Game review: Hades for Steam

Oh, this game, y’all. I am glad I got it on sale, at a steep discount, and before I get to the actual review (with spoilers, so this is your only warning), I need to offer you full disclosure. I have sunk eighty hours into Hades. In that time I have beaten every boss with every weapon available, except for the eponymous end boss. I’ve beaten him two times, once with the gauntlets, and once with the spear. I’ve unlocked every ability from the magic mirror in Zagreus’ room, and fully refurnished the house of Hades.

But I have not beaten Hades, because the grind finally soured me to the point that I would rather do anything else beside play this game. What kills me most is that this is Greek mythology, which has been my jam since I first started borrowing books of parables from the public library at nine. Not even my love of Greek mythology can see me through to the end.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Zagreus is the defiant son of Hades, who learns that his birth mother is alive and well on the mortal plane. With help from his adoptive mother, he makes plans to traverse Tatarus, Asphodel, Elyisum, and the labyrinths that divide the afterlife to the mortal world. Each room he clears reveals a new gift from the gods, who are eager to help him ascend to Olympus. If at first he can’t succeed, he can die, and die again.

I’ll be honest. I went into this with lowered expectations because I haven’t liked a single Supergiant Games title yet. I bounced out of Bastion because the constant narration was irritating. I did finish Transistor despite the stupid talking sword, and despite the game constantly trying to find ways to ruin the one thing that made it fun, pausing the action to set up an elaborate plan for dispatching multiple enemies.

Hades coulda been the one to work for me. It had great art, great music, the narrator can go hours without saying anything, and then I have to press a button to acknowledge him instead of him just assuming I want his intrusion on my latest killing spree.

But then there’s literally everything else that I slalomed between mild dislike into full hate for. I know you want to ask, “If you hated it so much, why did you play 80 hours?” Because dear reader, I thought if I just knuckled in and soldiered on, I’d get to the credits and do a proper review. But I didn’t even get an achievement for beating Hades, or get to see any end credits. Why? Because to get to the “end game,” you have to escape ten fucking times. (That’s in quotes because even then, it’s still not over.) After the second escape, the game actively punishes you for continuing, and they call them Pacts of Punishment. I’ve tried them all, and they all suck, and this is for a game that already sucked the joy out of itself twenty fucking hours in.

Where do I even begin? Oh, how about the controls. Zagreus has a dodge move that isn’t long enough to avoid damage from bosses, but is just long enough to land him on a trap, every, single, time. You don’t aim where he attacks. You just mash the buttons and pray that he feels like hitting the enemy in front of him instead of pivoting to attack a wall. (and then take a fist in the ass from the aforementioned enemy.)

Or how about the bosses? Despite them having ten or so attacks with very short tells, the fine fuckheads at Supermassive felt that was unfair. So they added traps to most of the boss fights. (The minotaur and King Theseus don’t have traps, but at half health the king calls on a random god to start laying down area of effect attacks, so it’s pretty much the same thing.) Most spawn minions because it was really unfair if all I had to do was pay attention to the boss’ miniscule tells and avoid dodging onto traps. (which, by the by, is easier said than done because Zagreus’ aim with his dodge is just as terrible as it is with his attacks.) Hades himself has two health bars, lays his own traps, and summons minions despite having a billion hit points, a wheel of fire attack, and the ability to negate all damage over time by simply disappearing. In all these boss battles, if you finally do get a good build that does lots of damage, they will turn impervious, preventing you from dealing any more damage until they feel like it.

If all I had to do was suffer through one run in this, I’d have been done at around forty hours. (Theseus and the Minotaur were a long-time sticking point until I realized I had to whack the bull first) But no, after the first fight with Hades ended, Zagreus died from exposure to the mortal world. I then went to a Wiki and saw that to get the proper ending, I had to keep going. Even after that, there’s more to the story that requires even more escape attempts. Which is so fucking stupid because there’s absolutely no reason to go somewhere that you know you’re deathly allergic to.

Let’s talk about the story with more detail. Zagreus wants to meet his mother, Persephone. She’s hidden herself on the mortal plane so well that not even her mother Demeter can find her. So Demeter is freezing the world to death. Ares is engaging in so many wars that Hades is swamped with new arrivals. The rest of the gods are bickering like children at a Christmas dinner. Hades has Nyx’s daughters fighting to keep Zagreus contained despite knowing that Nyx is assisting his escape attempts.

All of this tracks, and if it had just told that story in a shorter and more straightforward way, I’d have eaten it up like Jelly Bellies. But no, almost every interaction with every character goes the same way. Zargeus asks a direct question, and the character replies, “I couldn’t just answer that. You better go talk to a different character.” So he goes to that other character to ask the same question, and gets: “Oh, that’s not for me to say. Ask the other guy again.” You have to do this stupid fucking loop ten or fifteen times just to get an answer to a question. By the way, “the other guy” in the conversation is often hidden in a room in one of the levels, and you might not get to that room on a certain run. You have to grind for days just to get one fucking question answered. Hell, even the end of the game is all about escaping over and over to ask Mommy why she can’t come home every once in a while.

More to the point, why was Hades even bothering to try and keep Zagreus in the underworld? All he’s done for the kid’s whole life is whine about how he’s useless and stupid. So the kid says, “I’m going Mother’s house,” and suddenly he cares about keeping the kid? And honestly, if he’d just let Zagreus walk out, most of his questions would be answered within a few walks on the mortal plane. Touring Hell coulda been a lot less torture if just beating this asshole once had led to a cut scene and credits. But no, I have to keep suffering through more of Hades whining, and for what? To fill up the heart meter of a god I give less than two shits about.

Then there’s the fact that aside from one boss, most don’t acknowledge that I’ve been repeatedly owning them. Theseus in particular is a real sticking point for me. He fucking knows Zagreus is the son of Hades, making him a demigod. He also should know I’ve hoisted his anus on a spear more times than I care to count. Yet, every single meeting, he says shit like, “You return, vile hellspawn. I must away with you, you vile blaggard.” Dude, I’ve killed you ten times in a row, and the only reason I haven’t finished the game is because 1: Hades is a cheating little bitch; and 2: even winning results in the same bullshit return to rinse and repeat.

Oh, and the currencies, I mustn’t forget them. Do you like mobile games that have too many different currencies? No? Well good news: this game has eight! Charon Obols are used to buy stuff in Charon’s shops in the levels. These don’t carry over from run to run, and like most rogue-lites there’s never enough to buy the stuff you really need. (There’s also a Pact of Punishment to raise prices and make doubly sure you can’t afford anything.) Titan blood, initially taken by defeating the first boss with each weapon the first time, is used to upgrade or modify Zagreus’ weapons. Dark Crystals are used to modify Zagreus himself through a dark mirror in his bedroom between runs, and Cthonic Keys are used to unlock the mirror’s higher tiered options. Gems and Diamonds are used to modify Hades’ home. Then there’s gift booze, and gift Ambrosia, both used to bribe every character into liking you a little more. At some point, their little character screen shows a heart with a lock on it, which is the sign that it’s time to hit them up with the Ambrosia.

All of the premium currencies are only given once when beating a boss with a new weapon until the Pacts of Punishment unlock, then that creates a new set of collections, called bounties. Regardless, there’s still way more stuff to buy, upgrade, and unlock than can be scavenged by beating bosses. So to address that, there’s a currency exchange shop. Ten gems can buy one Cthonic Key. Five Keys can buy one gift booze. Ten of those will let you buy one diamond. Two diamonds will get one Ambrosia, which can then be traded for one Titan blood.

Let that soak in. To get one upgrade for one weapon, you will need to grind four around four hours. Some of those need two Titan’s blood just to unlock. It’s all just busy work with little to no payoff, like working as a fry cook. Why do video games, the thing I play to have fun, feel the need to turn my playtime into a full-time job, complete with a whining manager?

I haven’t even touched on the fact that aside from the spear, most of the weapons are garbage unless they get modified during a run with the Daedalus hammer. Even then, to get better damage, they have to be granted Boons from the gods. This sound fun, yes?

Hahahaha. But no. Getting a specific build is itself another kind of grind. Even after unlocking the ability to reroll rooms, it is possible to make it all the way to the last level and still not have the modifications and Boons you wanted.

I’ll give an example. I noticed that Ares has two boons that seem tailor made for the gauntlets. One inflicts a curse called Doom. After taking a hit, an enemy has a sword appear over its head. A second passes, then the sword drops. But another boon make it so that the damage from Doom multiplies with each hit. Since the gauntlets hit four time in that short window, that’s a lot of damage. So I wanted go for that specific build to see if it would defeat Hades.

It did, but first I had to go through thirty-six runs, many ending without me even getting Doom. I could reroll room to get an audience with Ares, but his three choices were always for stuff that I didn’t need for the build.

I cannot stress this enough. Getting that one good build can overcome every other complaint I have with the game. But to get there, I have to suffer through many, many terrible builds. It doesn’t feel good to reach Elysium and have every fight with every minion drag on because they have five hundred hit points, and I have to keep hammering away on them for upwards of twenty seconds. Then, even though I’ve cleared the room twice, here’s another round of the same damage sponges. Whee, fun. Or not.

And yes, I know there’s a mod to pull up only the “seeds” that I want to play. But if I have to modify the game to make it fun, that should say something about some fundamental flaws in its design.

Lastly, there are “prophecies” to fulfill, or checklists, in other words. Because in a game that was already tedious, of course there are checklists. Each weapon has a checklist for each Daedalus Hammer modification. Every God has a checklist for all their boons. There are Duo Boons to check off, and legendary boons. There’s a checklist for the fishing mini-game. All of these require huge amounts of time to complete, and the rewards for them are paltry.

Finally, here we are at the summary for a janky, tedious, stingy hamster wheel that doesn’t even have the courtesy of wrapping up a single side quest without dragging on for days or even weeks. And yet, I’m still going to give Hades 3 stars. Because in all that time I endured, there was one moment with each of the weapons that I got the right build, and then the game was fun. Those few gleaming moments could shake off my hate and leave me grinning over every hit. I didn’t even mind losing on those runs. But for every time that golden build came together, there were twenty or more shit runs.

So…I mean if you love grinding for little to no reward, maybe this game is for you. But it sure as shit isn’t for me.