Bruce Geryk doesn’t want to tell you why Hades is so good. And he’s got the right idea, because discovery is a lot of the joy in Supergiant’s triumphant return to form (everything that made Bastion, their first game, a work of genius is represented here). If Bruce were to detail too many specifics, he would deprive you of all the “ah-ha, that’s how that works!” or “ooh, that’s a cool way to do that!” or “hey, look what I just unlocked!” moments. These progressive delights are a real accomplishment in a genre as crowded and familiar as action-RPGs and rogue-likes.
But unlike Bruce Geryk, I’m going to tell you what makes Hades so good. I’m going to narrow it down to the one thing that elevates this otherwise very good action RPG rogue-like, the one thing that other designers would do well to learn, the one thing that still eludes so many developers of so many different types of games, the one thing that boosts this from a game I really like to a game I love. That one thing is…
In Hades something is always about to happen. You’re about to get some reward. You’re about to make a difficult choice among cool options. You’re about to start one of its short sharp battles. There will be no downtime, no filler, no spinning wheels. And not in a frenetic “Michael Bay will have another explosion for you shortly” way. But in a measured, steady, and confident distribution of actions that engage your brain and your fingertips. Most action RPGs are extended bursts of speed interspersed by idling while you sort through vendor trash, navigate skill trees, consider gear loadouts, or just walk down a hallway to the next room. But Hades is about consistent traction. It’s more Spintires than Forza.
Which means there is never a good time to stop playing Hades. I mean, you can stop playing at any time. Hades uses no save-game or checkpoint shenanigans in which there’s never a good time to stop because you’ll lose progress. You can play Hades in three-minute increments (which makes it perfect for the Switch) and you’ll never lose an iota of progress. But you won’t play in three-minute increments, because Hades is built to pull you forward without friction or unpleasant prodding. It’s as slick and exhilarating as a waterslide.
One reason this is remarkable is because rogue-like have an inherent friction in the concept of permadeath. Dying is friction. Dying will make you want to go play another game where you didn’t die. And permadying is extra friction because you’ve lost progress. This death friction is a central tenet of rogue-likes and it raises the stakes, adding excitement, drama, and tension, none of which exist without the possibility of a negative outcome. But one of the fundamental innovations in modern rogue-likes is metaprogression, in which you earn progress after you’ve died. Arguably because you died. Your punishment is death, but to ease the sting, here’s some metaprogression. To ease the lost short-term progress, here’s some gained long-term progress.
Hades does this. Of course it does, because it’s a rogue-like. But Hades continues its waterslide-smooth progression between “I died” to “I’m starting a new character”. First, the narrative doesn’t suppose you’re starting a new character. This is the story of a person and his family, and you get attached to these characters because part of the metaprogression is learning about them. Most of the writing in Hades is backstory for and dialog among these folks.
And although it’s Greek mythology, it’s Greek mythology re-imagined to be relatable. Edith Hamilton this ain’t. This isn’t even God of War. God of War made Greek mythology its bitch, but Hades makes Greek mythology your family. The premise is a droll and almost surly kid (part teenager, part Millennial slacker, part nascent hero, all too-cool-for-Hell) finally trying to move out of his parents’ house, navigating the intricacies of family for better (cool uncle, hot cousin, practical stepmom) and worse (glowering dad, squabbling siblings, high-strung live-in maid, drunk uncle). It’s a rich playground for Supergiant’s clever writing and especially their superlative voice actors.
And most of it takes place between dying and starting a new run. The bits of text, each a part of the metaprogression, almost literally pave the way from your death to your rebirth for the next run. It’s a ten-step process. 1) Wade out of the blood pool, 2) talk to Hypnos, 3) talk to dad, 4) talk to (and pet!) the dog, 5) talk to Achilles, 6) talk to mom, 7) spend your crystals, 8) pick your weapon, 9) talk to your sparring partner while being reminded how your weapon works, and 10) meet the patron who will lay the groundwork for your next run by giving you your first boon. The ten-step sequence varies and it will change up a bit. Nifty surprises are occasionally threaded into the process. But it’s snappy, slick, and satisfying. A narrative waterslide.
I don’t think I’ve ever stopped playing Hades during this part of the game. I stop playing most rogue-likes in that interstitial between death and a new run. But not Hades. I’ve only ever quit out of Hades mid-run.
And here’s another example of how Supergiant gets pacing. The encounters are brief and varied, consisting of various hand-built rooms, many with interesting traps to mess you up until you learn how to use them, at which point they’re part of your arsenal. You’ll fight a few waves of monsters, each with its own set of moves (like Bastion, every weapon and every monster in Hades has a unique gameplay vocabulary, and their interactions create a rich language; the act of playing Hades is the act of becoming more fluent with its language). Hades wisely omits the hallways you would walk through in an average action RPG. Every door leads directly to another room, and these doors are a subtle and brilliant part of Hades impeccable pacing.
Each door has an icon that tells you what reward you’ll get after the next encounter. For instance, you might know you’re going to get a boon from one of the gods because his or her icon is on the door. Since each god is associated with a different action RPG concept (Dionysus is damage over time, Poseidon is knockback, Aphrodite is a damage debuff, etc.), this will be how you build your character. It’s like leveling up, but not quite, because the subtle trick is delayed gratification. You won’t get the reward until after you’ve finished the battle in the next room. It’s just a matter of seconds, and these seconds consist of playing the game, but you’ve been promised something you’re looking forward to. That promise is delicious icing on top of the gameplay cake.
And here is another psychological trick that gives Hades its immaculate pacing. I might normally fight the battle in one of the rooms and then decide to take a break. But because Supergiant is giving me a tantalizing clue about what reward I’m going to get after I play the next room, why would I stop now?
The basic concept isn’t unique to Hades, of course. Lots of rogue-likes might show you a map with icons that tell you what you’re going to get based on the route you take through it’s forking paths. But Hades uses its Greek mythology to give you a hint about what you’re going to get, and to then defer the specifics until later, when you get to choose from a menu of three randomly rolled boons. If Hades had just shown me a picture of a treasure chest, my anticipation wouldn’t be nearly as compelling. Yeah, okay, I’m going to get gold to a random treasure. But Hades tells me the table it will roll to determine the treasure. Hades gives me a hint. It implies a type of character I’m going to build and then promises to let me choose the specifics after I’ve fought the next battle.
I love what Supergiant has accomplished with Hades for a lot of reasons. Most of them are the same reasons I loved Bastion, and I’d argue that Hades is Bastion 2.0: more adult, less serious, more vivid artwork, more refined gameplay, a more varied tone, more stuff to unlock, choose, and advance, but still everything that made Bastion great. But what they’ve nailed better than anyone else making action RPGs and rogue-likes is a sense of pacing. Which is why I haven’t stopped playing Hades in the month since it was released. Because you don’t stop playing games with this kind of pacing. You only ever pause whichever run you’re in the middle of.