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.


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.


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!

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