Hades’ greatest achievement is its brilliantly designed endgame

Much has been said about the genius of Supergiant Games’ Hades. The indie game blends the best of multiple genres to create a unique and accessible take on the roguelike formula, while its witty writing and a stellar art style make Greek mythology somehow feel fresh and familiar at the same time.

Perhaps overlooked when praising the variety of its combat or the sharpness of its voice acting is precisely how the game keeps you hooked long after the initial 10 to 15 hours it may take to make your first successful escape out of the underworld. Some players might play Hades for that length of time and put it down, having gotten enough of it to justify its affordable price tag. But for many others, that first escape is just the beginning.

Those who’ve played the game in early access know this is a roguelike that deserves 100-plus hours of your time, all without ever feeling like it’s repeating itself. That’s arguably Hades’ greatest achievement: taking what is traditionally a repetitive feedback loop and loot grind most RPGs don’t bother to dress up or obscure — what we call endgame — and making it a consistently surprising narrative vehicle.

Hades’ endgame is the most cleverly designed interplay of story, reward mechanisms, and replayability I’ve seen in any game of its kind. As a roguelike, it is naturally designed to be played over and over again. Each time you kick off a run offers you the chance to use different weapons, swap out skills, and build a comprehensive arsenal of power ups, which in Hades take the form of “boons” gifted by one of eight Olympian gods who are best described as a weirdo cabal of your distant relatives.

Yet while most games are content on building an endgame of achievements to strive for or monotonous tasks to fill out a quest log, Hades contains a huge, sprawling story that continues well after you’ve “beaten” it for the first time. And Supergiant encourages players to keep traversing down its many winding narrative branches time and again by laying out rewards for trying new combinations of weapons, upgrades, god boons, and difficulty modifiers. (There are, of course, many achievements, collectibles, and other tasks to strive for when you’re not progressing the story.)

Trying a new escape approach is literally baked into the story itself. As the immortal son of Hades, a strapping young guy named Zagreus, you and your underworld cohort of sympathizers band together to help you run away, all just to spend a precious few minutes on the surface talking to your mother and learning more about the nature of Olympus, your origins, and your relationship with your father. Then you die and wake up back at dad’s house, destined to do it once more.

As you move through the cycles, characters will comment on your specific failures, bosses will remember you and note your weapon choice, and the Olympians will chime in with clever anecdotes and even take note of which other gods you’re drawing power from and whether they have a history with or hold a grudge against them.

Images: Supergiant Games

Your guide to the narrative is Achilles’ Codex. It’s a handy primer on the Hades universe that helps you keep track of what you’ve learned, who’ve you met, and what your relationship to that person or quest item is. You also have the aid of Nyx, your underworld matriarchal figure, who grants you access to the Mirror of Night, a list of permanently upgradeable skills and attributes that make you stronger every time you return to your bedroom and gift it a purple currency called Darkness.

One of the more valuable resources is a drink called Nectar, which you can gift to virtually every character in the game to win their affection, earn equippable items called keepsakes, and eventually unlock hidden quests. None of this becomes especially pressing or required, save a few mirror upgrades, until after you’ve escaped.

But once you do reach the surface, the game makes it clear that you’ve learned only a slice of the overall story. You’ll need to keep going back out there to uncover it all. But Supergiant never outright tells you: “Equip your most powerful weapon and complete a run on the highest difficulty modifier and you’ll progress the story.” Instead, your training buddy Skelly, a jovial talking skeleton with an inexplicable Brooklyn accent, informs you that you might get better rewards, which in turn unlock stronger versions of your weapons, if you turn up the “heat” on the Pact of Punishment contract your father makes you sign each time you try to escape. (Those are the difficulty modifiers.) And doing that means another chance at chatting with Persephone to learn more about your family’s hidden past.

Some players might not find such cryptic storytelling all that appealing; there is a comforting simplicity in just having a quest log and a point marker telling you what to do and where to go. But Hades makes these acts of narrative discovery feel like your own, even if you’re following a tidy script behind the scenes. Every scrap of dialogue in the game worth listening to because — beyond the superb voice acting — these exchanges often tell you a subtle hint about the world, the secrets you have yet to find, and ways to get stronger and more resilient in your escape attempts.

The game that feels closest to Hades in design is 2017’s breakout roguelike Dead Cells. Though it didn’t have much in the way of a compelling story, it did encourage players to play its winding, procedurally generated levels over and over again to unlock new gear and improve their skills. Developer Motion Twin also locked the few rewarding narrative secrets it did have behind excruciating difficulty modifiers called Boss Cells. Only by punishing yourself repeatedly could you break through to Dead Cells’ final level and its secret boss, a feat reserved only for a small fraction of the most hardcore players.

Hades takes an altogether different approach. The act of experiencing the story shifts from an ancillary side activity you do through wikis and Reddit, as made popular by Dark Souls and its contemporaries, into the main course. Supergiant does this by weaving together all of the games’ reward systems into one sprawling web that incentivizes you to spend your time wisely trying new builds and experimenting with modifiers.

Every time you do practically anything for the first time in Hades — like escaping the underworld with a weapon you’ve never succeeded with before — you’re given something valuable, whether its diamonds for renovating your home base or Titan’s blood for upgrading a weapon. These upgrades either help you become permanently stronger or allow you to tease out more of the narrative (and oftentimes both simultaneously). There’s also a fantastic “God mode” that makes the game slightly easier each time you die, letting you experience the story over time without having to worry about how hard everything feels as the heat turns up.

It’s a masterful system of interplaying dialogue trees, cutscenes, and hidden requirements. While addressing a guide online or consulting its active Reddit community can speed up your progress, just playing the game the way Supergiant gently nudges you to will unfold a steady stream of surprise reveals and story progress.

Image: Hades

Reach your father at the end of the underworld using the weapon he once welded against the Titans — a story nugget you can unearth by reading the appropriate codex entry — and you’ll discover a sidequest that helps transform it into a more powerful and unique version with big narrative consequences. Give enough nectars to Skelly and you’ll reveal a special quest for unlocking a powerful summoning entity, one of many in the game you can only activate after clocking dozens of escape attempts and gifting resources to the right characters to build a stronger rapport.

There’s even small narrative sidequests for the Greek mythology nerds out there. You have the opportunity to spark the flame once more between two former musician lovers by trading messages between them during and after your escape attempts. There’s also some wonderful revisions of popular mythological figures. I love Supergiant’s version of Achilles, a now-forlorn war hero who rejects his status as a celebrity of the underworld, and Thanatos, the very emo-looking son of Nyx and personification of death who resents Zagreus for leaving him alone in the house of Hades.

On the surface, it’s easy to see that Hades is traditionally well-designed. It looks amazing, plays great, and has all the staples of a big-budget production even though the team at Supergiant is a fraction of the size of a major studio. But underneath those achievements is something even more impressive: a true gold standard for narrative design and storytelling.

The industry should take more cues from Hades, not only because its low cost of just $20 and massive play time make it one of the most rewarding experiences out there, but also because we need more games willing to engage with and fundamentally rethink the act of repetition. In Hades, repetition is both the point of playing and the reward, and it never gets old.

Technology

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