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as a purely sensory experience i found this sublime in a way that took me back to how it felt seeing and hearing doom for the first time in 1994. my computer could only just barely run it well enough to be playable, but one of the college kids living nextdoor had a high end 486 and he let me play it over there for a little bit. doom made me think of games as spaces in a way far more powerfully than anything before it.
scorn isn't the elegant action masterpiece that doom eternally remains, but it is a vivid ontological crawl through the biomechanical macabre which instills feelings of curious awe, revulsion, and anxiety (when i hear that puzzles are a big focus in a game i get anxious regardless, and this unholy paradise of giger and beksinski had me exceptionally filled with queasy dread). a hideous experience i cherish.
I don’t know who this game is for.
Roguelikes are unique in how well they fit the disparate ways casual and hardcore players engage with games. Runs can be enjoyed in short, non-committed sessions, or repetitively for hundreds of hours. Deep mechanics combined with high variability through randomness provides quick novelty for newcomers, and experts are challenged to adapt and get creative with the situation they’re given. However, in an attempt to streamline itself, Hades changed the formula in ways that make it less appealing to both sets of players. The amount of variety has been reduced dramatically from standard roguelikes, with the progression of areas being constant, the cast of enemies being small, and the synergies between boons being much tamer than in something like Synthetik or The Binding of Isaac. Even its meta-progression confounds both groups, requiring a heavy time investment to get to the point where gameplay can evolve beyond its most basic version. The weapons are an especially good example of this, since fully upgrading a new weapon’s unique bonus requires fifteen of a resource primarily gained by successful completion of a run. The most unique forms of each weapon are also locked behind upgrade investments in different weapons, along with dialog triggers the game never cares to communicate, meaning most players won’t be able to use them all until the fifty hour mark at best.
Fifty hours of investment doesn’t seem too bad in the context of a roguelike, but the aforementioned lack of variety in the boons makes it a drag. Each god has a theme for their boons, like Poseidon’s causing knockback and Ares’ spawning whirling blades, with very few surprises. Active effects also can’t stack, and simply fill in a slot to change your attack, dash, magic cast, et cetera. You’re not allowed to create a build where your magic is buffed with all the active effects you could find to hilarious results, the only option is to pick which god's predictable modifier should fill which slot. With only ten gods who can give boons, the ability to reroll, and knowledge of which god will be in each upcoming room, filling up on the active effects you want is fairly trivial. The passives can provide a nice boost, but provide comparatively small advantages that usually don’t change how you approach combat. After coming to grips with the game and getting a few completions, playthroughs are less of an interesting experience on their own and more of a formality to unlock other content. The most indicative example is the game’s difficulty-modifying Heat system, where completion rewards are earned for each unique level of Heat. In other words, you don’t get a ton of rewards for completing a run with the maximum amount of modifiers, you only get the same as if you had completed a run with just one change. This hurts the hardcore demographic the most, who are punished for immediately trying to challenge themselves. It’s a waste of time compared to completing a run at rank 1, then 2, then 3, and actually getting rewarded in a way that will eventually make playthroughs more fun.
The elephant in the room I have yet to mention is Hades’ story, which is the part that received the most consistent praise. However, it’s subject to the same problems that the gameplay suffers. Completing a single run is hardly the end of the story, and the credits only roll after ten victories, which is already expecting a time investment of around twenty hours. However, the epilogue, where the central conflict of the story is actually resolved, takes about ninety hours to reach. Players need to rank up affinities with the gods and collect a seemingly arbitrary list of dialog lines reliant on other unspecified criteria to unlock it, and I wouldn’t blame people who didn’t even realize the game has an epilogue at all. Who does a structure like this really reward? For casual players who just want to see how the story ends, they have to play the time equivalent of about ten standard single-player campaigns, when only about 30% of people bother to finish most games at all. The length is so gratuitous that the only players who get to experience the complete story are the ones who never needed that aspect to motivate them in the first place. I have to give Supergiant Games credit for voicing so many character lines and writing so much dialog for these characters, but when the majority of it is inconsequential commentary on your gear, boons, or current status instead of the actual narrative progression that players want, it can’t help but feel like so much wasted effort.
So to bring us back to the start, who is this game for? For casual players, the amount of time investment to see the complete story and get the full gameplay variety is way too high. For hardcores, the action is too strategically stagnant and the higher difficulties too unrewarding to compete with other roguelikes. The best I can guess is that it appeals to people in the middle, who enjoy the story details as they come, but not enough to where they want to actually complete the game, or enjoy the action enough to play for a while, but not much longer than the credits. This seems to be backed up by the achievement statistics, where only one in five people get the ten wins required for the credits, and only one in twenty will see the epilogue. It’s not that Hades is necessarily poorly made, but the shallowness and high time investment means that the vast majority of people will just get bored and quit before the game has shown everything it has to offer. I would have much preferred it to either be about a third of its current length, or to just be restructured as a linear action game with weapon switching and selectable buffs, like the studio’s previous game Bastion. Either approach would have made the shallowness less of a problem, and actually give the story-motivated players the conclusion they deserve. Obviously though, in spite of a (hopefully) reasonable argument, saying this game doesn’t appeal much to anyone is a laughable thing to state, given its universally positive reception. So, while I have to give up on knowing who this game is for, I can be certain it isn't me.
Not even the term "roguelite" feels appropriate anymore. I'd say Hades is closer to a roguelite-lite, because now the meta-progression is the main event and the actual randomized dungeon crawl more of an afterthought. In hindsight, I'm surprised it's taken Supergiant, who historically develop games for the sole purpose of padding out a seemingly pre-written script, this long to make this game, since they're now given infinitely more nooks and crannies to cram situational dialog into. Critiquing it as a roguelike wouldn't be fair; it's not even trying to deliver a fulfilling, high skill-ceiling experience that hinges on the player's ability to take advantage of good luck and creatively adapt to overcome misfortune. It's addicting, yes, but for all the wrong reasons- instead of embracing the arcade philosophy of only giving players enough motivation to break through to the next level on their own, it buries its gameplay shortcomings under a mountain of extrinsic reward. It's specifically designed to be too hard with no upgrades and too easy with upgrades, in an effort to dripfeed the player story details in a way that appears natural. Though, it seems like this approach requires a substantial amount of willful ignorance to actually be effective. For me, at least, finally beating Hades (the guy) felt like less of a monumental accomplishment and more of an item on a checklist that I'd crossed off before being carted away to the next stop on the assembly line, which nullifies any potential benefit of the roguelike structure. That's not to say the concept is broken at its core, and it's hard to deny the appeal of the dynamic hubworld and the overall level of contextualization given to a traditionally abstract genre. I can certainly imagine falling in love with this game if it really did feel like all the dialog corresponded 1:1 with your actions, but I'm skeptical that this accurately describes every fan of Hades. Not to pluck my own lyre, but NPCs consistently felt behind the times for me, still praising me for reaching Elysium after I'd already escaped the Underworld several times, for instance. And it's not like the writing is exactly stellar- Zagreus's near constant quipping tells me that Supergiant's not fully confident in a tone that's more comedic than their previous games. But then again, this is all stuff that, in my eyes, would only serve to elevate an already good game and not to excuse combat that's fundamentally a slog. I don't think I have a single compliment for Hades's action gameplay, but despite runs that always feel the exact same, upgrades that are all roundabout stat modifiers with no room for personality, and non-boss enemies that never pose a threat, what's most offensive to me is that Supergiant hasn't at all evolved since Bastion. It's the same weightless, uninspired, utterly boring mashfest that it's been for the past decade, entirely inexcusable. Or maybe my heart only has enough room for one randomized trek through the realm of the undead.
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