I enjoy what Hades is made from. It’s made from folklore, naturally – Zeus and Nyx and all that other spontaneous, frightening, pitiable lot who have actually been prowling in their own kind of Early Access for millenia. And it’s made from whatever the designer Supergiant has actually gained from making dashing, carefully poised action video games like Bastion and Transistor – and storied, wilful, luminescent curiosity like Pyre.
But it’s likewise made from stone so efficiently polished it checks out like glass or water. It’s made from swimming pool of blood, of palm columns shot through with arteries of shimmering gems. Even when you’re pressing a raft throughout lava there’s a sense that the rocks around you are so, that they melt and exude due to the fact that artists have actually considered their withins, and remain in love, above all else, with texture. After every run of Zagreus’ tries to leave the underworld, he goes back to a home that is favorably lurid with texture and sharp edges and twinkle. The famous gods reside in a sort of McMansion, or a Las Vegas hotel’s Presidential Suite, bad taste spared definitely no cost. Of course they live someplace like this. Maybe life and death is simply one huge gambling establishment. Maybe these gods play dice and after that struck the slots.
Most of this textured things is created to shatter. Hades is a Roguelite fighter, so each run is a face hell and, ideally, out the opposite, and in between failures you invest incomes on brand-new capabilities and opens. But fighter is too cushioned and fleshy and imprecise a word, the awkward heel of a palm, the stub of a haphazard elbow. During the run, throughout the failures, you are a damaging ball with the focus of a laser, removing pillars, knocking things into walls, blasting stone and crystal into shrapnel clouds of thick, gritty air. Supergiant selected Zagreus as a lead character due to the fact that he is a little bit of a pencil shadow in the mythological texts – hazy shape and no genuine compound, a whisper of graphite. The composing group designs him as the sort of irresistibly arch Ivy League hardnut that Donna Tartt blogs about so well, bruised cheekbones and fresh forehead, lip a dissolute twist simply waiting to achieve its precarious hang on a Gauloise. He is charming and chancy, fine-tuned without being from another location fragile. But then the video game’s action occurs and turns him into the part of every episode of The Property Brothers where teardown begins – mallet satisfies plasterboard and the sky is hectic with splintered lumber. The kitchen area ends up being a crater in seconds. The violence is backed by the unflinching heft of metal. What a complex fellow.
None of the remainder of the video game would matter if it wasn’t enjoyable to strike things. And on this topic, I’ve sometimes worried that Supergiant, a developer blessed and cursed with rare taste, is going to end up a victim of that taste, turning out theoretically exquisite mechanisms that chime a little hollow. I’ve worried that the team’s output will even gloss away into mere brute luxury – Lambos or Swarovski swans. I’m wrong so far! What’s surprising about Hades, to me at least, is how gutsy it is, how vitally in love with connection it is. It lives to clobber. Room after room of hell. You turn up and wait for horrors. The horrors arrive and, jeepers, you shred them. You pulverise them. I have never felt so sorry for the stuff of nightmares.
Combat is based on a main attack and a special, along with a dodge and a cast, which means you lob a glossy gem into a baddy and it does them ill, but then lodges there, annoyingly, for longer than you might want it to. Beyond that it’s based on weapon choices that define how attacks and specials play out. Arrows and flinging shields are my favourite options to pick between at the moment – Hawkeye’s fine, but it’s great to be Captain America. Beyond that, though, or rather deep down and underneath it all – I was moving in the wrong direction with those ‘beyonds’ and now I can’t fix it – it’s about this feeling the video game has. And it’s the same feeling you get from the Vegas hotel landscape of the early areas, even when you’re gadding through the heather of Elysium – you sock-slide and grip suddenly, smooth and swift and then THWACK. Everything is a spin on this feeling: coasting on air, and then colliding. The darting hummingbird and the copper-bottomed saucepan.
The things you’re smacking around are wonderful. Even early on you can expect bloated ghosts with huge bellies, flesh stained the sunset colours of Florida cocktails, nasty little all-legged things with sacks of horrors on their backs. Later how about a massive snake of bones, a deadly library book stamp, bullet-hell witches and a field filled with butterfly spewing gumballs? Bosses are great and draw from the classics, but I particularly love a cluster of gems from the very first rooms that bobbles around before striking you from afar. It is so hard to be personally aggrieved by jewelry, but Hades manages to get you there. It makes glittering stone something you can hate with woozy passion.
These things come at you in waves, in procedurally scrambled rooms that have their own deadly doodads. In the first areas, you generally only have to worry about spike pits or turrets with trigger pads, so I leaned rather heavily on that dash. But then the second area throws lava everywhere, so overzealous dashing generally ends in unintentional barbecue. Onwards and upwards – risk and reward, risk and reward. And then…?
You choose which rooms to travel through from a handful of doors that appear when you clear out all the baddies. Generally you’re picking between what kind of pay-off you want once the next battle is done. The old gods were so baldly transactional. More health? One of a handful of in-game currencies for levelling up over time? Or a chance to get a gift from the squabbling cast of ancients?
This might be one of my favourite things about Hades. Over many runs you get stronger and last longer and get different weapons to try out. Fine. But each individual run is shaped by the gods you meet and the things you choose when they offer you a handful of their themed perks to pick from. Like the contents of the shopkeeper’s store in Spelunky, this stuff can really mix things up and define an adventure. And the choices are often almost impossible. A dash that poisons or an attack that poisons? More doom or a brand new special? Do I want the people I have already killed, right, to make living enemies sick?
The gods who deliver this stuff are wonderfully charming and untrustworthy and vain and drunken – the underworld is a Bluth Company construct, right down to the McMansion you all live in – but what really clicks for me is the way that this procedural game allows you to procedurally clip together your own Zagreus each time, and each time it’s bittersweet because you know things won’t fall together in quite this way ever again. It’s sad in Spelunky when I don’t get the jetpack, but for one glorious ten minute spell in Hades I had a shield that bounced around between enemies for a hilariously long time and left electricity in its clattering wake. I could chuck my shield, do the school run and return in time to catch it in the middle of a space in which everyone but me had been fatally pummelled in my absence. Meanwhile my dash spawned dark little infernal whirlpools that dragged enemies in for extra damage. Haven’t Lego-bricked that one together again since.
When it’s done it’s back to Dad’s house to mope into the bedroom, spend a few upgrade points, chat to the relatives and then head out once more. Hell is a loop. Of course it is. But each circuit fills out the characters and deepens the connections until I have actually started to warm to Zagreus, for all his poise and chill.
All of which is to say: Hades is a proper lark. I love it. But there is something else here, something that I have always felt about games but never ever been able to put into words. There is something about polished, smartly conceived Hades, about so many of Supergiant’s games which, the joyous brilliance of Pyre aside perhaps, are always too rigorous, too responsibly conceived not to know exactly what spot they’re going to fit into on the shelf, which pillars they’re going to present to the press – there is something about these games that are so assuredly products that reminds me that games are never ever just products. Games are always a way of being. To play Hades, Roguelite aside, economy aside, loop aside, is to be furious and vengeful, to be driven by bitterness, self-hate, ennui, to be pulverisingly powerful and yet horribly efficient. This is the truth of it down to the controls, which encourage you to grip the pad by the facebuttons and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze like you’re one stress ball away from telling your boss to shove it.
This video game originates from Hell, and it takes you back there, and it’s fantastic. Get in.