Hades and the Dance of Death in Roguelikes

The inevitable cycle of death and rebirth in roguelikes is a tough sell for many players, but Hades masterfully dodges this classic problem. Between delightful characterisation of NPCs, the gradual reveal of plot details and a meaningful sense of progression, the fatal forays into the Underworld have never been more enjoyable.

Hades and the Dance of Death in Roguelikes Cover

The first time I played Hades, I somehow managed to bumble my way all the way through to the first boss fight against Megaera almost without issue. ‘Wow,’ I thought. ‘This really isn’t so bad. Imagine if I got even further while managing not to die?’ Meg then proceeded to absolutely wreck my shit with a finesse that could only be mustered by one of the Furies. I swiftly suffered my first death in Supergiant’s new roguelike, and that’s when I discovered the House of Hades.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hades - v1.0 Launch Trailer

The Only Way Is Up

Hades is the latest game from developer Supergiant Games, of Bastion and Pyre fame. In it, you play as Zagreus, son of the eponymous Hades, and your task is to escape from the Underworld. As you proceed, you’re gifted certain abilities and upgrades from the various Olympian gods to aid you in your task, such as lightning strikes from mighty Zeus and a whirling vortex of blades from furious Ares (who honestly seems rather more chilled out here than in the Homeric epics), and make no mistake: you’re going to need them. The combat in Hades can be punishingly difficult in places, and as you rise through the various levels of the Underworld, it only gets harder. Before long, you’re going to die.

It's OK, it'll happen to all of us.

It’s OK, it happens to all of us.

Hades is a roguelike, which means that death works a little differently than in other games. Rather than reverting to a previous save or checkpoint on death, a roguelike will send you all the way back to the beginning of the game and tell you to do it all again, but with less dying this time. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for roguelikes – 2012’s Spelunky HD turned into one of biggest hits of the Xbox Live Arcade, and other small titles like Beacon have proven to be very enjoyable – but for all the charm you can pack into games like that, the one-life rule can be a pretty tough sell for a lot of players. It’s tough not to feel a sense of disappointment, sometimes even frustration, to fight your way further and further into a game only to be dumped back on the doorstep of level 1 time and time again. How are you supposed to mitigate that? Well, that brings us back to the House of Hades.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

When you die in Hades, you end up trudging up out of the River Styx into the House of Hades, the ancestral home of the First Family of the Underworld and what amounts to a hub world or home base for Zagreus. Here, as in many other modern roguelikes, you can spend the various types of currency you picked up in your escape attempt to boost stats and unlock new weapons and the like, giving yourself a bit of an advantage in your next run. Even in this respect, though, Hades stands out. A more conventional rogue-like such as Rogue Legacy will give you a massive talent tree full of skills and options that, for the most part, merely increase some numbers and percentages behind the scenes – certainly all very helpful, but will adding 2% damage to a certain weapon type feel particularly visceral to the average player?

Nice digs, but it feels like it could be streamlined...

Nice digs, but it feels like it could be streamlined…

Hades, on the other hand, offers clear and immediately understandable abilities, such as an extra dash, health regeneration on entering a new room, and of course, that holy grail of the roguelike: death defiance, an extra chance or two to wobble back from the precipice once your health diminishes to zero. Coupled with the armoury, featuring an impressive selection of weapons and trinkets and the chipper advisor/training dummy Skelly, you’ll always walk out of the House of Hades with a new and interesting build, ready to take on the trials of Tartarus once again.

But the House is much more than just a glorified vending machine: it’s a social hub, with people to talk to, places to explore, and, perhaps most importantly of all, dogs to pet. There are the goofy Hypnos, who offers…sometimes helpful advice for combatting whatever just killed you, fearsome Cerberus, whom you can pet for being a good boy, and of course, the man himself, Hades – also known as your dad – along with a host of other inventive (and mythologically accurate) characters. The House is lovingly filled with people to meet and things to do right from the get-go, and things only expand from there.

I’m 10 or 12 runs into Hades now, and each time I die, there are new things to discover and new conversations to be had. Whether it’s a mysterious chat between Hades and Nyx, goddess of the night, or a chance to bond with swift-footed Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War and the House’s occasional Employee of the Month, there’s always something new and fun to take the edge off the fact that, well, you just kicked the bucket. Again.

Home sweet home.

Home sweet home.

The Journey, Not the Destination

This sense of gradual characterisation and plot breadcrumbs isn’t just limited to the House of Hades, of course: once you’re out in the dicey lands of the Underworld again, you’ll run into the Olympians, along with a few other memorable characters from mythology like Sisyphus and Charon, all of whom are more than happy to have a little chin-wag before bestowing their goods and services upon you. They all have a huge variety of things to say, whether they’re looking forward to your arrival on Olympus, worried that you’ve lost so much health, or commenting on the other abilities you’ve been gifted on that particular run. In further runs, you’ll start to come across new characters too, such as the other Furies and the unknowable Chaos, whom you simply wouldn’t meet if you somehow managed to blow through the game in one or two attempts.

Are you really going to pass up the advice of the Goddess of Wisdom?

Are you really going to pass up the advice of the Goddess of Wisdom?

It’s a small thing when you’re running through the game, but it belies the huge amount of care and attention to detail that Supergiant put into these little touches. A lot of time and effort goes into designing all this content and writing and recording all these lines of dialogue for every character that are simply designed to immerse you in the world a little more and spice up each subsequent run of Hades, but it really pays off and makes each death feel less like punishment as in other roguelikes and more like an opportunity to see more of the game.

Sing, Muse, of the Man Who Escaped Death Itself

Ultimately, Hades is a roguelike that manages to temper the disappointment of each inevitable death with the excitement of what will be new back in the House of Hades and what will change on each subsequent run. In doing so, the game as a whole manages to have a real sense of progression throughout, rather than a ceaseless and cyclical task where you keep trying to press forward before being callously cast back to the beginning with nothing to show for it. Hmm… I’m sure there’s some sort of mythological allegory for that. I’m sure it’ll come to me.

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