One Hell of a Game: Hades Review

Death is inevitable – a fact that is especially true in Supergiant Games’s newest title, Hades. This roguelike (or roguelite if you prefer) puts you in the role of Zagreus, son of Hades as he tries repeatedly to escape from the Underworld of Ancient Greek myth. As with all games of the genre, death is something you’ll experience often, especially in the beginning as you face down the daunting challenge of escape.

Gameplay: 5/5

In short, Hades is a blast to play. The combat is fast-paced, fun, and full of exciting moments. The various enemies, worlds, and bosses you encounter are each unique and require different strategies to handle. Each run presents you with an assortment of boons from Zagreus’s relatives on Olympus, ensuring that no escape attempt is quite like any other.

That’s not even delving into the various meta-level decisions to be made before you even begin your journey through the Underworld. Each run starts in the House of Hades where you can talk to various characters (more on that later), purchase permanent upgrades with the various currencies earned on your previous run, and select which of the six different weapons you want to use – once you’ve unlocked them, of course.

While Hades is built around the experience of grinding your way through a dungeon, it’s also simply fun enough to make the experience worth coming back to time and again. The game encourages varied styles of play by granting players more resources if they select different weapons rather than sticking with just one, and all of this doesn’t even touch on the Pact of Punishment, which lets you set your own difficulty through the game. All told, Hades is an incredible game that will have you coming back to it even after you see the credits roll.

Originality: 4/5

Hades main claim to fame is the way it tells its story. The narrative is woven around the roguelike nature of the game, with characters remarking on your deaths and defeats each time you perish. You can’t actually see the whole story without dying multiple times as certain dialogue only activates after repeated conversations and on specific events.

Aside from this, Hades will be very familiar to anyone who’s played previous Supergiant titles such as Transistor and Bastion. It has its own mechanics and systems, of course, but it shares the isometric view and the satisfying combat of those games. You can see the echoes of previous titles in Hades, but in a good way as the game captures their best qualities and adds its own unique flair.

Accessibility: 4/5

There are two perspectives to consider regarding accessibility – how well does the game teach players its systems, and how much of an effort does it make to be playable by everyone? Hades shines in each category, with only a few minor oversights. The game is very straightforward from the beginning as you initially only have access to one weapon and no permanent upgrades. From that point on, the game slowly builds in complexity as you unlock more challenging weapons, invest in skills that unlock new mechanics, and even discover new skills to obtain. Once you unlock the Pact of Punishment, the game can be as easy or as difficult as you want, making it beginner-friendly while also presenting a challenge for more experienced players.

There are also some nice features to accommodate anyone who can’t for whatever reason, play the game as intended. A generous God Mode grants increased damage resistance each time you die, a number of options let you toggle subtitles and screen shake, and the controls can be remapped however you like. The notable absentees from the options menu are subtitle font customization and colorblind modes, which could serve to make Hades that much more accessible if they’re ever added in a future patch.

Look: 5/5

Look isn’t just about how detailed the graphics of a game are, but also the art design and animation. Hades excels in this area as beautiful character portraits accompany every snippet of dialogue and each zone is visually striking. There’s no confusing the dungeons of Tartarus with the lava-flooded fields of Asphodel or the verdant land of Elysium. Each power up you acquire changes the appearance of your moves as well, and the weapons themselves have aesthetic changes that reflect their upgrades.

On a smaller note, the House of Hades where you begin can also be customized to your taste. Everything from rugs to flowers to paintings can be changed. You can buy new furniture for various characters, renovate the lounge area, and furnish your bedroom however you wish. It’s a small addition that nevertheless allows everyone to bring their own style into the game.

Story: 5/5

Without getting into spoiler territory, Hades has an excellent story. It’s interwoven into the roguelike mechanics, inseparable from the experience of dying repeatedly as Zagreus tries to make his way out of the Underworld. Even apart from this unique twist on video game storytelling, the actual plot is very compelling, granting you more than enough motivation to reach the surface even after dying for the umpteenth time.

Any discussion of a Supergiant title would be incomplete without talking about the voice acting. Whether it’s the narrator in Bastion or the transistor in, well, Transistor, Supergiant Games has a history of exemplary voice work. Hades goes all out in this department as every character is fully voiced with thousands of lines of dialogue packed into the game. All of the gods, furies, shades, and floating severed gorgon heads come to life with their own distinct personalities. Hades is a masterpiece of both voice work and storytelling, each of which complement each other perfectly.

In Conclusion

Hades is an incredible game, full stop. It has a few minor (very minor) stumbles here and there, but nothing that should put anyone off of buying it. Even if roguelikes are usually your cup of tea, there’s a very good chance that you’ll wind up loving Hades.

Final Tally: 23/25

Mechanics as Storytelling: Breath of the Wild’s Weapons

There’s a lot to love about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, from its expansive open world to its unique characters, full of personality. It’s one of the best games released in recent memory and stands as quite possibly the best Zelda game of all time (Ocarina of Time notwithstanding). One element of the game that received significantly less love than others, however, was the weapon durability mechanic by which nearly every sword, axe, and magic wand you picked up in the game would eventually break down.

This design decision was controversial when the game first released. After all, no other game in the series featured weapons that wore out. There are several reasons behind the weapon durability feature, though, not least of which because it leads to more interesting gameplay experiences. When you’re forced to switch from your favorite sword to an awkward boomerang in the middle of a tense fight against swarms of Moblins and Lizalfos, it creates a uniquely exhilarating experience that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. There are also narrative implications created by this mechanic, which is what we’ll be focusing on here. The weapon durability system – and indeed, the weapons in general – reflect the state of Hyrule and Link’s journey throughout this fallen kingdom.

Journey Through a Ruined Kingdom

The most obvious parallel between Hyrule and the weapons is that both of them are falling apart – quite literally in the weapons’ cases. This Zelda game in unlike any other, as Link is faced not with a bustling, thriving kingdom, but with a ruined world where people are just barely surviving, all with the threat of Calamity Ganon hanging over them. Hyrule is in decay, as we see from the numerous ruined structures that dot the landscape. It only makes sense, then, that the weapons you find in this land are equally as decayed and broken down. Nothing lasts forever in this world, be it the tools in your arsenal or the very kingdom itself.

The weapons in the game can also be used to track Link’s own journey through the world of Hyrule. When you start your quest, Link is freshly awoken from the Shrine of Resurrection, weakened and adrift in a strange land. Fittingly, most players’ early weapons will consist of tree branches, rusty swords, and wooden clubs. Link is still weak, and so are his weapons. As you progress through the game and Link grows stronger, you’ll find better tools to help you combat your foes. By the time you’ve freed all four Divine Beasts and are ready to take on Ganon, you’ll be kitted out with Great Flameblades, Royal Broadswords, and all manner of other powerful weapons that reflect your empowered status.

Divine Weaponry

Speaking of the Divine Beasts, there are several weapons you receive as rewards for freeing them: the Lightscale Trident, the Scimitar of the Seven, the Boulder Breaker, and the Great Eagle Bow. Each of these weapons can be broken, but they can also be reforged if you possess the appropriate materials. Additionally, they are each connected to one of the Champions who faced Ganon alongside Zelda and Link a hundred years ago. Obtaining these weapons mark major points in the game’s story after the spirits of those Champions and their Divine Beasts have been released from Ganon’s influence. In this way, the weapons mirror their original bearers as even though they may be broken and defeated, they can be reclaimed and return just as strong as they were before.

Finally, there is the Master Sword, a unique blade filled with divine energy and hands down the best weapon in the game. It holds this status for several reasons, as it is the only sword you can find that won’t break – instead, it simply enters a recharge period, after which you can use it again. It also adds its own slot to your inventory when you obtain it, meaning that it doesn’t prevent you from picking up other weapons. On top of this, it’s also just a very good sword, and its damage is doubled when in the presence of anything that’s been corrupted by Calamity Ganon (Guardians, Divine Beasts, and Hyrule Castle).

In order to obtain the Master Sword, Link must have a total of 13 hearts, or else the effort from attempting to pull the blade from its sheath in the ground will kill him. This ensures that players won’t find the best weapon in the game too early and then just breeze past the rest of the Shrines and Divine Beasts, but it also fits narratively, as the Sword wants to make sure that Link is strong enough to take on Ganon. Additionally, while Link can use the blade against any foe he encounters, this will make it run out of charge very quickly. The Master Sword is most powerful when facing Ganon and it gains increased durability in addition to its enhanced damage when in the presence of anything that the Calamity has touched.

Broken Swords for a Broken World

The weapons of Hyrule are varied and complex, their many facets showcasing different pieces of game design and subtle storytelling techniques. They reflect so many aspects of Breath of the Wild, whether it’s their parallels to the world’s decay or the way they tell the story of the Champions’ resurgence. A good game mechanic is one that accomplishes several things at once, and it’s safe to say that the weapons in this game do just that.

Further Reading

Eiji Aonouma On The New Look And Why Nintendo Wasn’t Inspired By Skyrim | Game Informer

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – An Open World Adventure | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Ascension and Legacy: An Analysis of Dishonored 2

**SPOILER WARNING**

The Dishonored games are about sneaking your way past enemies using supernatural abilities – or, alternatively, aggressively fighting enemies with supernatural abilities. Both approaches are equally valid, especially in the second installment of the series. While certain achievements and endings can only be obtained through one method or the other, the gameplay itself encourages both styles and sets up opportunities for both lethal and nonlethal action.

Because of this open-ended design, finding the meaning behind the Dishonored games can pose a bit of a challenge as so much of the story is dependent on player choice. Therefore, this analysis will focus on immutable elements – things that can’t be changed or altered while playing. Gameplay is still a factor, though the events and stories that arise from it will be given less weight. This is the approach we’re taking as we talk about the themes behind the second title in the series, Dishonored 2.

The Isle of Serkonos

The focus of the second game in the Dishonored series is Emily Kaldwin, daughter of Jessamine Kaldwin and Empress of the Isles. Her storyline is the canonical experience and the game is tailored around her seeing the isle of Serkonos for the first time, as opposed to her father Corvo who would be returning home. The game opens with Emily being deposed in a coup led by the witch Delilah and the Duke of Serkonos. This leads to her escaping the royal palace and allying herself with Meagan Foster, a sea captain who ferries her to the south where she searches for answers and ultimately discovers the circumstances leading to her downfall – as well as a means to restore herself. She then returns north to Dunwall and takes back her throne.

When it comes to gameplay, Dishonored 2 is a very vertical game – much more so than its predecessor. Levels are structured in a way that makes full use of the traversal abilities (Far Reach for Emily, Blink for Corvo) and are packed with hidden secrets that can only be found by exploring the world. The maps are full of tall buildings housing multiple rooms, with treasures or objectives often found at their peaks. Having the high ground is also advantageous when encountering enemies, as you can avoid detection or drop down on unsuspecting foes. In this way, Dishonored 2 routinely incentivizes players to climb upwards in an attempt to achieve as high a position as possible.

Echoes of the Past

That element of ascension is just as key to the gameplay of Dishonored 2 as it is to the story. Most characters you encounter – especially the targets – are seeking to ascend to some greater level. In particular, they seek to ascend into the future from some troubled or fraught past. We see this in Alexandria Hypatia, whose work to uplift the miners of Karanaca stems directly from the historic injustices inflicted upon them in the name of production. We see it again in Kirin Jindosh, who seeks to elevate his work on the Clockwork Soldier to new heights by using the genius of Anton Sokolov (a scientist of the previous generation and an ally from the previous game). We see it especially in the game’s main antagonist, Delilah, who has risen from her life of squalor and misery to become a powerful witch and, now seeks to rise even further.

These characters who wish to move beyond their pasts are typically the antagonists of their levels, as they need to be eliminated in order for you to move further into the story. Part of their villainy stems from the ways they treat the past. Jindosh sees it as merely a stepping stone in his own ambitions and several notes can be found in his mansion showing that he views Sokolov as ultimately disposable. Byrne and Paolo of the Dust District see the historic grievances and discord in Serkonos as fuel for their ambitions. Neither of them really care about helping the people rise up the world – just their own desires to rise.

The Doctor and the Madman

However, there are two targets whose haunted pasts can be handled in much more constructive ways. Alexandria Hypatia is suffering due to the imperfect serum meant to remedy the miners’ ails, which she tested on herself. This twisted and corrupted her into the assassin Grim Alex, though by exploring the level and digging through the old labs, you can help her recover. Aramis Stilton is another example. When you first encounter him, he’s been driven mad by exposure to the Void. His level is driven entirely by the past, as you are given temporary access to a timepiece that allows you to jump backwards into an older version of the mansion. There, you can prevent him from peering into the Void and give him the opportunity to reckon with his attachments to the Duke, leading to him becoming an ally in the present.

These two characters are ones you can help deal with their pasts in healthier ways. Rather than trying to forget about it or move beyond it, they need to confront it. Hypatia needs to deal with her failure to create an effective serum, and Stilton needs to question his alliance with the Duke, which is based on nothing but his feelings for the man’s father. Your presence can uniquely help them accomplish these breakthroughs in ways that it can’t with the rest of the targets can’t. Jindosh isn’t going to give up his ambitions, Byrne and Paolo won’t stop seeking power, and even the Duke is forever in the shadow of his late father.

Ascending from the Past

Dishonored 2 is a game about rising from your past to become something more. The game ends with Emily doing just that as she confronts the question about Delilah’s heritage and status as rightful Empress. She learns that while the past shapes us, it cannot be allowed to define us. The validity of Delilah’s claim doesn’t matter because the past is not a place that Emily wants to live in. She instead chooses to move forward, and ultimately ascends to the throne both by birthright and by the right she earned from confronting the past.

Further Reading

Harvey Smith on the Independent Heart of ‘Dishonored 2’ | Inverse

An interview with Harvey Smith | Engadget

Mechanics as Storytelling: Hitman 2’s Disguises

The core mechanic of the Hitman games is the disguise system, which forms the player’s primary means of infiltrating areas and interacting with the world around them. It’s a relatively straightforward mechanic – Agent 47 starts each mission in his suit and in the role of an ordinary civilian. He must then make his way to his targets, taking out security and finding new outfits that will permit access to restricted areas. The rules are easy to follow because they’re the same as in real life – waiters and cooks are allowed in the kitchen, guards can enter the surveillance room, and musicians can go onstage. The overlap of where these roles are and aren’t allowed forms the basic gameplay of a Hitman level as you do your best to navigate Agent 47 around obstacles and obtain new costumes that grant entry to key sections of the map. All of it works to enable the classic “freedom of approach” gameplay that Hitman is known for.

This mechanic does strain the bounds of reality somewhat in certain areas. Agent 47 is a tall, well-built, Caucasian man. As such, he looks out of place as a street vendor in Mumbai or a security guard in Colombia, yet no one gives him a second look. It’s a quirk of the system that is largely there to provide seamless gameplay. Looking at it from a strictly thematic standpoint, however, this aspect of the Hitman world tells us something very specific: people only see uniforms, not the individuals behind them.

The Clothes Make the Man

It doesn’t matter whether he’s pretending to be a bellhop in Bangkok or a surgeon in Japan – the first (and often only) thing people see when they look at 47 in this world is the outfit he’s wearing. By extrapolation, that applies to everyone, international assassin or not. Because of this, the Hitman games become an absurd reflection of reality, one that confronts us with our tendency to reduce people to little more than the roles they’re meant to serve. Waiters bring us our food; masseuses give us massages; security guards are allowed pretty much everywhere. This dissociation between the image of the uniform and the actual human being behind it is on full display in the Hitman games – indeed, it’s Agent 47’s preferred approach, hiding in plain sight.

The ridiculous nature of the disguise system in Hitman and Hitman 2 play into real world invisibility of uniformed work. But one of the most important precepts in these games is that invisibility is power. Agent 47 is not like most other characters from third person shooters (which the Hitman games technically are). He’s not durable enough to take multiple gunshots to the head, he doesn’t have a combat roll, and he often faces more armed enemies than he could ever realistically take on alone. His strength lies not in a massive health pool or overwhelming firepower, but in stealth. To get the best score on a mission, he needs to operate from the shadows, eliminating his targets in accidents and without being detected. His invisibility is his power, a theme that we see cropping up numerous times in the games’ stories.

A Most Sinister Plot

Briefly, the plots of the last two Hitman games have been focused around the Shadow Client and an Illuminati-like group known as Providence as they go to war with one another. Each side possesses a degree of invisibility – the Shadow Client manipulates much of the events in the first game from behind the scenes and the second game follows up with Providence retaliating. In both cases, the story concerns people who operate from the shadows, dangerous in large part because they are unknown and invisible. It is only when either party is forced out into the light of day, when knowledge is gained about them, that they become vulnerable. The Shadow Client is put at risk when 47 and Diana learn of his existence. Providence becomes a target once they’re exposed to the world. When they lose their invisibility, they lose their power.

47 is a perfect protagonist to tell this story, and the disguise mechanic is a perfect gameplay system with which to explore it. While the overarching tale of the games is about the mysterious and anonymous elites who control the world, the experience of the games shows that this works in reverse. Agent 47 adopts the invisibility of everyone from restaurant workers to racecar mechanics in order to move unseen and strike unexpectedly. Invisibility is a sword wielded by many different forces in these stories, and you’re only as strong as the disguise you wear.

Further Reading

“Immersion [is] Really Important For Us”: IO Interactive Discusses Hitman 2’s Development | OnlySinglePlayer

Level Design in Hitman: Guiding Players in a Non-Linear Sandbox | GDC