A Familiar Mythological World – Reframed
Dodging an orb of magical energy, the hero thrusts his spear deep into the lost soul that fired it. He nimbly pirouettes around the next enemy and throws Varatha, the Eternal Spear, through a horde of approaching skulls and recalls it to tremendous effect. But then a lost soul’s strike finds its way through his flurry of blows and he falls, waking in a pool of blood near the entrance to the House of Hades. Slowly, Zagreus crawls from the blood and wipes himself off as he prepares to launch his next escape attempt.
Welcome to the Underworld.
A Quick Note:
When this game was played for this article it was in early access and nearing final release (Spring/Summer 2020) – so there may be things I touch on that will be improved in the later game, but since this article is more about the idea of utilizing well-known mythologies in your worldbuilding while using the game as a framing device, I thought it would be alright to discuss it as is.
Hades is an action-adventure game with rogue-like elements (featuring procedural level generation and frequent death), that plays similarly to the Diablo series or Path of the Exile. The player plays as Zagreus, the son of Hades and prince of the Underworld. From a high-level, the plot is as follows – Zagreus, fed up with living in the Underworld under his oppressive father, Hades, decides to escape. Hades has charged several of his subjects to stop his son from escaping – killing him and sending him back to the entrance of the House of Hades (in the deepest level of the underworld, Tartarus). Zagreus (or Zag for short), is assisted by his aunts, uncles and other relatives in the Olympic Pantheon through the use of various boons and providing a bit of mythological worldbuilding flavor.
The primary levels of the game are currently split between four zones – the labyrinthine catacombs of Tartarus, the burning islands of Asphodel, the verdant paradise of Elysium, and finally the gateway to the Underworld – the Temple of Styx. Within each of these levels there are a number of procedurally generated rooms featuring combat encounters, mini-bosses, or story-moments – and once a set number of rooms is completed on each level, a boss encounter occurs (the first of which is an excellent encounter with one of the Fury sisters). Each of these zones is distinct with its own feel and art direction, the assets are designed beautifully to work in the procedural generation algorithm, making each run feel cohesive and engaging.
“I expected you would perish soon; but I knew not exactly how.”
As the four zones and their various levels are designed to be replayed ad nauseam, it is important that the aesthetics of the level to feel cohesive, and while the progression from one zone to the next feels rewarding – through repetition that rush dulls. The grander leveling progression of the game is provided by unlocking new weapons, abilities, and passive buffs that are gained through spending the various collectibles gained during the player’s multitude of combat-heavy runs.
This leads us into the gameplay, which if you are a fan of action-RPGs like Diablo or Path of Exile, there is a lot to like here. The gameplay is tight and there are a variety of weapons to choose from, allowing players to choose the playstyle that suits their liking. One thing I will say is that the combat definitely feels better on a controller than a keyboard and mouse (for my playstyles), but overall it feels fluid and visceral. As the player becomes more acquainted with the gameplay, the combat definitely has a nice flow, with Zagreus nimbly darting from encounter to encounter while putting hordes of enemies down.
This combat is helped by the Olympian boons, each offering a subtle weapon effect of buff to a selected ability. Some examples are the hangover debuff from Dionysus, that damages enemies over time after a strike – or the chain-lightning abilities of Zeus. Each boon is offered to Zagreus with a bit of dialogue that helps “flesh-out” the recognizable Olympic pantheon of characters and gives the world the Greek Mythological feel of the classic setting – which is really the topic of this article in the first place.
Are you destined to wallow in the Pits of Tartarus for Eternity?
Deep in the cavernous halls of the Underworld is where your adventure begins and continues to repeat – within the House of Hades itself. As prince of the Underworld, the souls and underlings pay you due deference, while the master of the house, Hades, contemptuously taunts you with your inability to escape his domain. Quickly, you hurry off through the back of your bedroom, leaping from the window and beginning another escape attempt.
Perhaps this time it will go differently.
Classic Greek Mythology with a Twist
The world of Hades is a world most people are familiar with due to their time in primary or secondary school (at least in my experience), Greek mythology is something that everybody at least has a passing knowledge of. It plays really well into the rogue-lite gameplay, because when you pull yourself out of the starting pool and walk down the hall – it makes sense to see the imposing figure of Hades ruling over the subjects because everyone knows he’s the ruler of the Underworld. It also makes sense that a huge three-headed dog is seated at Hades’s side because Cerberus is the guardian of the gates of the Underworld and Hades’ loyal dog. This understanding of the world means players can instantly jump into the gameplay without too much background getting in the way.
So, without having to dump exposition onto the player in an introductory cutscene or text scroll, the player immediately understands the world they are in, which means the game can focus on the story it wants to tell through gameplay and dialog. That story is the story of Zagreus, his antagonistic relationship with his father, and his relationships with the various Underworld denizens that mill about the House of Hades. The story of a character learning his place in the hierarchy of Greek mythology while the player is treated to tidbits of this world through dialog with the Olympic Gods and encounters with somewhat familiar Mythological creatures.
While the gameplay is engaging enough for a player to be able to enjoy the game without having an understanding of Greek mythology, having a bit of knowledge in the subject matter makes the characters and clever dialog shine a little bit more. Each boon that is picked up provides a short conversation between Zagreus and the deity providing the boon – and each conversation is accompanied by excellent illustrations of the God with the lines being brilliantly voiced – and having a rough idea of who each of the Greek gods is will give the player a bit more flavor. I particularly liked the game’s take on Dionysus, with his voice actor sounding like a Bro at a kegger and his artwork dripping in his signature hangover ability’s purple hue.
“It seems I must enforce my rules myself. I’m sending you home, now.”
If this game was set in a previously unknown universe it is entirely possible that the pacing of the beginning of the game may have been worse for it, with the game requiring a bit more storytelling and introduction before launching into its break-neck-paced gameplay. That dichotomy was felt pretty strongly in SuperGiant Games last production, Pyre. While the gameplay of that game was a pretty solid fantasy basketball-style game, the story and worldbuilding were completely removed from it in dialog-driven cart scenes that featured little to no gameplay. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed Pyre (along with all of SuperGiant’s other games), but definitely felt the separation of the story from the gameplay. Another game that is rather infamous for doing this was Bioware’s Anthem. With gameplay featuring flying mecha-suit combat and a story that’s completely trapped within the two streets and about twenty people that apparently make up the world’s last remaining bastion for human civilization.
But Hades isn’t just a replication of existing Greek mythology, it takes that lore and builds a story out of some of the building blocks from it. It takes a well-known setting and tries to overlay a unique and engaging story through the gameplay, dialog, and fantastic visuals.
Art Direction and Character Design
But how does SuperGiant’s version of Greek mythology take the source material and expand upon it and make it their own? One way it does this is through absolutely fantastic visuals and art direction. While SuperGiant’s art team has always done absolutely fantastic work (the noir-inspired visuals from Transistor seriously are jaw-dropping), their take on Greek mythology is particularly fantastic.
The illustrations of the Olympic Gods that appear during dialog lean into the style of the “black figure” or “red-figure” pottery of ancient Greece with angular features, but utilize some of the SuperGiant teams unique styles – featuring detailed linework and awesome color palettes. Each illustration is an instantly recognizable Greek figure and coupled with their dialog it paints a pretty clear picture of the familiar Olympian world. Even Athena’s Owl makes an appearance and reminds me of Bubo (the mechanical owl) from the old “Clash of the Titans” movie from 1981. Moving beyond the aesthetic of these character designs, each God uses top-notch voice-acted dialog that really helps bring the character and world to life.
Enemy sprite design is also nicely handled, with each enemy type easily distinguished on the battlefield, even when things get hectic. This means players can constantly perform threat assessment and position themselves accordingly for their next attack. The sprite design is also very much visually distinct from the environments around them, and the art direction is carried through to the environment design, with each level feeling like a unique environment within the layers of the Underworld and looking visually distinct. The green ruins and labyrinthine hallways of Tartarus give way to the Orange lakes of magma and fire that make up Asphodel and so forth, giving the player a sense of progression, and allowing the level designers to challenge the players in different ways depending on the environment they find themselves in.
Overall the way SuperGiant games have added their own look and feel to the familiar figures of Greek mythology really helps take Hades to the next level. Their additions bring life and character to these mythological figures and help the world of Hades feel both unique and familiar.
Is Hades Worth a Trip to Hell?
If you are looking for a tight, fast-paced hack ‘n slash rogue-lite, Hades might be right up your alley, but if you’re looking for a relaxing walking simulator through Hell, this probably isn’t your jam. Those with even a passing understanding of Greek mythology will definitely find some of the references on-point, and if you don’t, maybe this game will get you interested in some of the characters represented and provide a means of ingress into the storied worlds of the Olympic Deities. SuperGiant Games has taken those well-known characters (the Gods) from Greek mythology as an excellent foundation on-which to build their game and story – which makes for a unique twist on the Mythology itself – as well as a pretty damn enjoyable hack ‘n slasher.
How many times will you die trying to escape the Pits of Tartarus?
Game Title: Hades
Game’s Website: https://www.supergiantgames.com/games/hades/
Game’s Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hades_(video_game)
Game Release Date: Second Half of 2020
Developer: SuperGiant Games
Developer’s Website: https://www.supergiantgames.com/
Publisher: SuperGiant Games
Publisher’s Website: https://www.supergiantgames.com/