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Zagreus slays the Bone Hydra in Hades Image: Supergiant Games

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Hades is a near-flawless romp through hell after two years of early access

An aged, fine wine that would make Dionysus himself proud

Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

Hades asks you what lengths you would go to defy your shitty dad. Would you stay up late? Mess up his garden? Escape the Greek underworld against his will?

In Hades, you are that defiant son. And your asshole dad? That would be Hades, brother to Zeus and Poseidon, lord of the Underworld. And my frequent attempts to escape his grasp make up one of the best games I’ve played all year.

Prince of the underworld

I drop into the Underworld at the start of my run — falling gracefully from my second story window in the House of Hades. With my giant sword, I venture forth into Tartarus, just one piece of the Greek underworld. I pick up a random upgrade on my way out the door, increasing my combat potential or drastically altering the way I battle.

I obliterate the minions of Hades through random room after random room filled with the cloudy, lost souls hoping to send me back to where I started. I’m awarded a different upgrade after every battle. My strength grows, giving me the power I need to climb even higher as I try to reach the surface. But as always happens in games like Hades, I make a misstep, I lose all my health, and I die. I fall into a pool of blood and go back to where I started.

But when I wake up back at home, Hades reveals its true nature. It’s a game where each attempt to get to the end is a run where I battle through the world, collect some resources, and start over with new, permanent upgrades. But Hades maintains the narrative focus and charm found in Supergiant’s other titles — Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre.

I stop by Hypnos, who turns to me and offers me his condolences on my failure — remarking on whatever beast managed to take me down. And then I approach the desk of my father, Hades. I’m not just some wayward soul trying to escape the underworld, after all, I’m prince of the underworld: Zagreus.

Hades has the gruff temperament of Kratos from God of War, acting as if I’ll never do anything good enough for him. The more I talk to him, the more I think there’s some kind of affection beneath his mean exterior, but it’s rare that you ever hear it in his voice. As we chat, Zagreus himself has the smug air of a young adult committed to his goth attitude and aesthetic. Every comment from Zagreus to his father is sarcastic or accusatory. He’s spent eons dealing with Hades, just as Hades has spent eons dealing with Zagreus.

Zagreus and Hades trade wits in Hades
The father and son rarely find common ground.
Image: Supergiant Games

There’s a shared history between these two characters, a mix of mistrust, love, exhaustion and frustration. Hades lives in that place of self-superiority, certain that his son will never understand the lengths he’s gone through to be a father and lord of the Underworld. He doesn’t seem to have the time or patience to deal with his son’s rebellion any longer. In response, Zagreus exudes a real “fuck you, old man” attitude, but he’s too cool to ever say it out loud, preferring a sarcastic nod and a biting comment to direct, verbal confrontation. Father and son always part ways with a dismissive laugh or frustrated sigh.

Each time I come back from a run through the Underworld, I’m able to have a new conversation with different characters inside Hades’ house. Occasionally, I find Nectar out in the Underworld, which I can give to my friends as gifts, improving my relationship with my mentor Achilles, my step-mother Nyx, and a whole cast of characters — netting me new dialogue and trinkets to help with my escape plan.

I enter my room to spend some currency I found on my last run — upgrading myself and increasing my chances at success — and move into the armory. I collect a trinket — gifts from my loved ones — talk to Skelly, my sentient practice dummy, and select a weapon from Hades’ arsenal.

Now wielding a spear, I jump back into Tartarus from my second story window and start climbing again.

A smooth journey

Zagreus in the pit of Tartarus in Hades
The starting point for every run.
Image: Supergiant Games

Hades is shown from a top-down perspective. I get to see Zagreus, and all my friends up close when they speak — thanks to beautiful character portraits — but most of the time I’m a red blur dashing between enemies.

As Zagreus, I have a deceptively simple combat arsenal. I have a basic attack, a special move, a dash, and a ranged attack called a Cast that fires a ranged barb that sticks into enemies for a brief time. And I have these attacks for each of my six weapons — but I can select only one weapon prior to each run. I can upgrade and alter each of these moves every run, and they combine into something unique every time I play.

When I first land in the courtyard of Tartarus, the game randomly offers me one of two things: a Boon or a Daedalus Hammer.

The Daedalus Hammer is one of the most desirable upgrades in the game, dramatically altering how my weapon works. For example, the special ability on the shield is a Captain America-type throw that bounces between a few targets before returning to me. The Daedalus Hammer increases the number of times my shield bounces between enemies. This may not sound exciting at first, but combined with powerful Boons, it could be the key to my escape attempt.

The Daedalus Hammer is rare, and I’m lucky to have more than two on any given run. Boons are far more common. These are upgrades passed to me by my uncles and cousins in Olympus. Zagreus has never met Ares, Poseidon, Zeus, Hera, or any of the others, but they all feel sympathy for him. He’s a nice enough kid, and eager to meet his family, and they all know that his dad is the ultimate asshole in Greek myth. So these Boons imbue Zagreus with a fraction of the gods’ powers, to help him on his journey — like handing your nephew a wad of cash before they go off to college and hoping they spend it on more than cigarettes and beer.

Athena offers Zagreus a Boon in Hades
Athena is only one of your relatives to offer you power in Hades.
Image: Supergiant Games

These Boons offer me minor effects that impact various aspects of combat, usually focused on my attack, special, or Cast. If I pick up the Daedalus upgrade that lets my shield bounce, maybe I would want to find a Zeus Boon that causes my special to spawn lightning bolts on every enemy hit by my special attack? Or a Boon from Dionysus that transforms my Cast into a hazy pool that stuns and poisons targets inside, keeping them still for my shield to bounce.

Every run I combine new effects like these together. More often than not, I smile at how absurdly powerful my Zagreus has become. But a good build isn’t everything; I still need to survive my voyage through the Underworld.

When I clear my first chamber, I’m presented with a choice of doors. Each has different symbols on the outside, previewing the upgrade I’ll get for completing that room. Do I want a boon from Athena? Or I could just get some gold to shop with? Charon, the boatman, has an underworld shop where I can buy health, Boons, and a variety of other items. No matter what I choose, I move forward. Eventually I reach the first boss, the Furies.

This boss fight has a few different varieties, which can change things up between runs. But aside from a few, altered moves, it’s a consistent experience. If I choose upgrades that focus Zagreus’ power too much on clearing rooms filled with basic enemies, I may struggle on the boss fight. And if I focus too much on a boss-killing Zagreus build, I’ll suffer on my way there. When I succeed, I get a brief moment to rest and heal before moving on to the next area of the underworld.

Healing doesn’t come easy in Hades, and I take every piece of food, healing fountain, or health bonus I can find. But my failure takes time. At first, I’m sent back to the House of Hades when my health hits zero, but as I go, I gain the ability to revive myself multiple times each run. I see my losses coming rooms away, and more often than not, it’s at the hands of the game’s final boss, in the fourth level of the underworld.

But even when I beat that boss and finish my journey, it’s not over. The game tempts me with new materials to upgrade my weapons further and customize my home. But no matter how many runs I win or how many times I’ve fallen, I’m always jumping out that window again, just trying to see what that first upgrade will be, and then the next, and then the next.

The perfect Pandora’s Box

Hades has been a comfort game for me since it launched into early access in 2018, and it’s especially been an excellent source of comfort over the past few days — something we’re all in short supply of in 2020.

Zagreus battles Theseus and the Minotaur in Hades
Every battle in Hades is different, even if you’ve done it 1,000 times before.
Image: Supergiant Games

I started my first journey through the Underworld in Hades two years ago. The game functioned basically the same as it does now. It was an excellent, fully functional game — albeit with only two bosses. I ran through the first few areas, and got stuck on the Bone Hydra for days. The Bone Hydra was, at the time, the game’s final boss, but is now only the second of four.

Every time I tried out a new Hades patch, I would get lost in an endless cycle of runs for a week, and all my gaming time would disappear. Hades has always been so good that it’s hard to put down, and now it’s feature complete with the 1.0 launch on both Nintendo Switch and PC. It’s the same game I loved in 2018, but more of it. More build variety, more weapons, more characters, more areas, more secrets, more story, more everything.

Whether it’s the game’s smooth combat, deep loot systems, or engrossing story, I’m always motivated to boot it up and go for another run. Hades is that rare triple threat — like that kid in high school that could act, sing, AND dance.

Try as I might, I cannot find fault in Hades. It’s even created a calm in me that no other similar game has. Loss isn’t a frustrating experience met with loud swear words and the sounds of scrambling feet made by my previously sleeping cats. Failure is just another step on a long adventure with one of my favorite games, years in the making and well-worth the wait.

Hades left early access on Sept. 17 for Nintendo Switch and Windows PC. The game was played using a Nintendo Switch copy purchased by the writer. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.