Platform: PlayStation 4
Review Date: 1/8/22
Zagreus, the son of Hades and Persephone, learns the truth about his absent birth mother and decides to break out of the Underworld to search for her. Of course, escaping the Land Of The Dead is no easy task, even for the Prince Of Hades, and Hades himself impedes his progress at every step. Fortunately for him, his Olympian relatives offer their assistance, thinking that Zagreus merely wants to get away from his stodgy old dad and join them on Mt. Olympus. They find Zagreus amusing and treat his quest as a game, like you'd expect. However, escaping is only just the beginning, and once you complete the initial story arc, an epilogue adventure starts along with numerous prophecies to fulfill, relationships to build, romances to pursue, home improvements to make, and additional difficulty challenges.
The game looks fantastic and the art direction is superb. The comic book aesthetic is bold and colorful, and sets a nice tone. Similar to Japanese action/adventure games, characters converse through a set of static portraits. The gameplay is tight and precise, and each escape attempt consists of randomized enemy chambers with boss encounters guarding the exits to each realm of the Underworld. Each escape attempt ultimately results in death for Zagreus, and you die A LOT in the game. For the first few hours, the game seems extremely difficult and unfair, as you have to go all the way back to the beginning each time you die. However, your strength, skills, and Olympian boons steadily improve with each run, which allows Zagreus to go a little farther each time. After the first 6-8 hours I had found my groove and was totally hooked. It took me 36 runs to complete the main story and 96 runs to finish the epilogue, which is a testament to how compelling the game is.
While the gameplay is both fun and challenging, it's the writing that kept me coming back. The story is extremely well written and the dialog is engaging and smart. The characters and their complex relationships reflect the rich history of Greek mythology, although some creative license is employed to modernize and tone things down a bit. The trick is that you can only speak to each character once at most during each escape attempt, even when you're just kicking back in the House Of Hades. In order to keep conversations going and build up relationships, you have to keep dying over and over. It's a very clever and diabolical way of baiting the player to keep playing. There were numerous times when I wanted to just quit and walk away, but I always wanted to know what happened next. What juicy piece of Olympian gossip or lore was going to be dropped? How would Aphrodite tease and taunt me next? Would Zagreus's antagonistic relationship with his father ever soften up? How far could I take my flirting with Dusa, the gorgon housemaid? (my favorite character) Should I pursue a polyamorous bisexual relationship between Death and Megaera? And what witty commentary will the narrator come up with to describe my next demise? The amount of dialog is STAGGERING, and remains fresh for at least the first 90 runs. Additionally, the voice acting is excellent, which really sells each character and defines their personalities. While I definitely didn't like some of the voices, that doesn't diminish the quality and effectiveness of their work.
"Hades" is unlike any other game that I've ever played, and I easily sunk 100+ hours into it, which I haven't done in a long time. Bumping up the difficulty "heat" adds extra variety and challenge, but I found more pleasure in the repetitive combat at the easier levels. There's a somewhat soothing "Diablo effect" to the nature of combat. It's a spectacular product all around, and the gameplay, music, writing, art direction, game design, voice acting, humor, emotional engagement, and overall vision are wonderful.