Each of the first three titles created by Supergiant Games excels in some obvious way over their other offerings. Pyre contains their most imaginative fantasy world, and some of their best original characters. Transistor has the studio’s most innovative and unique core gameplay system, as well as their best soundtrack. And Bastion’s stellar implementation of dynamic narration and avoidance of the later games’ reliance on text boxes and paragraph-long info dumps make it so it’s still unmatched in their repertoire in terms of the successful integration of most story material into the actual moment-to-moment gameplay.
With that list in mind, it’s not immediately clear what Hades offers to make me say the following: it’s Supergiant’s best creation overall. That lack of clarity comes from the fact that it’s not any one single exceptional strength of the game that far outstrips the other titles—but instead the way that Hades echoes their strengths while addressing noteworthy weaknesses of each of their earlier games. Thus, in addition to sharing the high level of quality in art, music, gameplay, polish, and so on possessed by all of the team’s work, it is also the case that, in the few ways in which their earlier games stumbled, Hades dashes ahead.
How Hades Improves on Pyre:
The core gameplay of Pyre is hard to declare decisively. Some might say it’s a visual novel with a sport minigame in it, and others might say it’s a sport game with unusually long stretches of management between matches. Either way, what’s notable about it is that its character arcs and overall plot branch to a considerable degree based on player choices and actions. Conversations and other story events depend on the outcomes of matches, as well as on managerial and social decisions between matches.
But this great strength in it when compared to their two earlier games is related to its greatest source of weakness, as thematic resonance between its story and the actual mechanics of its three-on-three basketball gameplay is very low.
There’s a reason that most sports games that incorporate storylines center them on the sport itself, on the urge to be the best at that sport or the effort to win a tournament or conquer a rival for its own sake. Regardless of it being presented as ordained by the stars and regardless of what the characters may occasionally insist, dunking a celestial orb into a pyre repeatedly doesn’t actually feel like it has anything to do with the urge to escape the Downside or the effort to foment revolution in the Commonwealth.
Personally, for a better link between gameplay and narrative without losing the emphasis on sporting, I think the Rites should’ve taken the form of a dangerous marathon-like competitive footrace that involved teams carrying Celestial Orbs from the lowest point of the Downside through pyre-governed checkpoints toward its highest point. With this theming, gameplay as a team nears a checkpoint could’ve been almost the same as the gameplay that ended up in the work. But that’s a tangent for another time, perhaps.
At any rate, I don’t think it would be fair to call this ‘missed potential.’ Countless games by other creators have shakier relationships between mechanics and themes than Pyre. It just feels like, despite having the studio’s heaviest emphasis on narrative, it’s the work of theirs with the most tenuous relationship between narrative and gameplay.
For its part, Hades incorporates a similarly involved interplay between gameplay events and character interactions. But unlike Pyre, in Hades our protagonist’s relationships, conversations, and motivations all fit nicely alongside activity within the gameplay. What Zagreus is actually doing from moment to moment as the player controls him, and what he hopes to achieve in the gameworld, are perfectly aligned.
He spends nearly all of his time actively looting, improving, or escaping his father’s domain. Zagreus’ inability to understand his ancient forebear Chaos aligns with the give-and-take of Chaos’ unique boons. His interactions with Erebus and the Infernal Troves put him in the thematically appropriate position of gaining resources by exceeding his father’s expectations. Two of the primary bosses are key characters that interact differently with Zagreus in the hub depending on a massive array of possible in-game interactions. His initially complicated relationship with Thanatos plays out in the form of events that are equal-parts cooperative support and competitive rivalry. And the God trial rooms which grant two boons in exchange for completing them with added Area-Of-Effect hazards always directly reinforce the fickleness of the Olympians (which is key to the story as a whole), given that Zagreus initiates them by choosing one God’s boon in advance—with the remainder inflicting the AOE hazards as a jealous punishment.
This weaving together of character interactions and gameplay shows up in almost every one of the many individual character relationships which develop within Hades. And it’s a level of enmeshing that Pyre only really achieves on each of the several occasions that someone exits the Downside.
Yet this is not only a way that Hades takes the formula of Pyre and improves it; it’s a way that Hades takes the formula of the entire roguelite genre (of randomized run-based games with permadeath, but also with persistent progress) and improves it.
The folks at Supergiant realized something about this structure of game which, in retrospect, seems obvious: if there are going to be many types of persistent, incremental, small-scale mechanical progress in between runs, there should also be many types of persistent, incremental, small-scale narrative progress in between runs. It’s an element so natural to the format that it now feels noticeably absent when revisiting earlier games with similar progression systems, such as Rogue Legacy.
How Hades Improves on Transistor:
If the way that Hades improves on Pyre comes down to many small differences in the handling of its themes and the design of its gameplay, then the way that Hades improves on Transistor comes down to just a couple big differences.
First, Hades is much better matched in duration and narrative content to the mechanical variety it offers. In order to simply play with the functions and limiters enough to access their full descriptions, most players must go through the entire story of Transistor at least twice in succession. Even including the optional content inside the sandbox, there simply aren’t enough opportunities or encounters in the game to experiment with all or even most of the mechanical combinations on offer.
By contrast, in Hades, when I reached the story conclusion which the game refers to as the ‘epilogue,’ I had tried every possible line-item on the Mirror of Night, every possible line-item on the Pact of Punishment, every trinket, some of the companions, and nearly every weapon aspect and defined boon synergy as well. And there was still new dialogue lined up to accompany me as I cycled through the few remaining aspects, boons, and companions. In other words, unlike Transistor, Hades actually offers enough narrative content to allow the player to experience all of its mechanical content without running out of story. At the same point with the wonderfully inventive mechanics of Transistor, the game had long since run out of tale to tell.
And speaking of story, the second way in which Hades improves on Transistor is by borrowing and fixing its approach to worldbuilding and character backstories. In an early article of mine, I took Transistor to task for the disconnect that exists between the clarity of plot and story implied by its characters and terminals, and the opaque nature of the actual plot and story that is present. Characters routinely talk as though mysteries have been solved and settled in front of us when they haven’t been solved at all.
Now, as I say in the conclusion of the video version of that older article, I don’t personally need nor even want Transistor (or any other particular work of art) to be more clear and less symbolic. Rather, it is Transistor itself that makes myriad attempts at clear storytelling—through its terminals, unlockable character biographies, unlockable process notes, and extensive narration. Those attempts just frequently step on their own toes; they retread certain plot points repeatedly and sometimes self-contradictorily, while leaving other important points hardly touched.
At a mechanical level, Hades unfolds its world and plot in a similar fashion. Its interactive lore nodes take the place of the terminals; Achilles’ codex takes the place of the function bios and limiter logs; and the extensive character conversations take the place of the extensive narration. Yet in each case, there is a better match between style and substance in Hades.
Where terminals were few and sometimes redundant, nodes are abundant and diverse. Where successive unlocks in the function bios often described the same mystery three times with no substantial addition of information, successive unlocks in the codex entries often add genuinely new content, context, or commentary. And where Transistor’s narration often asserted a level of understanding and resolution not merited by the material in the game, every character in Hades speaks and behaves with credibility relative to the information they do or do not have at a given time. What mysteries remain in the narrative of Hades are successfully framed to feel intentional.
How Hades Improves on Bastion:
Bastion was Supergiant’s first outing as a studio, and it was a genuinely impressive debut: a game with satisfying and intuitive combat; high-quality music, artwork, and writing; and a unique dynamism not only in its method of responsive storytelling but also in the literal way the levels rise up in discrete chunks to meet the protagonist’s feet.
Much like its younger sibling Hades, Bastion’s core gameplay revolves around individual sessions of active combat accomplished after choosing among an array of upgradable armaments and other unlockable abilities. Where the main unit of play in a session of Hades is a randomized run, Bastion opts for the more popular unit of a hand-crafted level. So far, so good.
The issue is that Bastion’s methods of extrinsically incentivizing engagement with its many weapons and abilities and are either separated from the core gameplay (as in the reward-offering minigames found in the proving grounds) or very minimal (as in the small fragment rewards in the memorial for pulling off a single minor feat with each weapon).
The result of this situation is that it’s fairly trivial for players to ignore most of the mechanics that are present, and focus on using and upgrading just two weapons (a preferred melee option, and a preferred ranged option). After all, two will quickly become a player’s most comfortable and familiar options, and at any rate will likely be their first weapons fully upgraded. And the same is probably going to be true to an even greater degree when it comes to the buffs a player chooses in the distillery stagnating through most of the game, as experimentation there isn’t even pushed by minigames or memorials.
It’s sort of the opposite of the problem highlighted toward the start of the previous section of this article: where Transistor heavily incentivizes experimentation with its different abilities (by locking away swathes of story behind doing so), only to fail to provide enough game in which to do all of that experimentation—Bastion provides ample opportunities to play around with its arsenal, but little motivation to do so in the core gameplay.
There are four ways in which Hades addresses this issue. First, between runs one of the available weapons is designated to provide additional resources if used, straightforwardly rewarding people for switching regularly.
Second, the primary upgrade materials received by advancing through the Pact of Punishment can be used to upgrade any weapon, but are limited in availability per weapon. So even if someone has a favorite weapon that they want to take as deep as possible into the heat, upgrading that weapon’s aspects and its supporting companion(s) can be aided by taking on incrementally more heated runs with other options.
Third, the game’s equivalent of Bastion’s memorial is the list of minor prophecies—a much more exhaustive list of goals mostly focused on elements of meta completion (rather than one-off mechanical feats), each of which provides a large infusion of resources when finished. There are prophecies tied to getting every Daedalus upgrade for each of the weapons (as well as unlocking all of, and succeeding with some of, the weapons’ distinct aspects). Moreover, the prophecies related to obtaining each boon (including synergistic boons between pairs of Gods, designated as ‘duo boons’) help to push people to recognize the intrinsic benefits of switching trinkets between regions of the underworld.
And fourth, the range of optional character interactions associated with the weapons and trinkets of Hades is far wider than the range of optional narration associated with the weapons and beverages of Bastion. Different characters in Hades have differing knowledge of and history with each item, and some players will doubtless be enticed to keep some options in rotation simply to see what the Gods have to say about them.
Hades is the most excellent game produced so far in a string of excellent games by an excellent studio. But with that being said, there is of course still room for improvement. For instance, while its build variety is great, its boss and enemy variety, room variety, and (much less importantly) fish variety are ultimately somewhat thin. And some of its small sidequests, like Zagreus learning the lyre, are mechanically tedious.
There’s even one example I can think of where Hades is slightly worse than all three of its predecessors: its approach to dynamic difficulty. Its overall campaign structure does a somewhat poor job of accommodating high-skill players, because resource availability is rate-limited on the Pact of Punishment. There is no meaningful reward for ‘overheating,’ which is to say exceeding a single heat point beyond the previous clear with a given weapon. In fact, the game discourages the player from doing that in a few different ways. As a result, a player who quickly acquires a good grasp on the game’s fundamentals can easily fall into a rhythm of slowly incrementing the heat level to efficiently farm resources while never fearing a loss. Speaking for myself, because the game failed to allow me the possibility of surging ahead in any resource progress by swiftly raising the heat level, Hades is the only roguelite or roguelike I’ve played where the number of runs that I’ve won is far higher than the number of runs that I’ve lost. At the time of reaching 100% completion, I had coincidentally played about 100 runs . . . and won a staggering 73 of them. Their earlier games, which simply sum together all benefits offered by such optional challenges when accepted by a player—offer rewards which can much more quickly push people toward playing the game at an appropriate level of challenge.
But I digress.
Hades improves on Pyre in terms of integration of gameplay events and narrative events, improves on Transistor in terms of matching both mechanical complexity to duration and narrative style to content, and improves on Bastion in terms of pushing players to fully experience and extensively experiment with a wide variety of its mechanics. It may not always reach the heights that each of those earlier games do, but it nevertheless participates in the strengths of all three while steering clear of most minor weaknesses or sources of missed potential that can be found in them. It’s quite an achievement.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give it is to say that, if Steam didn’t track and display my hours played, I’d assume I’ve spent about the same amount of time with it as I spent playing and replaying each of their other games. Yet the truth is that I’ve spent more time in Hades than in all of their prior games combined. Time flies when you’re Hades’ son.
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