Roguelikes (or lites, depending on how you feel) toe a narrow line – replicating the punishing reset of a finished run without discouraging players as much as true Rogues.
Hades is easily one of the best such games made in years and years, managing the same feat of slick and fun gameplay as the likes of Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells while outdoing them massively by also packing in a delightful, considered set of storylines uncovered in natural and rewarding patterns.
You play as Zagreus, son of Hades and champing at the bit to escape the land of the dead to meet his mother and the wider pantheon. A sarcastic teenager, he is forced to run a gauntlet through the planes of hell in order to attempt that escape, and each failure returns him to the halls of Hades to start again.
Neat solutions to explain why a Roguelike has to reset are nothing new, but this is particularly elegant example. Each time Zagreus returns, he can talk to a revolving cast of characters in the hall, along with various folks that he’ll meet while out and about, and uncover more and more details about why they’re here and how they’re faring.
All this is presented via beautiful cel-shaded character portraits and sprightly voice acting, with particular praise merited by the conscious diversity of its designs. The accents might not all be stunning, but the writing is delicious and the manner of its drip-feeding becomes a key factor urging players to keep going.
Gameplay is a top-down brawling affair. A range of weapons are available to choose from at the start of your run, with differing playstyles, but the key to its replayability is the boon system. This sees you occasionally earn rewards from gods like Athena, Poseidon and Dionysus, granting you abilities that play off each other to make for unique tactical approaches on each attempt.
You’ll need to be tactical, too – Hades is a tough nut to crack at first. Over time, though, you’ll unlock buffs that start you off with more health, or let you die once without restarting, and a host of others to make things more straightforward (all of which can be turned off if you want the challenge).
Before long, though, you’ll be dodging and dashing around, casting god-given spells and finding combinations that feel almost game-breakingly powerful until you screw up and die to a mid-run boss. Importantly, though, each run feels valuable, and no time seems wasted, whether because of passive benefits earned over time, or new exchanges triggered with familiar characters.
Once you reach the true endgame, meanwhile, you find a really impressive new slew of content that lets you jack up the game’s difficulty in novel ways to present all-new obstacles, and encouraging mastery of each weapon in turn.
This is a finely-tuned and superbly presented set of systems tied up by an extremely well put-together story, which is about as concrete as videogame praise can get. Hades will be many people’s game of the year, and certainly merits all its acclaim.