's Games of the Year: Hades

It's fitting that one of the biggest video games of 2020 is about a never-ceasing and futile [...]

It's fitting that one of the biggest video games of 2020 is about a never-ceasing and futile escape from hell itself. Hades, by Supergiant Games, captured the heart of millions when it officially launched in September 2020 by reinventing timeless Greek mythology and using it to build a narrative that rewarded failure as much as it did success. The roguelike action game stars Zagreus, the son of Hades, as he struggles to fight his way through the various layers of hell in a quest to reach the surface and find his missing mother Persephone. Zagreus is aided in his quest by the gods of Olympus, who are thrilled to learn of their relative's existence and aid him with various boons that increase attack strength, add buffs or debuffs, or provide other helpful facts.

There are two keys to Hades' success. The first is that the game rewards failure. Zagreus dies… a lot, and is forced to restart his endless quest from scratch whenever he is sent back into the Underworld. However, dying gives Zagreus the chance to spend currency to permanently increase his strength and abilities, unlock new conversations with key NPCs, and try out new weapons with unique abilities. Hades only advances when Zagreus dies, and that mechanic removes one of the most frustrating aspects of most video games -- the futility of loss.

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(Photo: Supergiant Games)

The other key to Hades' ongoing popularity is the game's relative lack of villains. There are no truly "bad" guys in Hades -- the game's titular antagonist is stubborn, proud, and harsh, but the game slowly peels back his exterior to reveal the very valid reasons for his continued resistance towards his son. Over time, players can eventually romance the first boss players encounter, come to understandings with other major antagonists, and find meaningful resolutions to complicated storylines. Empathy and care are a part of Hades' core, and they help players keep coming back for more runs even after the main game is beaten. The Greek gods themselves are also delightfully re-designed, with fabulous voice acting and key art that has inspired countless pieces of fan art. It's really hard to hate any character in Hades, with the possible exception of Theseus, whose personality is deliberately obnoxious and dislikable.

Of course, Hades is also a very fun hack-and-slash game. The game's boon system is built around figuring out gamebreaking combos on the fly and wrecking dozens of enemies at a time. Because the boons are given out at random, players are encouraged to mix and match at will, and there's very few abilities that don't sync up well with each other. Most Hades players will swear by one weapon or another, but the game can be conquered by just about any combination of weapon and boon, provided that the player makes the best of what they're given. Players will delight in spamming various combos while clearing rooms, while trying to decide whether to add more boons or power up existing ones. There's never a wrong answer, although some choices will work better with some playstyles than others. I personally liked how different weapons could be customized to fit with different playstyles. The Twin Fists of Malphon, a set of gauntlets designed for close combat, evolved from my least favorite weapon to the weapon I had the most consistent success with, as I learned how to combine my dash-heavy attack style with different boons and timing attacks for hitting foes as I ran past them.

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(Photo: Supergiant Games)

The game also rewards players for continuing to play even after they finally make their escape out of Hell. Each of the game's weapons have different variants that can only be unlocked after repeated runs, and the main storyline itself doesn't even resolve until a player has cleared the game 10 times. The post-game content is also fun, with players literally picking their poison by making the dungeons deliberately tougher in order to unlock additional rewards. There are also RPG elements that don't come into play until much deeper into the game, with players able to romance some characters and learn meaningful information about others as they give gifts and talk to the characters between runs.

Hades is an instant classic, a game that players can spend 50 or more hours on without feeling like any time has passed at all. The game is meant to be enjoyed in bite-sized chunks, with no run taking more than 30 minutes or so to complete. Those short segments were perfect for 2020, as many people struggled to find the energy for marathon sessions. Combine that with the captivating storyline and easy-to-learn but hard-to-master gameplay, and Supergiant found a recipe for instant success. In a difficult year, Hades was a delightful breath of fresh air.