Sing to me, o Muse, of Hades,
son of Supergiant, which hurled down
to the House of Death many wasted hours of mine,
better spent recalling Bastion
or replaying Transistor.
Many sing its praises,
and it has won countless prizes
in the contests of men;
yet my chorus is one of lament,
black as my mind fades
in the moments the gears of gameplay
gruelingly grind to a slog,
and the narrative novelty
is nowhere to be found.
Supergiant, a beacon of light
against industry titans long degraded,
one among those giants
that first raised indies
to their rightful place on Mount Olympus,
a bastion of hope in a world
less brave day by day,
less new year by year.
Has it now settled down in its throne,
has it put aside its arms and shield?
Has it taken up its cup, brimming full?
Hades feels less like a fruit of passion, and more like an accident of crisis, a step backwards, a product of pandemic circumstances, an attempt, although very successful, to reach a wider audience in exchange of character: Zagreus, next to Supergiant player characters from before, looks like a soulless intruder from any other franchise. Fit, handsome dude that carries a big sword? How can one forget the moment the voiceless kid woke up, the player surrogate, gray hair and chibi frame, like the other pole of an entire, vast world stretched between him and the omnipresent narrator. And how about the subtle dynamic between the silent singer and the talking blade in Transistor? And don’t get me started on Pyre, where you are a literal and literate (as opposed to illiterate) disabled person, poring over ancient lore in a wobbling wagon, heralding the dawn of the new world one Space Jam basketball game at a time. And Hades’ Zagreus? A headlong teenager-slash-young adult with family issues, sorting it out with his overbearing dad and distant mother? Sure, it’s not necessarily worse, but it betrays a certain shift in attitude. The minimalist otherworldliness that we associate with Supergiant can’t reasonably exist alongside a main character like Zagreus. The player, too, is robbed of the privilege of identifying freely with a silent protagonist, which coupled so brilliantly with the alienation felt towards the crumbling worlds around.
Weaving stories of solitude, silence and solidarity before, with Hades, Supergiant for the first time take up a pre-existing theme and setting, Greek mythology, while giving up everything that made their previous titles truly mythical. As ancient mythology, especially Greek, has been one of the most overexploited venues in gaming, it seems Supergiant trade their unique flair for worldbuilding for brand recognition and broader appeal. Even one of their signatures, the teasingly obscure single-common noun titles are gone: Bastion, Transistor and Pyre made an eternal name for themselves, engraved in the player’s vocabulary and memory, but Hades lays out exactly what it is and the little it can offer. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a game adopting and adapting a source; though, Hades manages to suck the life right out of the world and characters it treats, removing what makes mythology so mystical, epic and titillating at the same time, and replacing it with the bare outline of a sitcom, a lighthearted series centered around a moderately wacky dysfunctional family. A sitcom is the closest thing to the banal experience of playing Hades: a series, consisting of samey episode after episode, none more important than the other, except for the season finale, where something permanent and significant finally happens, yet it doesn’t last long, as right around the corner another season waits, another season with roughly the same cast of one dimensional stock characters, plus or minus one, maybe with new ideas here and there, but sticking to the old formula to a T.
It feels *that* redundant to have to fight your way to the surface ten times, just to be able to see through the main story whose conclusion is long foregone and foreseen. Never before had Supergiant resorted to such narrative indulgences, familiar from subpar television, as petty misunderstandings and obstinately hiding stuff from each other—Zagreus never talks to his father openly at their house, because? He can’t ask his mother to step in for a moment so that they can finish their conversation, because? All this would be okay in the logic of myth, like we see it work so beautifully in Bastion, Transistor and Pyre, where the tip of the iceberg is so evocative that we know for sure that there is an ice giant, a supergiant Atlas underneath, that gives meaning to the gaps in the narrative. Hades, however, giving in to its slice-of-life-simulation and Stardew Valley emulation aspirations, is at best an armada of ice floating past each other, words and sentences of no consequence, faint plotlines with no rhythm, dramatic moments of no weight, decisions involving no stakes. The narrative of Hades *is* the relationships between characters. But they are watered-down shadows of what they could be, and the few relationships that do go somewhere demand upfront a significant workload of going through the motions of the repetitious core gameplay. Little to no plot progression happens during these bouts, as the goal of the main story is to reunite the nuclear family, the goal of the extended game is to reunite with the extended family, and the side goals consist in reuniting a few side characters. In a game like this, one would expect these personal ties to develop in interesting ways crisscrossing with the general narrative. Sadly, there is no depth or flexibility to character interactions in Hades. The only influence you can have on Zagreus’ relationships is in the redistribution of his nectary wealth, and the longest conversation doesn’t stick around for more than a few bite-sized textboxes. This is no problem for a game like Stardew Valley, whose gameplay loops are much more numerous, and chained together in more unpredictable, diverse combinations—interpersonal bonds serve only to enrich the central experience, rather than sustaining and driving it. Games like Persona or Fire Emblem, on the other hand, enjoy the strong force of a linear narrative evolving in tandem with gameplay. The world of Hades, made up of a derivative setting that grows tired fast and characters that can never get too close to you, is stretched out too thinly between the roguelike bookends that it has to support.
Even if it wasn’t for the roguelike structure that disrupts the narrative pulse and prevents central progress from taking place due to its cyclicality, Hades would still pale in comparison to its predecessors. All it can claim to do better is its fluid and diversified combat—but already in Bastion, it was nearly seamless, and already in Transistor, action never got old thanks to enemy and power variety—all Hades adds on top are the elements of chance and bitter recycling. More than anything, Hades reminds me of a visual novel embedded in a MOBA client, like in the League of Legends Spirit Blossom and Ruination events. But the pure mechanical pleasure of play and outplay is better savored in multiplayer, and unlike some other roguelikes, the variation from run to run in Hades is so low that each run winds up feeling like another match, just maybe with another champion who looses arrows instead of casting spells. Its much-lauded soundtrack is forgettable, especially in the face of the monumental achievement that was Bastion’s music, whose melodies and beats still ring out today, each inseparable from their levels, with two solo vocal performances, raw gems, that will stand the test of time. While satisfactory overall, the voice acting in Hades cannot come close to the plaintive tranquility of Transistor’s antagonist, or the somber, sorrowful sincerity of the sword, or the original narrator in Bastion that shook the gaming world’s foundations and started a narrator craze. As for Pyre, who can forget the bespoke credits song, or the duet hymns that accompany the climactic rites? The music in Hades blends into the background perfectly, in harmony with the noise on screen, the same rooms and enemies that the player has to face time and again in their endless toil.
That extra touch of creative daring and attention is noticeably lacking in Hades, which gave Bastion its sublime scene of compassion, gave Transistor its mechanics infused with poignant story, and gave Pyre its inimitable aura of ceremony. Even the brushwork is more lax, the designs less detailed, environments simpler, more similar to art styles of other games, to cartoons. Even the main menu is sort of nondescript, isn’t it? It dabbles in Greek mythology, but refuses to go all in—there is no Lord God Apollo, no Hephaestus, no Tantalus in Tartarus, no Ixion, not nearly enough unique encounters to last even ten victorious escapes. And in the end, all we get for the credits sequence is the static animation of a boat going down the river Styx, while in Bastion, Transistor and Pyre, the credits were stories in and of themselves. It’s as if Hades is unwilling to be itself to the fullest, to make something of itself, something beyond gears to grind to death, forever and ever.
Perhaps the punishment of Sisyphus was the inspiration for Hades, an otherwise uninspired game that brings together the distinct repetitive appeals of action rogulikes and life simulators that can be played fondly infinitely and indefinitely. After all, one must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Yet, even for Sisyphus, Hades must leave much to be desired. Playing it is not a labor of love, but an exercise in futility. Sisyphus’ boulder smiles wide with a face of his own, but Hades struggles to put his real face on even tens of hours in, gazing blankly behind a procedurally generated mask of chaos, beckoning with empty promises. It is a genre experiment that succeeded popularly but failed in terms of personal memorability, sacrificing all that made Supergiant supergiant, their freeform games always unlike anything else. Tragically, Hades brings together many themes and genres, from roguelike to hack and slash, from dating sim to household management, Greek mythology to family drama and sitcom, but it ends up being the most generic of all.
I’m aware that Hades holds many treasures for those looking to keep themselves busy, lulled at every turn by a narrative conceit that even after tens of hours, refuses to let itself go. But that is what playing Hades feels like to me: business, busywork, needless dilution of content. Bastion was so dear to me when it came out, and I finished it three times over the years without once tiring of it—I was so impressed, it led me to publish a fanzine where I almost gave it a ten. It changed the way I thought, the way I felt about games. Hades is generic, tiring and unexciting, looking at it the way I’ve been looking at games ever since Bastion. I am sad to see Supergiant go down a different path than the one that brought us these wonderful games so far.
Hades fails to live up to the legacy of the classics that Bastion, Transistor and Pyre have become; nor does it do justice to classical myth, managing to turn it into something mundane and monotonous.
With all this in mind, I give this game my classicist’s rating of “lament it”.