters in exchange for rewards remains an intriguing one. For something as simple as a rogue-like, I actually found the story to be a well polished and interesting take on Greek mythology, even in its unfinished state.
With death being how you interact with the games many characters, it will come as no surprise that Hades starts off as a very punishing experience. When first thrown into the Underworld (or rather jumped in), you will be limited in abilities, base stats, and items. Although improving Zag is not a particularly challenging affair—as resources can be collected on even the most brief of escape attempts—it’s a very time consuming one. Upgrades and improvements are made by using a magic mirror on Zags bedroom wall, and it is here that you trade resources found in the Underworld for abilities and stat improvements. The resources you collect aren’t particularly varied: you will need keys to unlock the improvements, Darkness to rank them up, and gifts to charm the games characters into giving you a Heirloom in return. A new resource called Heat was added in the first major patch – I will talk about Heat and the previously mentioned heirlooms later.
So, you know what resources are needed, and for what purpose, but how do you obtain them, I hear you ask? This brings me to the core of the game – combat.
Essentially, Hades combat consists of rooms with three or four waves of enemies that grow stronger as the waves progress. It sounds simple, and for the most part it is; Zag enters a chamber (room) and is attacked by spawning enemies, once these waves have been defeated, you collect the spoils of battle (usually a single reward) and move on to the next room. The proceeding rooms entrances are marked with the reward that can be collected by completing that room, which can lead to some interesting decision making when confronted with more than one option for which room to tackle next.
Boons are by far the best thing about Hades; not only do they add variety to each run, but they also require you to have an understanding of which abilities synergise with others
Rewards don’t just consist of resources, with Boons—which act as upgrades that improve Zag for that run only—also being available. Boons are by far the best thing about Hades; not only do they add variety to each run, but they also require you to have an understanding of which abilities synergise with others and how your combat playstyle might be affected by not only what you’ve chosen, but also what you’ve been forced to take. Boons are the bread and butter damage source of your runs, and you can adjust your playstyle based on the Boons that you choose. Boons are given to Zag by the various Greek Gods that you encounter in the Underworld, and each God will give you a choice of three Boons that are specific to that God. For example, Zeus, the God of Thunder, will provide you with three thunder-related Boons, while Ares, God of War, will offer you Boons with a delayed damage effect. While it’s possible to discover the same god more than once, you won’t be able to stack the same abilities, which means if you choose cast damage the first time round, it won’t be available to you again during that run.
Boons can also be upgraded with another one of the games rewards, called a Pom of Power. These Poms let you choose from up to three of your existing Boons to level up, meaning that if you’ve only picked up two Boons then you can choose which one of the two to upgrade. If, however, you’ve acquired five Boons, only three of the five will be available to upgrade. This adds another interesting gameplay dilemma – do I collect as many Boons as possible and risk not being able to upgrade the most powerful? Or, do I settle for a smaller number of more powerful, upgraded Boons? These decisions don’t seem particularly important at first, but when Hades ramps up the difficulty, all of these choices matter. Each individual Boon also has a rarity level, with epic and legendary Boons offering (for the most part) stronger benefits.
Graphically, Hades looks fantastic, which isn’t very surprising given that it is a Supergiant game. The world has that colourful, illustrated style that fans of Supergiants previous games will be more than familiar with. It’s not very often that an early access game gets released looking—and more importantly running—as smooth as this. Animations are also on point, with the recent update improving thousands of frames of animation for the main protagonist, Zagreus.
Currently, there are four weapons for Zag to choose from in Hades. The first of these, the sword, is your starting weapon, with the bow, spear, and shield needing to be unlocked with the previously mentioned key resource. Each weapon has two attacks; a normal and a special. The normal attacks are exactly what they sound like, whereas the specials are more ranged or aoe based. Both of these attacks can be upgraded with certain Boons, as can the dash and cast abilities. What I enjoyed most about these four weapons is how they all played so differently, and how different Boons and upgrades are more useful with certain weapons. For example, the god Poseidon can grant you a Boon that knocks enemies backwards on attack, cast or dash; it’s not the best ability, but when paired with a bow that has increased damage at long range the pairing works really well.
Weapons, whilst simple to use, all require a different playstyle
Weapons also have unique abilities: the bow has a timed attack that deals more damage if you release the charge at the right time, the shield can be used to defend against projectiles by holding attack (which then charges at enemies upon release), the spear can be charged up for an aoe swing attack, and you can perform a combo with the swords normal attack to perform a powerful slash attack. Weapons, whilst simple to use, all require a different playstyle to be successful; with that in mind, it’s going to be interesting to see just how many weapons are added to the final version of Hades.
As mentioned earlier, Zag has an option to present gods in the Underworld and certain characters back at the house of Hades with gifts. At present, only one gift grants you a reward, with future updates no doubt increasing the amount of gifts that you can give and rewards that you can benefit from. Heirlooms are the only rewards at the moment, with one being selectable before the start of each run, with an option to change it after the first Act is complete. Each Heirloom offers a different benefit, ranging from extra HP or a second chance of life, to choosing what god you would like to encounter next, with an increased chance of receiving a high level Boon from that god. Each heirloom can also be upgraded by completing chambers with an heirloom equipped, and each additional rank gives the looms slightly better stats. This is a feature that was added in the first major update, and it feels more like a grind than a necessary gameplay improvement.
The first major update, The Chaos Update, added a whole host of improvements to the game (you can read all about The Chaos Update here). The most important of these improvements was to the end game content. Hades, like most rogue-likes before it, starts off as an extremely challenging game, but once you’ve learned the mechanics and improved your character it can become slightly easier. Thankfully, this issue was addressed with the Pact of Punishment. By collecting the newly added Heat resource, players can now increase the difficulty of Hades with in-game modifiers. These modifiers allow for some truly testing runs through the Underworld for even the most hardcore of players.
Updates to Hades seem to be coming in thick and fast. On the games title screen, a countdown is given to the “next major update”, with Supergiant aiming to release one every 30 days. We fully expect each and every one of these major updates to significantly improve the game, with a month between them feeling like a real sweet spot. With any early access game, it’s great knowing exactly when new content is going to be available