Roguelikes are terrible and I love them. Well, at least I love them when they’re done well. Repetition can be one of the worst things about videogames, and it’s inherent to the genre. When a game’s designed smartly enough, though, that repetition can be an opportunity—as proven by Hades, the newest game from Supergiant.
Roguelikes are almost as terrible as the term “roguelike” itself, which might be the most opaque bit of nonsense game jargon yet. Drop that word in conversation with somebody who doesn’t live and breathe this stuff and they’ll assume you’re talking about that X-Men member or some Han Solo ripoff character. So let’s go over it real fast.
For those not in the know, a roguelike is a videogame that meets a few specific criteria memorably found in the 1980 computer game Rogue. The two biggest are that levels are procedurally generated, meaning they change every time you play the game, and that death is permanent. When you die, your game ends, you lose whatever items or perks you’d acquired during that run, and the next time you play the levels will all be different.
Some sticklers insist that a true roguelike has to be a dungeon-crawling RPG. Many games have combined procedurally generated levels and permadeath with other kinds of genres over the last decade, including Spelunky and its brand new sequel, and some pedants say those games should be called roguelites or “hybrid roguelikes.” I say none of these words mean anything outside of videogame circles, so call ‘em whatever the hell you want.
How to talk about these games is a concern for one primary reason: there have been a ton of them over the last several years, and it helps to have a common vocabulary with which to discuss them. When you don’t just assume that the reader knows what a term like “roguelike” means, you wind up wasting so much time just laying the groundwork. You wind up with paragraphs like these last three—almost 300 words of trying to explain something in a way that’s hopefully not entirely mind-numbing or insulting. Please don’t let me know if it was a success.
These modern roguelikes might seem like heretics to the faithful, but they’re also the games that have made this genre so popular lately. And although Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, Dead Cells, and many more can all be exhilarating in different ways, they’re all still built around a central kernel of game design that hinges on frustration. When you get deep into these games, and are on a long run with a great set of perks and items, and then suddenly make a stupid mistake and have to start all the way back at the beginning, it can be the most frustrating thing in videogames. As fun as they can be, that failure and the annoyance that comes with it are central features of these games.
What makes Hades so great—and what elevates it above almost every other game of this sort—is how it creates a consistent sense of progress even as you keep dying and restarting. Part of that is mechanical—although you lose all the boons bestowed upon you by the Greek gods after a run ends, along with other power-ups acquired during your journeys through the underworld, there are a few things you do hang on to when you return to the game’s hub world. More important than that, though, is how the game’s narrative unfolds between runs, driving you to keep playing through whatever frustration you might feel in hopes of learning more about the game’s story and characters.
Between every run in Hades your character, Zagreus, returns to his home—the palace of his father, Hades, the God of the Dead. Yep, he’s another rich kid who feels his first bit of angst and immediately starts slumming it. Here you can interact with various characters, upgrade the decor, unlock new permanent perks, and practice with the game’s small arsenal of weapons. Every time you return the characters who live here have new things to say, slowly unraveling their own storylines and deepening their relationships with Zagreus. And given that the writing in Hades is as consistently sharp and human as it’s been in all of Supergiant’s games, getting to talk to these characters alone is a reason to actually look forward to dying in this game.
The way Hades doles out its story is kind of ingenious. You don’t even know the reason Zagreus is so hellbent to escape hell until after several failed runs. Each of the characters who live in Hades’s palace are strongly written and more complex than they might seem at first, and they all have different items that Zagreus can earn if he chats with them enough and gives them the occasional gift. So even players who don’t normally care about the words in a videogame are incentivized to talk to Hades’s characters.
This even carries over to the game’s boss characters. The first boss you’ll fight (again and again), the Fury Megaera, might be the most interesting character in the game; her antagonism towards Zagreus—fueled mostly by a sense of duty, but with just enough contempt and familiarity to let you know that she’s had to deal with a lot from her boss’s annoying son—reinforces the game’s intentional tension between the urgency roguelikes are usually known for and the total lack of urgency found in Hades’s hub world. You can just hang out with her in the lounge, talking smack back and forth, maybe only occasionally acknowledging that you’re both going to try to kill each other again in a few minutes. Every time you make it back to a level’s boss, the dialogue is new, referencing your previous encounters. That promise of what happens next will keep you going through each defeat, and through all of the frustration.
Hades also does more, mechanically, to keep things fresh over regular replays than any other game like this. It’s not just the different weapons you can pick before each run, each with at least two different attack modes. During your war through hell you’ll often receive boons from the Olympian gods, some of whom actually seem interested in helping Zagreus for his own sake, but most of whom probably just want to fuck with their surly brother or uncle, Hades. Each god has various different boons of varying power levels to bestow, each one improving part of Zagreus’s toolkit. A boon from Zeus, say, will add a bolt of lightning to each one of Zagreus’s basic attacks; upgrade that boon and the lightning might chain to multiple enemies. There’s an immense amount of variety with these boons, which makes every run feel significantly different beyond just the changing level layouts.
The gods themselves are as full of life and personality as the denizens of Hades’s palace, and seeing how they’ll interact with Zagreus—or react to the fact that he’s already received boons from another god (they’re jealous types, these Olympians)—is as exciting as whatever specific upgrade their boon offers.
The boons aren’t permanent. The coins you earn on a run, which can be used at Charon’s shop to buy health or other perks, aren’t permanent, either. You lose them all when you die. Three other kinds of currency that you can earn do persist between runs, though, and that means even the shortest, most disastrous run can still have permanent benefits. Maybe you’ll have gotten enough keys to unlock the next weapon, or purple darkness gems to access the next permanent boost from the magic mirror in Zagreus’s bedroom. You’ll find yourself going on runs solely to gather those keys or gems, ambivalent towards whether or not you actually make it deeper into the layers of hell this time, because you know you’ll permanently improve your chances on each subsequent run. Again, this is a lifeline that Hades tosses you through the frustration of constantly dying and starting over.
If you played Bastion, Supergiant’s first game, and one of the very best from the last decade, you might recall that game’s shrine idols. These were optional items you could equip that would make the game harder, but improve our rewards. Hades owes a lot to Bastion—the various weapons and the core combat are strikingly similar—and it even has a type of item not that different from the shrine idols. As you befriend the citizens of the underworld, they’ll eventually give you keepsakes that can be equipped before a run. Most of them help you in some small way, or has a trade-off where you’ll boost one of your stats while lowering another. This is another permanent upgrade, and one you can regularly swap out before each run, and even between levels during a run. The way all these systems interact—from the ever-changing boons, to the keepsakes, to the fact that each weapon has its own skilltree that can be upgraded throughout—insures that the combat in Hades is remarkably deep, resilient, and customizable. You could easily play dozens of runs without ever having the same set of skills, attacks and perks twice.
If you’re a roguelike traditionalist, this all probably sounds like your own version of hell. Don’t worry: there are dozens, possibly hundreds, of games out there that’ll give you the unforgiving punishment and streamlined repetition you’re looking for. Hades is aiming for something else—to capture the sense of incremental progress and improvement that makes the genre fulfilling, but without the waves of deep frustration that regularly crash into the player. It pulls it off spectacularly.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.