Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Tacoma

I stand corrected: Unlike my assertion in my last post, sometimes games are shorter than books! And when that happens, it's generally a good thing!

Tacoma is the latest entry in the long line of Awesome Games That My Younger Brother Gifted To Me That I Took Way Too Long To Get Around To Playing. In this case, though, once I started it, I was able to finish in just a few delightful hours.
 

Tacoma is the latest entry from Fullbright, who made my beloved Gone Home. It isn't a sequel, but plays and feels very similarly to their earlier entry. A so-called "walking simulator", it's more about exploration and discovering the narrative through the environment than through traditional gameplay.

MINI SPOILERS

The most obvious difference is the change in environment, in time and space. Gone Home was a deeply nostalgic and personal story, set in our near history and filled with objects we've personally touched in our own lives. Tacoma is set in the speculative future of 2080, with some science fiction underpinnings. I actually found myself thinking of Prey a lot while playing it: of course, the games are totally different in tone and style, but the sense of being in space and watching people make lives in the void felt similar. You can sort of piece together the story of how we got from the present to the future, and it seems like Elon Musk gets a lot of the praise. I guess that when Fullbright was working on this game back in 2016 or so Musk would have been primarily seen as the SpaceX guy, but some of those references have not aged very well.
 

Like in Gone Home, Tacoma's game controls are very simple. You can move around; but since this game is set in a space station, you can sometimes move around in three dimensions thanks to zero-G. You can pick up a single object in your hands. You can inspect it closely, moving it around in all axes. Every once in a while you'll find something useful this way, but the vast majority of the time it's just an object. And that's a big part of the pleasure of this game! The environments are real and lived-in and tell stories. I mean, if you came over to my place, most of the stuff you saw wouldn't be like a clue to the password to my computer, but it would strongly suggest how I live and what type of person I am.


Back to the gameplay: Tacoma does add one new mechanic, which is an augmented reality overlay. As you investigate the station, your computer automatically collects historical logs from the surroundings: audio feeds, video recordings, and so on. Then you can project what are essentially ghosts from the past into the physical space of the present. This works a bit like an old-fashioned VCR: you can play it forward, pause, rewind.
 

What's really cool about this is that, in addition to the written artifacts we had in Gone Home, Tacoma also demonstrates social dynamics. You'll play a recording of two people talking, and observe a third one coming to join them. Where did he come from? You can then rewind, following that third person back along his route, and see where he was talking with a fourth person, or running something past the station AI, or performing some task. Some of these interactions are moving: A medical officer calmly walks a panicking botanist through a difficult choice, listens to his concerns, excuses herself, walks away... and, once she's out of earshot, bursts into tears. Both of them, oblivious to the other, call up the ODIN AI and ask its advice on the interaction.
 

There is a mild gameplay element to this. At certain times in the scenes, the characters will bring up their own AR desktop, at which point you can then access it and collect more information. Again, this is typically insight into their lives and personality, but occasionally a passcode or other resource needed to progress.

MEGA SPOILERS

The overall emotional arc of Tacoma closely resembles that of Gone Home. In both games you're exploring an eerie, deserted environment, surrounded by the evidence of people but with no living people to be found. As a player of video games, you naturally assume that something terrible has happened: what else could "No life signs detected aboard" mean? As you collect evidence, you start to speculate about the plot: did the peculiar uncle come back as a ghost? Did the ODIN AI follow the path of HAL and SHODAN and GLADOS and kill everyone? There are a lot of cues in the game that we automatically latch onto because they're such ubiquitous tropes. There are six people on the station? It must be a whodunit!


But, in both games, the actual answer ends up being surprisingly peaceful and... nurturing, maybe? Nobody's dead. Everything's fine. That wasn't blood in the bathtub. There was nothing wrong with the cake. This non-shocking ending actually feels shocking because that's not how we're used to games working.
 

As I was playing this, I sometime found myself wishing I had played this before Gone Home, or memory-wiped that game from my mind: not because of the similarities in gameplay, but more because I was at least somewhat anticipating a peaceful ending, which I wouldn't have if I'd gone in cold. So I was pleased that I did get a surprise, at the very end, with the revelation of who the main character is working for. That's a cool shift from Gone Home: in that game, you learned a little about "yourself" as the older sister, but the focus was very much on the rest of the family. In Tacoma, you (as the character) end up taking a much more active role in the narrative, even though you (as the player) don't recognize that role until the end.


I guess that the other major change from Gone Home is that there actually is a villain in Tacoma. It isn't the AI or the crew or aliens: it is their own employer, Venturis Corporation, and more specifically its CEO, Sergio Venturi. I did like how the game addresses political and economic issues, and I especially loved how it takes a point of view instead of the both-sidesism that plagues AAA titles.
 

END SPOILERS

Tacoma was a terrific little game, and also a nice, albeit temporary, milestone: it was the last unplayed game left in my Steam queue! This happens once every five years or so and is always very welcome. There's a lot on my radar that I'm looking forward to digging into eventually, like Red Dead Redemption 2 and (one day, eventually) Cyberpunk. In the meantime, though, I'm going to check out the Federations DLC for Stellaris and get back to those books I've been raving about!

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Stonelore

I really should read more books and play fewer games. Books are so quick! I've been poking away at Hades for months, and tore through The Fifth Season in less than a week.



Once I got started, that is. I think I've had this book on my end-table for almost a year now. It was worth the wait! I was kind of expecting a dense and impenetrable new fantasy world, but it was a breeze, and once I got started I could hardly put it down. The writing is tight and visceral, the world-building intriguing without being overwhelming, and its clever construction and sense of mystery elevate its appeal.

One mild bookkeeping note: I didn't realize this until I finished, but there is a glossary and a very brief history in the very back of the book. Neither are at all required to read and enjoy the book: much of the fun of speculative fiction is figuring these things out without being directly told. But if you're feeling lost it could be a helpful lifeline. 

MINI SPOILERS

The world of the Fifth Season is the Broken Earth, and the continent ironically named the Stillness. As we learn early on, the major difference between this world and ours is a much higher level of seismic activity: not just earthquakes, but also volcanoes and vents and ruptures all over. Life in the Stillness is precarious: people may live safely for centuries, then watch as the sun is blotted out for a hundred years or an entire seaboard is wiped away in a giant tsunami.

I'm going to do an annoying thing in this post and write about what other books this one reminded me of. First up is The Three Body Problem, and specifically Trisolaris. As with the Trisolarans, the residents of the Broken Earth have had to adapt to recurring catastrophic events, and throughout the novel we see all the deep-rooted cultural, social and political effects this has had. Everything is oriented around surviving a Season. People have three names: a given name, a use-name, and a comm-name. The use-name is essentially a caste designation, describing the role the person will play in a Season: a Strongback will perform manual labor, a Leadership will organize the others, a Resistant will handle dead bodies and other disease-inducing tasks, and so on. The comm name designates what community the individual belongs to: without a well-organized community working together, nobody can hope to survive the long trauma of a Season.

Interestingly, due to the long gaps between Seasons, these actions are not described in law: instead, they are passed down in folklore and nursery stories and similar oral traditions, collectively dubbed Stonelore. That's another cool idea I've encountered in some other science fiction, most recently A Canticle for Leibowitz. When knowledge needs to be passed down over millennia, it will outlive any one empire or institution, and so it needs to be passed down as part of culture to be remembered.

Most of this book is focused on Orogenes, individuals who have sort of psychokinetic powers. Their presence makes the novel feel fantasy-ish, although it doesn't have magic per se, and the power of orogeny is clearly described and circumscribed. I tend to think of them as behaving somewhat like Maxwell's demon: orogenes do not create or destroy, but instead redirect, channeling waves and vibrations in other directions, transferring heat, and otherwise redirecting the total energy within a system while keeping the total system stable. They channel these powers through their sessapinae, an organ that allows them to project their thoughts into kinetic or thermal motion. The sessapinae reminded me of the pineal gland, which earlier philosophers on Earth thought of as the bridge between the mind and the body that united dualism.

Orogenes are incredibly important for the cultures of the Stillness, as they are able to detect (or "sess") developing earthquakes or worrying fault lines far under ground, and counteract seismic activity. However, they are almost universally feared by most citizens, who associate them with the destructive movements of the earth. And, in fact, a rogue orogene can cause enormous damage by using their power for destruction.

The orogenes are carefully watched over by Guardians, a parallel order specially selected and trained for their ability to control and thwart orogenes. This dynamic made me think a lot of the Mages and Templars in Dragon Age: One order is incredibly powerful and dangerous, and must be closely managed by a second order that both protects them and stands ready to destroy them if necessary.

MEGA SPOILERS

I spent much of the book trying to discern the timelines for the three storylines and figure out how they were sequenced together. At first I assumed that they were all happening simultaneously, but as time went on and the onrushing Season remained in one storyline, I decided that must be the last one.

I realized around halfway through the book that all three main characters are actually the same person, specifically when Syenite briefly remembers the comfort of a warm blanket. That strongly suggested that Syenite and Damara were one and the same, and from there it was an easy assumption that Essun is also the same person. Once that slotted into place, the timeline and everything else became much clearer.

Another thing I'd been curious about throughout the book is whether the Broken Earth is our world or not; much like the Steerswoman Saga I could see it going either way. For most of the book I'd been assuming that it was, mostly because of the language. Something like "comm" as a shortened form of "community" makes a lot of sense if the Sanze and others are descended from English speakers; if they aren't, then I would think they would use an alien term, or just be translated as "community", but having a derivative of our phrase makes me think they are descended. In the last couple of chapters this seems to be confirmed in the tale of Father Earth. This strongly suggests that humanity (us) brought on ecological catastrophe, eventually overstressing the planet and turning it from a source of life into a source of death.

There are two more books in the series, and I am very curious to learn how the moon plays into all of this. My current baseless theory is that the stone-eaters are Mooninites: they came to Earth whenever the moon did, hence the presence of aliens on Earth. It isn't clear to me what their agenda is, or rather what their agendas are, as there are clearly factions within the group, but I wonder if they and the obelisks are trying to restore their homeland of the moon.

END SPOILERS

I'm really digging this series so far. I typically try and space out reading books in a series to make it last longer, but right now I'm feeling pretty strongly inclined to dive right back in with book two. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

In This House We Respect The Laws Of Thermodynamics

Real talk: my last post on Hades was in my drafts folder for three weeks between finishing and publishing. I just needed to upload the screenshots for it, but any time I started to do that I thought, "I could be playing Hades right now!" and would do that instead.




So, yeah, Hades has been a surprisingly addictive and fun game. I've come a long way from my initial annoyance with it. In particular, now that I've played it for so long I don't feel as negative about my hand-eye coordination or reflexes. A lot of my frustration was really due to lack of familiarity with the enemies' move patterns and the map layouts. Now that I've played for a while and have absorbed all that, I find I'm having a blast and doing vastly better, cruising easily through former roadblocks and even welcoming in-game handicaps to increase the challenge.




There are lots of different ways that roguelikes handle randomness. Early on I thought that Hades was generating each new room; in particular, in Tartarus, some rooms have closed gates or boulders blocking doorways, so I assumed that those things would change from each run. Eventually I realized that there are a finite number of possible rooms. Certain things within those rooms can change: the enemy types you fight, and some extras like Wells of Charon or Treasure Troves. But things like the position of traps and walls and pits are always the same, and getting to know those will make the progression much easier. Likewise, you come to recognize enemies' attack animations, patterns of movement, and so on, and get to a point where you can reliably anticipate their next move and block or counter it effectively. All this takes time, and a lot of dying, but that's the whole point of the game! More so than any other roguelike I've played, Hades has a fantastic in-game explanation for why you're fighting and dying over and over and over again.




Here are some random strategy tips that I've found helpful. First, on runs themselves:

  • Keep moving! You're invulnerable during dashes, and enemies take some time to adjust to your new position. Particularly for melee, but also for ranged weapons, dashing frequently is probably the single most important aid to survivability.
  • Plan your build. It can be worth changing your Mirror talents and Keepsake based on your weapon: for example, I always take the Lambent Plume with the Fists, while I might take the Coin Purse with another weapon. The Shadow Presence ability for backstabs is usually a good ability to take, but with something like the Bow you won't be behind enemies often, and so Fiery Presence is better to make your strong first draw count the most.
  • But, be flexible with your build. I usually try to think of a few potential gods who would work for a given weapon, and will pursue any matches that appear over the course of a run. An early Daedalus Hammer might prompt me to shift my entire strategy.
  • Figure out your combat strategy. For some builds, it will just be holding down Attack while facing each enemy. Others might be more complex, switching between Attack and Special and Cast. For most of my runs, it typically looks something like opening with a Cast to lodge my Blood, then a high-damage strike, then a rapid but lower-damage assault. Ideally there will be two different Boons across those to trigger Favored Status.
  • Gods like Aphrodite are great on slow and powerful attacks, Dionysus is great on slightly more rapid attacks, Zeus is fantastic on very fast but weak attacks. 
  • Hermes has a lot of good boons and some great ones. My general preference is Dashes > Sturdy > Auto God Gauge. Of course, some builds might have other priorities.
  • Once you start getting Nectar, prioritize giving a single bottle to each person you find, rather than going "deep" into a single person. There will be plenty of time for that later, and many more rewards by spreading it around early on.
  • In general, when choosing between gates that show lasting rewards, I prefer Nectar > Key > Gems. One Key reward is worth two Gem rewards, and one Nectar is worth five Keys.
  • For gates that show in-game rewards, it varies a bit more depending on the run; but my priority is typically Trial (two gods) > Hammer > Miniboss God > Single God > Heart > Pom > Obol. You will almost always get two Hammers by the end of the game even if you skip one or two hammer gates, so sometimes I'll pass one up if there's a good god in another gate. And if I'm low on health and the god(s) aren't appealing, I'll opt for the Centaur Heart.
  • I almost always take Chaos Gates early in a zone, but avoid them if the debuff will last through the boss fight. The exception is if the Gate appears in the room before the last zone ship (like chamber 12 in Tartarus or chamber 22 in Asphodel). In this case, the boss fight will occur one room later than normal, and you'll basically have an extra chamber in the run than you would otherwise. You'll also often get more options for the pre-boss room, which might include a Hermes boon or other goodie.
  • I'll usually take an Infernal Gate over any other exit; I use Skelly in here to draw away enemy attention and ensure a clean clear.
  • My keepsakes are typically [Redacted] or Coin Purse for Tartarus; [Redacted] or a God one for Asphodel; [Redacted] or the Evergreen Acorn for [Redacted]; and the Evergreen Acorn or Broken Spearpoint for [Redacted].

And some thoughts on the between-run resource management stuff:
  • When in doubt, hold on to your items instead of converting them. You'll eventually need and use everything.
  • Keys are useful early for both unlocking weapons and Mirror abilities. I typically spent on the Mirror whenever I was close to running out of available abilities to spend Darkness; but there's a case to be made for prioritizing the Weapons so you can start to make use of Titan Blood early.
  • While learning the game, Stubborn Defiance is great: you can basically treat it as a free heal in Asphodel chambers that you clear. Once you start reliably making it to the final boss, then it's better to switch to Death Defiance, which gives you more resurrections per fight.
  • In general, the Green (default) abilities in the Mirror are the best all around; the Yellow ones can be good, but tend to be more situational for specific builds. The exception is the bottom three, where I think the Yellow ones are better.
  • Make use of Skelly in the training room! It's really handy to try out attacks and get a feel for how each weapon works. Also, pay attention to the damage numbers shown to figure out your damage profile.
  • When purchasing House Contractor upgrades, the leftmost tab (Work Orders) is by far the most important; most other tabs are just vanity items, although a few are involved in NPC relationships or prophecies. Starting with the cheapest Work Orders and making your way up is probably the best strategy.
  • In my game, Diamonds felt very limited, followed by Blood, followed by Nectar, followed by Ambrosia. Eventually (well, if you play as long as I have!) you'll have plenty of each. All that to say, you might want to save Diamonds for relevant Work Orders instead of spending them on cosmetics, at least until you have a stockpile.
  • Early in the game, you won't use the Wretched Broker much: it's usually better to hold on to items than convert them. But keep an eye open for good Sales: it's worth exchanging Keys for Blood, Gems for Diamonds, or Gems for Nectar.
  • By the midgame, you'll have bought all the essentials stuff that costs Gems, and not have any real use for Keys, so it's good to use the Broker to exchange those items for Nectar and advance the NPC stories.
  • And by the endgame (er, post-endgame), you'll be swimming in all this stuff anyways.
  • Each NPC will have a single conversation with you during each visit to the House of Hades. You can also give each NPC a single Nectar or Ambrosia if their affection is unlocked. You might be eligible for multiple conversations, in which case you will get a random one, and then will see another conversation on your following visit.
  • Moving between the rooms of the House of Hades can reposition NPCs in the main hall. This doesn't let you have additional conversations, but can make NPCs eligible for gifts if they weren't before.
  • Buying the Fated List of Minor Prophecies is a great move, and a great source of mid-term goals. Even when you're dying a lot, you can still be advancing the Prophecies. Note that actions you take prior to buying the List do still count towards the List.
  • Personally, I always went on runs with whichever weapon had Dark Thirst, giving 20% more Darkness. But that definitely isn't necessary; if you like a particular weapon or set of weapons, it's totally valid to stick with it.
  • Once you start dealing with Heat: I see taking on higher Heat as primarily a way to earn more Blood, which in turn lets you upgrade your weapons higher, which... lets you take on higher Heat. If you're struggling with a particular weapon, you can spend Blood to upgrade it; or, if you're struggling on Heat, then you can do a 0-Heat run with it to collect a bunch of Darkness and fill out your bottom Mirror talents.

MEGA SPOILERS

In my previous post, I mentioned how I was surprised that Supergiant would abandon their pattern of creating original worlds to instead set a game in one of the oldest existing worlds. I've come to deeply love that decision. While the setting is more familiar than it would have been otherwise, the story that they have to tell feels radically different from other video games. I've complained before about how so many games are telling the same story that "A Great Evil Will Destroy The World And Only You Can Stop It". At first I assumed that Hades would end up being something like that: you're escaping from Hell, after all! Maybe we would prevent the legions of the dead from overrunning the living, or whatever.

Instead, the game ends up being about something totally different: reuniting a dysfunctional family. I love how the story gradually unfolds and you are eased into the objective. The mechanics of what you're doing never change: you're still fighting your way out towards the surface, over and over again. But the meaning of what you're doing evolves and matures. At first it's an act of defiance and spite, rebelling against your oppressive father to seek freedom. Then it becomes a voyage of discovery, seeking to find your "lost" mother Persephone. It turns into an act of pilgrimage and growth, as you desperately seek to forge the bonds that were lacking in childhood (quite a change from the "breaking bonds" imagery of your earlier runs!). Then it becomes a cunning ploy, with you seeing yourself as a member of the underground family and protecting your (problematic but valuable and ultimately loving) parents from the vengeance of your relatives on Mount Olympus. And finally it becomes a job and a ritual, a responsibility you embrace, a fun activity that involves you killing your dad over and over again (though occasionally he does kill you, too).


That particular dynamic is so fascinating. Early on, Zagreus feels such bitterness and anger towards Hades, while his father feels cold and disdainful towards him. And then... you work it out. It's a long, gradual process (that, again, involves killing each other over and over again), but over time you come to understand where each other is coming from. Zagreus comes to realize how much of his dad's actions are motivated by a desire to protect the ones he loves, crippled in expression by a too-strong sense of pride and need to maintain an image that he feels befits his station. For his part, Hades comes to terms with his son as his own man and not a reflection of Hades' failings with Persephone, and recognizes that while Zagreus does not share all of Hades' values, Zagreus is motivated by good intentions and has many skills (that do not involve clerical work in the Administrative Chamber).

Cathartic is the best word to describe it. Zagreus and Hades work out their feelings and build a relationship by fighting each other, letting out their emotions and coming to respect one another. Sigmund Freud would have a field day with this game! I thought a lot about Freud's idea of an Oedipal complex, which doesn't directly apply to this game, but I think Greek mythology is an incredibly rich source for exploring complex psychological phenomena.

The structure of the game is super-interesting too. When you start the game you think you have a clear objective, to escape the Underworld. It takes a lot of practice and growth, but you eventually do it, hooray! And then you have a new objective, centering around Persephone, and keep playing the core game loop, now with more skill and a broader view of your goal. You reach a point that seems like a clear end of the game: the credits roll, you listen to a typically wonderful Supergiant vocal track, Persephone is back in the underworld and things seem great. But, I kept playing, and I think have spent more hours since seeing the "end credits" than I did before. You totally could stop playing then and would have a satisfying story; but the world and the characters are just so deep and rich that I didn't want to leave them behind. I've now logged just north of 100 hours in the game, and there is still new dialogue and subplots that I'm enjoying resolving.

My most recent thing has been viewing the Epilogue, the final denouement between Olympus and the House of Hades, and I think I am ready to call it a game. But I am still curious: would I ever see Persephone up in Greece again? What is underneath those other two statue cloths? What will Aphrodite and Demeter say when I forge bonds with them? And so on.

And that's just the story! There is a huge community around Hades, mostly oriented around speedrunning, and tons of people have a blast running through the regions and experimenting with crazy builds and stuff. I can definitely see the appeal: story aside, this is a roguelike, which is designed for endless replayability and excitement.

As for me, I think I'm done, but I'm delighted I saw the whole journey through!

And now, some lists.

  • Favorite God: Artemis
  • Favorite Chthonic God: Nyx
  • Favorite PC Romance: Megara the Fury
  • Favorite NPC Romance: Achilles
  • Favorite Employee of the Week: The Wretched Broker
  • Favorite NPC Chamber: Eurydice
  • Favorite Weapon: Anything but the sword! Fists were the most fun, but I'm probably best with the bow.
  • Favorite Sword Aspect: Arthur
  • Favorite Spear Aspect: Guan Yu. (Achilles is fun too, but in my experience one of the most boon-dependent weapons.)
  • Favorite Shield Aspect: Zeus
  • Favorite Bow Aspect: Chiron
  • Favorite Fist Aspect: Zagreus
  • Favorite Rail Aspect: Eris, although Lucifer is amazing with Athena on the Special
  • Favorite Overall Aspect: Chiron Bow
  • Favorite Music: Sunrise over the Aegean
  • Favorite Zone: Hard to choose! Maybe Elysium
  • Least Favorite Zone: Probably Asphodel
  • Favorite Boss: Lernie
  • Least Favorite Boss: Non-Extreme-Measures Theseus
  • Favorite Miniboss: Asterius
  • Least Favorite Miniboss: Witches Circle
  • Least Favorite Enemy: Exalted Shields
  • Least Favorite Mechanic: Poison
  • Favorite Boon: Divine Protection
  • Favorite Call: I've come to appreciate all of them. Lately I've really been digging Poseidon's.
  • Favorite Cast: Artemis, although I love using Ares with Blitz Disc.
  • Favorite Status Curse: Chill. Actually, let's do them all in order: Chill, Weak, Exposed, Jolted, Hangover, Ruptured, Doom, Marked. Obviously varies a bit based on the weapon and other boons.
  • Favorite Cthonic Companion: I've only really used Companion Rib from Skelly.
  • Favorite Keepsake: Pom Blossom
  • Favorite Dark Mirror Ability: Greater Reflex
  • Favorite Practical Upgrade: Infernal Trove
  • Favorite Aesthetic Upgrade: Aphrodite wall poster (so cheesy!) or toys for Cerberus
  • Favorite Fish: Voidskate
  • Favorite Well of Charon Item: Yarn of Ariadne
  • Favorite Charon Shop Item: Mystery Boon
END SPOILERS

I want to say "Supergiant has done it again!", but really, they've done more. Hades is another fun, engaging game that I've had a blast playing and looking at and listening to. But it has also nailed something better than their previous games. All of Supergiant's previous offerings were designed to be replayable, and to some degree built around it, but as much as I loved those games I never felt sufficiently compelled to have a second or third go-around. With Hades, though, I've tackled the core roguelike game over seventy times, and have over forty victories. It feels like they've really cracked the code on how to tell a story that doesn't have to end, and keep you coming back: to have more fun, to hang out with people you love, to strive a little harder and dig a little deeper.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Go Directly To Hell, Do Not Collect 200 Obols

I'm shifting back into low gear on the Minecraft front. I may do another post at some point with the things I've made and done in the last few months, culminating in a startlingly effective gunpowder farm. I've achieved the major goals I was working on, and have returned back to where I started, mostly treating it as a social game and popping in on certain occasions to hang out and chat with other office-mates.

For a while I was thinking of picking up Cyberpunk 2077, which went on sale for a while and apparently has gotten some positive patches. But then I remembered that I had other games that I wanted to play and hadn't even started yet. I do take a certain pride in keeping my backlog under control, and so I finally fired up a title that's been waiting for me for many months: Hades!




Hades is the latest entry from Supergiant Games, the San Francisco-based developer behind my beloved Transistor and other great games including Bastion and Pyre. I remain incredibly impressed at their work ethic and style: not only do they create a new universe for each game, but they also completely reinvent their genres. Bastion was an action-RPG, Transistor a turn-based strategy game, Pyre a 3-on-3 pickup basketball game, and Hades is [drum roll, please] a roguelike.



I kind of regret putting that outside of my spoiler tags; it's such basic information, but somehow I had completely avoided learning what kind of game it was before starting it, and it was kind of delightful when, about twenty minutes in, I went "Ohhhhh, that's what's going on!"

I don't tend to think of roguelikes as one of my favorite genres, but looking back over the games I've played in the past decade, many of my favorites fit into that category. The Binding of Isaac, of course, and FTL, and Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, and Sil. There's a part of my brain that loves systems, which often lies dormant, but at a certain point these games will trigger that center of my brain, and I will enjoy getting deeply into strategies and builds and probabilities and all sorts of stuff.

"Roguelike" is of course a very loose term; to pick one example, FTL and Sunless Skies are both roguelikes set in space but could not be more different in mood, gameplay, lore, or style. Hades is differentiated by a few cool things:




Some retained progression. Virtually all modern roguelikes have some form of this, where you don't restart completely from scratch on each attempt. Hades is one of the best approaches that I've seen, though. During each run you collect various currencies, some of which (obols) must be spent during your current run and will be lost when you die; others (gems, keys, nectar) you can keep indefinitely, and spend back at your base between runs. This negates my instinctive hoarding tendencies (due to the use-it-or-lose-it design), while also letting you gradually build towards goals over the long haul.




Supergiant style. Gorgeous artwork and stunning music, including deeply moving vocals, which we've come to expect from the studio.




Tons of relationships. There are a couple dozen characters to meet, argue with, charm and bribe.




Lots of things to customize. You go into the start of each run with certain innate Mirror upgrades (like more Dashes or Backstab damage), a keepsake, and a chosen weapon. While on the run, you can grab temporary weapon upgrades and many many different abilities ("boons").



Synergies out the wazoo. While Hades has a ton of items in it, I think The Binding of Isaac still has more, but the mix-and-match potential of Hades is far greater. Some of these are pretty obvious, like stacking abilities that boost your Crit chance and your Crit damage; over time I've come to appreciate others, like combining low flat-damage effects with a weapon that hits many times, and multiplicative increases to weapons that do strong attacks. Not to mention buffs, debuffs, DOTs, AOE, chains... lots of things to mix and match.




A compelling plot. Another Supergiant staple, the story is intriguing and deftly interwoven with the gameplay.

MINI SPOILERS

I was a little surprised when I first learned of the game Hades: All of Supergiant's other games have been based on completely new worlds that they invented, so why would they instead turn to one of the oldest worlds for inspiration?

It didn't take very long for them to win me over: the deities in Hades are tremendously fun interpretations of their classical inspirations, recognizable but very fresh and vibrant. Everyone is likeable, which is a really tall order for a game with this many adversarial characters. Dionysus is a bro, but the sort of bro you'd want to hang out with. Zeus is confident and supportive, but jealous and prideful. Hermes talks really fast and leaves you with the impression he's playing multiple games at the same time. And on and on.




The gameplay was not as compelling to start with, mostly because I wasn't very good at it. I'm getting old, my reflexes and hand-eye coordination aren't as good as they used to be, and it's mildly frustrating that Supergiant has been moving from turn-based into more twitch-reflex gameplay as my capacity for the latter is diminishing. I crashed and burned on... I think my first seven or so attempts at escape, never even leaving Tartarus.




It turns out, though, that my issues were almost entirely due to my weapon of choice. I'd done all of those seven runs with your starter weapon, the Stygian Blade; my thinking had been that I would focus on one weapon and master it before moving on to the next thing. But as soon as I tried another weapon, my success rate drastically shot up, and it's remained high since.




I seem to be good at everything but the Stygian Blade, and have at least reached the penultimate boss battle on all of them (while still not clearing Tartarus with Stygian). At first I thought that it was because I'm better at ranged than at melee; but I also have had very successful runs with the Fists, which are even shorter-range than the Blade, so I don't think that's the issue.

At this phase of the game, I'm mostly focused on unlocking things. I switch to whichever weapon has Dark Thirst on it, and on a run will try to take any Boons or weapon upgrades that remain on my Fated List of Minor Prophecies. At some point I will probably switch to focusing on a particularly powerful loadout and figure out the best boons for it and buckle down to try to actually beat the game. I've come close, though! Twice now I've gotten to the [REDACTED] of the [REDACTED] fight.




So what will that weapon be? I don't really know! I've revealed the alternate Aspects, and have been pouring Titan Blood into the Aspect of Chiron; but my best runs so far have actually been with the vanilla (non-upgraded) Fists, Spear and Rail; the Rail in particular was really funny because the first time I took it I died halfway through Tartarus, and the second time I got to the final fight with it.




One really fun aspect of the RNG of the game is that you can't predict what boons and weapon upgrades you'll get, so it's good to be flexible. I'm leaning towards starting my run with the Coin Purse; then, after leaving Tartarus, deciding what boons would pair best with the ones I've gotten so far, switch to that God's keepsake for Asphodel, maybe another God for Elysium, and finally something like Skelly's or Maegara's boon for Styx. But you could also make a really compelling case for just carrying the Lambent Plume from start to finish!




I'll write more about the story later, but for now I'll note that it's (1) great and (2) pretty different from Supergiant's earlier games. Most characters in this game are "real" character from Greek mythology; their personalities seem really fresh and surprising, while their actual roles are faithful to their classical origins. So, for example, you meet the shade of Achilles early on, and much later meet the shade of Patroclus, which is really awesome since you as the player know about their relationship, and are a few steps ahead of you as the character. Unlike Pyre, I think most players will experience the story of Hades in much the same way: from what I've seen so far, there aren't really branching decision points or dialogue choices or anything like that. But unlike Transistor there's a huge degree of freedom in how you advance the story and what areas you learn about first. In my case, I've been focusing my Nectar on developing my relationships with Artemis, Nyx, and Megaera, so I've been learning a lot more about their concerns and goals; another player would likely eventually see the exact same dialogue, but if they're front-loading their interactions with Dusa and Hypnos and Cerberus, they'd be learning different things and getting a different perspective on the story.

END SPOILERS

I'm digging this game a lot: despite how hard it is, the stellar craftsmanship keeps me hooked and coming back to bang my head against the wall again and again. And I do seem to be getting better; it's encouraging to see my progress getting stronger, from a combination of in-game leveling (better weapons, keepsakes, and stats) and personal skill development (getting better at dashing through opponents, backstabbing, and executing timed attacks) and overall knowledge (becoming familiar with maps, trap placement, phases of boss fights). I'll probably drop in one more post once I finally escape and get closure to this intriguing story!