Hades – The much needed Narrative Roguelike

Sometimes, there are these games that I hear everyone talking about for weeks or months nonstop. Games that I should be desperate to get my hands on. Yet, for some reason I don’t, I sit on my hands and only pick them up much later.

It was around the time I was compiling and writing my top ten video games of 2020 list that I became very aware that I’d made a big mistake by not playing Hades. Despite having every opportunity to realise that I was missing out on something great. Because Hades is great.

The fourth game from Supergiant Games, Hades is an isometric Roguelike in which the player takes control of Zagreus; the Son of Hades as he attempts to escape the realm of the dead over and over. Like any Roguelike worth its salt, the player will die, die and die some more. Each run throwing various weapons, upgrades and boons from the various Olympian Gods that build unique combinations of abilities with each and every attempt.

The game has an incredibly satisfying gameplay loop, with each of the different Gods of the ancient Greek pantheon having their own set of mechanics revolving around the powers they provide. As well as the different weapons and upgrades they can take that changes how they function. In the early stages of the player experience with the game, the powers you get heavily affect how successful your run through the Realms of Hades end up being.

Hades - The much needed Narrative Roguelike

Although as with any good Roguelike, as the player becomes more adept at dealing with the challenges along the way, the variations simply becomes flavour to make each run interesting in a totally unique and different way.

All of this is really just scratching the surface of why I ended up falling in love with Hades so much in my, close to 80 runs through Ancient Greek Hell. Never before have I fallen so deeply into a Roguelike like this, in no small part thanks to how smartly the game entwines its gameplay elements with its narrative, making the very essence of the repeatable gameplay loop a vital part of the story being told.

In the early playing of the game, Hades quickly impressed me with how each and every time I died, and made my way back through the house of Hades to start a new run, all the characters who would talk to me would have a context-sensitive dialogue. Hypnos, the figure who greets you every time you die will comment on the kind of enemy that killed you, making a passively snide remark.

Hades - The much needed Narrative Roguelike

As you run through, and you meet more characters, each who have their own stories that start to unfold to you and how they relate to other characters. Before you know it, Zagrius is patching up relationships, reconnecting estranged family and fixing all manner of little problems for the people of Hades all while trying to escape himself. I became engrossed in these characters and their stories as much as I was enjoying the gameplay loop itself.

And it wasn’t until 30+ runs that I started to feel like I was bumping into the “generic” dialogue form characters I encountered. And even then, they were only interspersed with the many other sub-stories I was seeing happen with other characters. This approach to narrative in Roguelike feels like something of a revelation for me.

While there have been Roguelikes I’ve loved in the past, that passion has always been driven entirely by the game’s loop and gameplay. With me banging my head against them till I beat them, or until I burn myself out on unsuccessfully trying to beat them. Hades and its cast of characters manage to extend the game’s life for me exponentially, to an extent that I almost feel like the “live, die, repeat” style of the genre isn’t going to be able to grab me again unless it can also weave this style of storytelling into its loop.

Hades - The much needed Narrative Roguelike

Because despite the fact that I have escaped hell over 25 times at this point, my desire to keep playing the game hasn’t diminished in the slightest. Something I could say about games like Rogue Legacy or Dead Cells; two other games in the genre I absolutely adore. In part because beating those games generally is the end goal, building up to that one completion. Hades makes it so escaping is just one more way of dying again.

Because after you escape 10 times and see credits, there is still an epilogue storyline to work on, more subquests and customization items to unlock for the house of Hades. The game and its world has so much character that despite being close to 80 runs in I find myself wanting to keep playing, reinvesting in the deeper challenge modes introduced to keep you on your toes even after a regular run had become trivial.

Hades - The much needed Narrative Roguelike

Had I experienced Hades earlier, I have doubt that this game would have made it into my top ten video game list for 2020, probably within the top half of that list as well. In a time where the “forever game” is becoming much more of a focus for developers, and roguelikes becoming ever more popular as a consequence, Hades has managed to change the game.

It’s drip-feed method of doling out narrative content along with the in-game justification for being able to die over and over again is going to make it very difficult for me to get into a Roguelike in the same way as I came to deeply appreciate Hades… I say that, but when Rogue Legacy 2 gets its full release later this year we’ll just see how much I end up eating my words.

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