Hades is a procedurally generated dungeon crawler with meta progression where I help a rebellious god-prince named Zagreus escape from Hades, the labyrinthian Greek underworld ruled by his father. Zagreus’ life is charmed, spoiled in a palace filled with his father’s loyal servants and tutored in combat by the Trojan War hero Achilles. But over time he begins to see his luxury as a gilded cage. When Zagreus overhears a secret about his missing mother, he decides to escape. Beginning in shadowy Tartarus, Hades’ bottommost region, Zagreus presses upwards through fiery Asphodel, battle-scarred Elysium, and across the crimson river Styx that marks the underworld’s only exit. Along the way Zagreus battles through hordes of dead Shades charged with preventing his escape. As the Shades’ offense grows more and more ferocious, Zagreus starts to wonder: Why is he kept imprisoned in Hades, how is it connected to his mother’s disappearance, and what will the consequences be if he escapes?
Hades begins with Zagreus dropping down into the first room in Tartarus, muttering “goodbye, Father” contemptuously when he lands. This is where I assume control of his avatar. Zagreus seems to glide as I steer him through the isometric dungeon rooms using his abilities to attack and dodge in combat with his father’s Shades. I can Dash through obstacles and away from enemy attacks. I can Cast a Bloodstone, a vicious red shard that is flung at Shades from a range and sticks in them for a short time before falling to the ground, where it can be picked up and used again. Zagreus is equipped with Stygius, the Blade of the Underworld, which I can use with the Attack ability up to three times successively for a combo, or with the Special ability to create a shockwave that hits everything in a wide circle.
When every enemy in a room is defeated, the doors unseal and a reward appears. Rewards include Centaur Hearts which increase Zagreus’ maximum hit points and Daedalus Hammers which modify the functions of his weapon. More exciting rewards are Boons, gifts sent to Zagreus by his godly cousins, aunts, and uncles on Mount Olympus that enhance his skills.
Accepting Zeus’ Electric Shot Boon turns the Bloodstone into a mighty lightning bolt that ricochets between multiple Shades instead of striking just one. Poseidon’s Tidal Dash sends waves crashing away from Zagreus when I Dash, pushing away Shades caught in their flow. Ares’ Curse of Agony makes the basic Attack deal additional delayed damage, while Aphrodite’s Heartbreak Strike increases the direct damage the Attack deals and lowers the damage enemies deal. As I guide Zagreus through the underworld’s dozens of rooms I accumulate many Boons which synergize together to create unique play strategies—and in a nice break from other procgen dungeon crawler few combinations are outright bad or will immediately doom my run to an early end. I will need this power as the higher Zagreus climbs out of Hades, the more tenacious and cunning the Shades who bar his way become.
Inevitably I will fail. When Zagreus’ attempts his impetuous first escape he simply isn’t strong enough for me to guide him through every obstacle that stands between him and freedom. Whether it be from a cunning trap, a lucky hit from a mook, or at the hands of a powerful region boss, Zagreus will die, dropping all the upgrades I have accumulated for him. But when Zagreus dies it is not a game over. He is already imprisoned in Hades, the land of the dead. When Zagreus dies he returns to his father’s palace in Tartarus.
This is when Hades really begins.
After Zagreus dies, he crawls from a pool of blood in the hall where his father rules over the underworld’s dead citizens. He is greeted by Hypnos, the personification of sleep who keeps a record of all the newly arrived dead and shares a pithy remark about their fate. I guide Zagreus down the hall and meet Hades, Zagreus’ father, who sneers at his son’s failed escape attempt. Past the hall I meet Achilles, Zagreus’ teacher, and Nyx, night personified and Zagreus’ adoptive mother, who offer more supportive words and encourage him to try again. I find my way into Zagreus’ room where there is a window that overlooks Tartarus. It was by leaping out this window that Zagreus began his first escape attempt, and how I direct him to begin his next. And the next. And the next. And the next.
It is through repeated death and subsequent visits to the House of Hades that the plot is advanced. Each time Zagreus returns to the House its occupants will have new things to say. They may comment on his progress, clarify more about his life before his escape attempts, or deepen their relationship with the god-prince by sharing their feelings and secrets. Hades disrupts the feeling of demoralizing failure that may accompany other procgen dungeon crawlers by making a failed run a tantalizing opportunity to improve Zagreus’ relationship with his friends and family and move the plot forward. In Hades, even losing feels like progress.
When Zagreus dies, he doesn’t drop everything. Some items he is able to take back to the House of Hades and these are vital to power him up and possibly make his next escape attempt more successful. With Gems, I can pay the House’s contractor to improve Hades’ infrastructure, such as adding healing pools which can appear randomly in subsequent visits to each region.
More important are Darkness and Chtonic Keys. Crystallized Darkness can be used in conjunction with the magic mirror in Zagreus’ bedroom to improve his attributes. Cthonic Keys increase the number of attributes the mirror can modify. They also unlock new weapons like Varatha the Eternal Spear and Coronacht the Heart-Seeking Bow. Just making it through Tartarus is a challenge with an unmodified Zagreus, but after sinking some Darkness into the mirror’s Thick Skin upgrade to increase his starting health and Death Defiance to give him multiple lives, Hades’ challenges become much more manageable. During later escape attempts I will want to focus on Boons and Centaur Hearts to give Zagreus the edge he needs to overcome his greatest obstacles, but early in my playtime I am ravenous for Darkness and Cthonic Keys to hone Zagreus’ base abilities even if it results in a shorter run. Hades rewards my effort with more power and successively better runs.
Power alone will not be enough to escape from Hades. After pressing through many rooms in each of Hades’ regions, I will face that region’s boss. Each boss demands not just power, but also skill. Megaera, one of the Furies who torture the underworld’s most vile Shades, guards Tartarus’ exit. She bombards Zagreus with aggressive swoops and waves of piercing energy, forcing me to dash between her attacks and claim desperate counters in the few seconds she leaves open. The Bone Hydra guards Asphodel’s exit, firing purple projectiles at Zagreus while summoning its reproducing heads to add to the onslaught. Elysium’s exit is marked by an arena where a crowd cheers on the Greek king Theseus and Asterius the Minotaur who double-team Zagreus. Theseus throws his spear from afar and summons divine intervention while Asterius keeps me distracted with relentless swings and dives from his axe.
Any one of these bosses can stop me cold—Theseus and Asterius prove an especially difficult roadblock, taking me more attempts to beat than even the final boss—but in true procgen dungeon crawler fashion they become less and less formidable as Zagreus’ power, and my skill, grow. Megaera’s swooping attacks can be dodged with a simple sidestep, leaving her wide open. The Hydra’s waves of new heads become predictable, falling almost as soon as they spawn to my attacks. While dodging Theseus and Asterius’ attacks I begin to recognize the holes they leave in their defense, allowing me easy attacks that flow with their own. Through sheer repetition, I learn each boss’s pattern and turn them from a wall to a stepping stone.
Finally, after dozens of escape attempts, Zagreus claws his way out of Hades. But the story doesn’t end there.
It turns out the situation is much more complicated than Zagreus first understood, and in typical procgen dungeon crawler fashion I must keep escaping Hades to bring the story to a close. This is when the emphasis shifts from Zagreus’ escape attempts to his relationships with his friends and family. The forefront of this shift is the deeper understanding Zagreus gains of the Olympian god’s fraught family drama. At the start Zagreus’ father seems cold and aloof, but as his motivations are clarified his actions become more sympathetic, if still flawed.
Zagreus can gain a greater understanding of Hades’ other denizens as well. By gifting Nectar and Ambrosia to the non-player characters in the House of Hades, I can help reunite Achilles with his lover, reconcile the estranged Orpheus and Eurydice, and even forge a romantic relationship with one of Zagreus’ “coworkers.” Where other procgen dungeon crawlers reveal new weapons, areas, or characters after my first win, Hades’ content remains mostly the same, opting instead to entice me to keep playing through Zagreus’ developing relationships.
Hades is not unchanged following Zagreus’ first successful escape. When I return him to the window overlooking Tartarus it is now protected by a Pact of Punishment, an infernal contract where I can opt in to modifiers that increase the difficulty of my next escape attempt. These Pacts range from the mundane, like Calisthenics Program that increases enemy health, to the more worrisome, like Tight Deadline which adds a stacking time limit to each region. The most important Pacts are Benefits Package and Extreme Measures, which give Shades and each region boss powerful new abilities I must learn to overcome. It would be nice to see new enemies, or even a new area, revealed outright as I master the base game’s content, but these Pacts are as close to Hades comes to offering discoverable new content.
Escaping from Hades with a Pact of Punishment activated rewards Zagreus with Titan Blood, a rare item that lets me upgrade and modify his arsenal. The difficulty rises precipitously as more Pacts are activated so these weapons are necessary to keep pace. If all I care about is finishing the story, I can ignore the Pact of Punishment and keep scoring easy escapes with a powered up Zagreus until the credits roll. And for those for whom even the default difficulty is too much to overcome, there is an optional God Mode that greatly reduces the damage Zagreus takes, making his story approachable to those of varying ability levels.
Most procgen dungeon crawlers have stories. Most of them even incorporate the player character’s undying nature into their plot in some way or another. Rogue Legacy casts each new player character as a descendant of the previous, benefiting from the riches and knowledge their relative gained. Enter The Gungeon traps its player characters in a time loop in a cursed citadel. UnderMine has an endless line of peasants who are conscripted by a king to delve into a mine for its riches. It’s disappointing—frustrating, even—to see Hades piled with so much credit for doing something it is far from the first to have done.
What Hades does do better than other procgen dungeon crawlers is develop its story after every run. Even a bad escape attempt where I don’t earn enough Darkness, Gems, or Titan Blood to buy an upgrade still feels rewarding as I will at least push Zagreus’ relationships forward. It takes dozens of runs before his friends and family have nothing new to say. The tradeoff is there are few secrets to uncover. Once I unlock the Pact of Punishment, the breadth of Hades’ content is before me. This would be disappointing if the core game wasn’t already finely-tuned and the prospect of attempting just one more escape, live or die, to have another round of conversation wasn’t so appealing. Hades is the perfect genre entrypoint for newcomers and a rewarding experience for veterans.