3P Reviews, Video Games

Once More Unto the Breach — Hades

C

I’m not much of a fan of Greek mythology. I mean, I liked the Ancient Greece unit in middle school history class, and at one point I could name all of the major gods and their origin stories, but by high school, I had started to grow out of them. What I liked wasn’t really the myths themselves – many of the originals are fairly dry – but rather I liked the retelling of them; they were translated into modern frameworks in a way that I found relatable. There are plenty of adaptations of myths that are designed to appeal to a modern audience, and these are great when you’re a kid and haven’t seen them before. After the third or fourth time hearing about Orpheus or Zeus or Heracles, though, you start to realize few adaptations bring anything new to the table.

I want to preface this review with that to make it clear that Hades has to work hard to win me over. It’s a hack-and-slash roguelike with occasional dialogue bubble interruptions that convey a very long yet straightforward plot. What’s more, it’s rooted in Greek mythology in a way that’s designed to seem authentic while remaining very marketable. The story revolves around the shirtless anime prince of the Underworld, Zagreus, as he battles through his father’s domain and comes across all sorts of references that will make your inner teenager go, “Hey, I understood that reference.”

And yet, it works. Really well, in fact. Hades is not only the best game I’ve played all year (so far), it’s one of the best games I’ve played, period. The gamemakers know their craft in a way few others do. Very little is wasted, and it has one of the most inventive ways of exploring story that I’ve ever seen in a video game. It retells parts of classic Greek myths, but it goes further than just making them appealing; it recontextualizes the everlasting parts of them and sows them into a narrative that, while familiar, is utterly its own.

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3P Reviews Series: Hades

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Spoilers: Many

Audience Assumptions: None

Content Warnings: Mention of death, parental abuse, kidnapping; brief mention of rape, torture, murder; reclaimed use of the term “queer.”

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Part One: Home is Where the Dead Are

A

The basic conceit of Hades is simple: you play as Zagreus, son of Hades, who wants to escape the Underworld against his father’s will.

The game opens up with Zagreus in Tartarus, the bowels of the Underworld. He receives a gift from the god Zeus, who bestows a power onto him to help him fight better, and then it’s off to whack at some dungeon monsters. Because your health is low and the denizens of Tartarus are not particularly lenient, you’ll likely only get through a few chambers before you die. This is where the real story starts.

Zagreus revives from a pool of blood in the entrance hall of the House of Hades. He has arrived where all the dead do: the waiting room of his own house. Hypnos, the god of sleep, tallies the new arrivals to the Underworld and is surprised to see the prince among them. The dead are lined up to be judged by the intimidating Hades, who leers down at them from his desk and inscribes their afterlife fates. Hades chastises his son for running off, but seems to doubt Zagreus will make it far should he try again and deems his recent death punishment enough for now. We gather their relationship is contentious, with Hades playing the role of the stern father and Zagreus the rebellious child. You can tell that his father’s warning is not going to stop him one bit.

The player can jump right into another run if they choose, but they must still pass through the chambers to reach the entrance to Tartarus, and the environment communicates a lot. This is Zagreus’ home, and it has been for his whole life. His room, like the rest of the House of Hades, is adorned with extravagant trappings befitting his father’s lavish tastes. The boundary between work and leisure is blurred, with Zagreus essentially living in his father’s elaborate office. There are other inhabitants of the House of Hades, most of them in Hades’ employ. All of them have pre-established relationships with Zagreus of some sort or another.

Nyx, the goddess of night, is a mother-figure to Zagreus, though not his birth mother. She is supportive of his escape attempts and gives him tools to aid his journey. The dead hero Achilles, a security guard for the House and Zagreus’ combat trainer, does the same. Cerberus, the fearsome three-headed guard dog, is Zagreus’ puppy, and he loves pets. It seems he’s gotten anxious with Zagreus leaving and has torn around the palace in response, but now and for much of the rest of the game, he remains at Hades’ side while he works. Other characters appear later on as you run through the dungeons and try to reach the surface.

Each time you start a new run and inevitably die, you get sent back to this central hub, and each revival offers an opportunity to talk to the other characters. Thus, the game sort of splits into two components, one a gameplay focus about Zagreus trying to reach the surface, and the other a series of stories about his relationships with the characters back home.

The more runs you complete and the further you get in them, the more characters you encounter, and the more the two components merge into one.

Eventually, you learn that Zagreus is not just running away from home, he’s running off to find his mother. He has only recently learned that his mother is Persephone, the former queen of the Underworld who left when he was a child. Hades has been sour about it ever since and refuses to talk about her. Zagreus wants to know why Persephone left, and join her if possible.

As he battles through the Underworld, he encounters messages left by the gods of Olympus. They have learned of his existence through his escape attempts and believe him to be travelling to meet them on their heavenly mountaintop. Eager to meet their new cousin, especially since Hades doesn’t keep in close contact, the Olympians shower Zagreus with gifts and words of encouragement to help him along.

The combat gameplay is very much stats based, but with a silky smooth difficulty curve that gives a clear sense of progression even though you reset every time you die. The game has something of a corkscrew trajectory, each run repeating the process of starting in Tartarus, battling through easy levels, working up through harder ones that introduce new challenges, dying, returning to the House of Hades, selecting your weapons and items, then making a new run, but each run offers something new. Like many roguelikes, there is an element of randomness that enhances replayability, so the room type, room rewards, and Olympian boons are all slightly different. A selection of perks, weapons, and helpful items add to the variation in the runs, with additional mechanics unlocked as you progress.

If talk of perks and boons and spells and unlockables makes you think, “Nah, not for me,” I understand, because that was my first thought as well. When I picked up on the initial enthusiasm for the game, my excitement was dampened pretty much as soon as I saw gameplay footage and stills of it. I enjoy roguelikes, but stats-based RPGs are rarely my thing. I saw something akin to Diablo or Bastion or the hundreds of other top-down view dungeon-crawlers that are mostly about fighting monsters to earn treasure to fight more monsters or unlock new levels.

What sold me on it was someone on Overdue, a book podcast, mentioning the narrative depth of the game and listing it among Gris and Return of the Obra Dinn as a video game that understands how to use its format for storytelling.

That’s not something you get in a lot of RPGs or dungeon crawlers, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that piques my interest.

What the person on Overdue was talking about was the other aspect of the game, the story and character development that mostly comes about through brief dialogue exchanges. Because there aren’t many set encounters in the game, and with few exceptions, the NPCs don’t move between different locations, Hades has a fairly unique dialogue system that cycles through a series of non-linear but ordered dialogue topics each time you talk to an NPC after a run.

What that means is, each time you die, the characters in the House of Hades will have something new to say to you. You don’t get a choice in what Zagreus asks or how he responds, and the topics vary from generic advice to deeper personal drama. Sometimes Zagreus will mention characters or obstacles he’s run into on his latest escape attempt, giving the dialogue a surprisingly dynamic feel – the characters seem aware of what is happening around them, rather than having a set list of dialogue exchanges. In fact, you can play for dozens of hours before a character runs out of things to say.

This is possible because the dialogue is doled out in easily digestible chunks. Most of the dialogue goes back and forth only a few times between each character, comprising maybe twelve lines in total. This means that even if you’re the sort of person who skims generic dialogue that runs on for too long (guilty as charged), you’ll still usually notice when something interesting pops up.

One of the early things you’ll notice is that Zagreus, despite resembling a generic cool guy protagonist with the personality of half a peanut, is actually full of character. Zagreus is a nice person with a lot of patience, allowing him to make friends easily and repair tarnished relationships of his own and others alike. He’ll even engage in cheeky little interactions with the bosses on various levels, like trying to obtain an autograph from the gladiatorial minotaur, giving the undead Lernaean Hydra a nickname, and trying to teach the murder-obsessed Fury Tisiphone to say “happy.”

However, he has plenty of flaws of his own, mostly his naivete and habit of poking bears. This is part of what makes his relationship with his father so rocky, as his father dismisses and mocks any attempt Zagreus makes at mending the bridge between them, and Zagreus often responds by escalating that negative dynamic. This exchange has gone on for most of his life, and it hangs over both of them as the crux of the story.

Hades has strong older sibling energy, strictly attending to his duties and leaving little time for pleasantries or relaxation. We learn through flashbacks that Zagreus once worked for his father, trying to keep up with paperwork to process the records of the dead, but as well as finding the job boring, he was also quite bad at it, and eventually his father fired him and abandoned hope that Zagreus would ever be anything but a whiny freeloader. Zagreus has come to view his father as petty and irreparably resentful of his son. Other characters in the House show more deference to Hades, recognizing him as serious to a fault, but encouraging Zagreus to understand that his father just thinks in a different way than he does. Zagreus occasionally tries to take up their advice, but to no avail.

One thing’s certain: Hades is not a pleasant figure.

For most of the game, while Hades is apt to send hordes of Underworld denizens after you, he tends to sit back and play a managerial role. Once you make your way through Tartarus, then Asphodel, then Elysium, all the way to the Temple of Styx just a stone’s throw from the exit, that’s when he starts to fight dirty by sending Cerberus after you.

Cerberus is one of the characters you can build a relationship with over the course of the game. You can shower him with love by petting him and giving him treats, and he’s one of the few things Zagreus and Hades both seem to like. I was heartbroken to see him standing between Zagreus and his end goal, and Zagreus seemed to find it equally upsetting. His father put Cerberus there to stop him, partly because it’s, you know, Cerberus’ job, but also as a power play. Thankfully, no harm ever comes to Puppy, because instead Zagreus goes scrounging around the sewers to find something to bribe Cerberus with. Being a loyal guard dog, he will immediately shirk his duties for the right snack.

The final boss of the game, of course, is Hades himself. Furious that his attempts to stop Zagreus have all failed, he dons his spear and helmet and heads to the surface to cut his son off. Hades is easily the most challenging boss of the main game, with varied attacks that are fast and powerful, and a sneaky revival move that makes his health bar twice as long as it actually looks. Once defeated, angry and exhausted, he tells Zagreus to go run off if he’s so damn determined, but to also send Persephone his regards if he finds her, and to tell her that Cerberus is fine.

With his father defeated, Zagreus is free to roam the world. He has made it to the surface, to Greece, and soon finds a small cottage with a lovely garden with a woman, his mother. Delighted to see her son alive, Persephone reveals that she left because Zagreus was stillborn. She didn’t even know she had a living son. This sparks more questions from him, and as he and his mother catch up, he soon makes another unpleasant discovery. Zagreus starts to feel ill, and despite otherwise being in good health, his strength fails him. As it turns out, his father’s words about him not being able to leave the Underworld were more than taunting; he physically cannot survive on the surface. Zagreus dies yet again, and here’s where things get interesting for me.

Technically, the game is over. You won. You defeated the final boss, found Zagreus’ mother, and accomplished his goal.

And it’s all for naught. Zagreus can never escape. He’s reached his mother, and he can do it again, and again, and again. But he’ll never make it more than a few steps past her garden before he collapses and the Styx returns him to the House of Hades with its ever-disapproving and equally immortal namesake waiting for him.

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Part Two: Daylight

B

Yet, the story keeps going.

You can start yet another run, but now that you know the endpoint, the goal of the game changes. Much like how each time you enter the House of Hades and the other characters have new things to talk about, each time you reach Persephone, you learn a little bit more about Zagreus and his family. The end goal is no longer escape – Zagreus will always meet the same fate, and he knows it. Rather, Zagreus is now battling his way past his father’s armies to maintain a relationship with his mother.

In between runs, successful or otherwise, visits to the House force Zagreus to reflect on his existing relationships as well.

This is Zagreus’ life. No matter how much he dislikes it, or how much his father would love to kick him out, he’s confined to the Underworld. Being immortal, his story doesn’t have an endpoint, so if he can’t go forward, and he also can’t stop, then all he can do is make the most of what he has and all that comes with it, his father included.

The first time you return after reaching the surface, things are subtly different. Hades, like a cat who has done something embarrassing, is content to pretend he has not been defeated by his overambitious son, and busily buries his face in his work, removing all trace from the books that he was ever on the surface. The others assume Zagreus has failed once more just short of his goal, because why else would he be back here? But he’s eager to whisper to them that he’s done it, he’s found his mother, and he’s going up to see her again. His friends and allies continue to support him, but there’s a bittersweet quality to their condolences when they learn he’s stuck here. They’re sorry to hear he’s never going to be free, but at the same time, they’re happy to know that he’s still going to be in their lives.

You get the sense that Zagreus feels that way too, or at least comes to recognize the comfort the House and its inhabitants bring him. By this point in the game, you have likely built up relationships with the characters, and might even have gotten to one of the three romance subplots Zagreus can find himself in. As a player, there are plenty of things left to do and discover, so returning to the House is a bit of a mixed blessing.

The game doesn’t really have a set end point. There are two major narrative beats that you can continue to, and you can also unlock achievements, reach the highest rank, and one hundred percent the game if you want. At this point, I’m not quite to that last one, but I’m close enough to say one hundred percenting it probably isn’t worth it. I admire the game for being generous with its exit points and not pressuring players to reach that level if they’re not having fun. For many people, the twenty or so hours to reach the top and defeat Hades will be enough, but for those who want to keep going, you can play for upwards of a hundred hours and still not get through everything.

If you do decide to continue on, the two remaining narrative beats might summarized as “the real ending of the game” and “the end credits scene,” though I like to think of them as developments in the larger plot, because that’s how they’re framed narratively. Neither is especially big or game changing on a mechanical level, but the first does matter quite a bit for Zagreus’ personal development. You reach the credits and conclusion of Zagreus’ arc by defeating Hades ten times.

During his visits to Persephone after each victory, Zagreus builds up an understanding of what happened between his parents.

As in the myth, after defeating the titans with his siblings, Hades was assigned to rule over the Underworld while his brother Poseidon ruled the sea and Zeus ruled the sky. Hades was never entirely happy with this deal, because while the sky and sea are praised by mortals for their bounties, the Underworld is a dank, miserable place full of paperwork and cut off from the more interesting surface world. Hades, being a professional, took to the task and never complained, but Zeus felt sorry for him and, noticing he had an eye out for Persephone, decided to kidnap her and give her to Hades as a wife.

Persephone, meanwhile, desired to leave Mount Olympus to explore other lands but never had a good excuse to do so. Zeus took her against her will, but she went along with it once she figured out what he was doing. Hades was furious with his brother for kidnapping her, both because he knew Zeus would have done it regardless of whether she wanted to go, and also because he had done so against the will of the other Olympians. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, was bound to be furious and assume the worst when she found out, but it also wouldn’t be fair to force Persephone to return home.

Hades allowed Persephone to stay and Zeus fucked off without a care in the world, believing he had done good by his brother. Eventually, Hades and Persephone did fall in love and form a relationship, after working through their incompatibilities. However, over time, their affection waned – or more specifically, Persephone’s waned. As she was born on Mount Olympus, being in the Underworld put a physical strain on her, similar to what being on the surface does to the Chthonian gods. When she gave birth to Zagreus, that complicated things.

Hades was never supposed to have an heir. As such, Zagreus was stillborn. The loss of her only child on top of everything else was too much for Persephone, so shortly after, she left. She didn’t return to Olympus, but rather made a home for herself hiding out on the surface world, alone but at peace. Hades let her go without a fuss, never attempting to contact her again but keeping a picture of her at his bedside. After his son was stillborn and his wife left, Hades turned to Nyx, who worked her magic and pulled favor with the Fates to bring Zagreus back to life. It worked, binding Zagreus to the Underworld much like his father. Zagreus is the god of blood, doomed to an eternity of death and resurrection.

Nyx raised Zagreus, and although the Olympians didn’t learn of his birth until his escape attempts, they have taken her to be his birth mother as well. Even after Zagreus learns the truth, Nyx and his mother both insist that he should keep his actual parentage secret from them. Demeter has never stopped looking for her daughter, and if she ever found out that Persephone had been kidnapped, she would wage war on Hades and Zeus, and all of the gods of the Underworld and Olympus would likely be swept up in it.

Persephone eventually asks Zagreus to stop coming to the surface, because there’s nothing he can do about the situation and he’s just harming himself, both physically and mentally, by doing so.

Between these interactions, Zagreus asks things of Hades or mentions things Persephone has told him. After his initial defeat, Hades is angry and bewildered that Zagreus has managed to best him. However, as indicated by his request to let Persephone know how the dog is doing, Hades is somewhat receptive to getting updates about her. His relationship with Zagreus is none improved, and Zagreus remains frustrated that his father’s actions make no sense. If Hades wants to see Persephone or hear from her, but refuses to go himself, then why not just let Zagreus go to her freely? What does he have to gain by putting up all of the same defenses, especially when he knows it will just be a matter of time before Zagreus gets past them again?

Zagreus can’t fathom an answer to these questions because in his mind, his father is and always has been the foul, unreasonable tyrant who exists to make Zagreus’ life miserable. Like many teenagers, Zagreus struggles to understand the nuances of his father’s contradictory personality – and not without reason.

This part of the game is where the title of the piece becomes important, because it serves a dual purpose; Hades is the name of the person and also the location. While the place Zagreus lives and battles through overshadows the gameplay, it is of course his father and his relationship with Zagreus that rules the story.

Hades is intimidating, towering over the other characters in stature and positioned on a throne where he always has full view of Zagreus whenever he dies and comes out of the pool of the River Styx. In order to start another run, you must go past Hades, and while he won’t lift a finger to stop you heading off, he’s apt to bark a snide remark as you run past. Every time, for dozens of runs. It would be very easy to make Hades out to be an evil king or other tyrannical villain, and plenty of other iterations of the character do just that, conflating him being “Lord of the Underworld” with the Christian concept of Satan as “Lord of Hell.”

But he’s not that. Hades may be rude, but he’s mostly indifferent to Zagreus, only growing noticeably angry whenever Zagreus sasses him or gets close to his final goal. Early in the game, there are subtle hints that Hades will come around and he and his son will reconcile. Part of this comes across in moments like Hades talking to Cerberus and warning Zagreus that the Olympians are not his friends. He opens up access to the House Contractor, which allows Zagreus to spend gems he has earned while ransacking his father’s domain to make improvements to the House. Also, like many other characters, Hades has a relationship bar that can be filled up by gifting nectar, one of the many collectables in the game.

The way relationship bars work for most characters is Zagreus gives them nectar a few times, prompting dialogue exchanges and strengthening his relationship with those characters, until a point where the bar becomes locked and can’t progress further until some crucial story point passes between Zagreus and the person in question. In Hades’ case, his relationship bar locks as soon as you give him one bottle of nectar, as he will confiscate it on account of it being banned in his House. However, you can still see some of the remaining bar behind the lock, so from an early point, you know there’s some way to unlock it, you just don’t know how. As you might imagine, this requires reaching the end of the game.

Early indications that Hades has a complete arc are essential, because it takes a long time for that other shoe to drop. Until then, so much of the game will try to convince you that no, this guy doesn’t have any hidden depths, he’s just an asshole. Based on my experience with similar stories, I was expecting something where Hades would turn out to be a Soft Boy™ on the inside who’s secretly proud of his son for besting him, that the story would frame this all as some sort of test that Hades devised on purpose as a way to motivate Zagreus. There is a hint of that, with him keeping the picture of Persephone by his bedside and his remark to Zagreus that he sees their surface confrontations as private chats.

But Hades continues to insult and talk down to Zagreus, and even once you think he can be reasoned with, he swings hard in the other direction. Hades lies and tells Zagreus that he stole Persephone, and while this statement seems to stem from him wanting to be perceived as the villain, he’s very much not a Soft Boy™ in the way that Zagreus is. After beating him several times, his conversations on the surface are cut short, and Zagreus’ attempts to reconcile as he gets closer to understanding his family’s situation are received with condescension. Even once he properly comes around, he’s not a changed man overnight, and in fact, Zagreus never fully repairs his relationship with his father, they just come to a sort of agreement of mutual respect.

After you’ve defeated Hades nine times, the next time you reach the surface, he stands aside and tells Zagreus to just go to Persephone, and that he’s done with this whole mess. Upon reaching Persephone, you’ll find that she’s packed up and has decided to leave her little cottage to return to the Underworld. She’s willing to try to make things work with her husband and his domain. Over the credits, Zagreus and Persephone are ferried down through the Underworld levels you’ve battled past so many times. You descend into the depths of Hades, moving from the surface to the paradise of Elysium, the burning pits of Asphodel, and finally Tartarus, the worst of the Underworld – but as you move down, you’re getting closer to home, with the lower levels being the easiest and most familiar, almost friendly.

When Persephone arrives at the House of Hades, its ruler is there to greet her. Hades and Persephone have a heartfelt conversation about her returning, and Zagreus’ role in it. Over the course of the conversation, Persephone makes it plain that her returning is contingent upon Hades and Zagreus making an effort to get along. Through Persephone’s mediation, Hades finally apologizes to his son and admits his own failing in treating him unfairly. His dislike of Zagreus is something that has built up over time and is exacerbated by their often conflicting personalities, but more than that, it has been fueled all these years by Hades’ misdirected frustration at losing Persephone. One apology is hardly going to make up for his actions, to the player or Zagreus, but it’s a significant step nonetheless.

The possibility of growth rather than sudden and undeserved redemption feels more sincere to me. If you continue playing, you can unlock and build up that relationship bar with Hades, and he’ll grant you little favors or even praise you in his own way. The story continues because, as I mentioned, it functionally has no end. The game is a roguelike after all. Even though there’s nothing for Zagreus to race to the surface for anymore, and Hades is not obliged to stand in his way, they decide that they’ve grown accustomed to this ritual and would benefit from continuing it. Zagreus gets something to do, his ransacking now considered a “test” of the Underworld’s security, and his father gets a chance to flex his muscles and take a break from paperwork every now and then. While Zagreus’ position in the House has hardly changed, he now feels like he properly belongs here, and the bonds he’s formed with the characters there are strengthened by it.

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Part Three: No Rest for the Immortal

AB

The final narrative beat of the main plot involves building up Zagreus’ relationship with the Olympians, now that affairs in the Underworld are resolved. In my opinion, the Olympians are not as interesting as the characters you regularly interact with. Their dialogue options are more repetitive, and while some of them do have little side plots, like Artemis confiding in Zagreus about her isolation within the family, and Ares asking Zagreus to send love letters to Nyx on his behalf, these side plots are few and far between.

On top of that, I was apprehensive about the Olympians from the start. In Greek mythology, the gods were meant to be revered and talked about, but that rarely equated to them being model citizens. They were reflections of the complex nature of people and natural forces alike, representing power above their respective domains. As such, many stories about the Greek gods involve them murdering, torturing, raping, or otherwise tormenting mortals and each other. Ironically, despite his association with death, Hades historically has one of the better track records, even with kidnapping Persephone in the original myth. This was in part because the Ancient Greeks didn’t like to tell a lot of stories about him for fear of attracting his attention and potentially inciting their own death as a result. In modern retellings, Hades often a complimentary personality to the other Olympians; if they’re framed as the good guys, he’s the villain, and if they’re unpleasant, he’s not so bad.

I figured for a while that that was the direction this game was going as well – that Hades would turn out to be a more solid character, and that the Olympians would have ulterior motives in helping Zagreus to the surface. This turned out not to be the case; upon befriending the various Olympians and inviting them to an Underworld party, Hades and Persephone reveal a skewed truth about their marriage and the family is deemed reunited.

I found this ending to be underwhelming, especially given all of its buildup. You don’t get to interact with the other gods or even see the party, and it’s implied that everything went smoothly. While I don’t balk at characters being agreeable, it contrasts rather sharply with the way many of the Olympian characters have been presented up to that point. Especially considering the tension involving the Olympians finding out about Persephone, I’m surprised the story didn’t make a bigger deal out of the resolution. Generally, I don’t think of dinner parties as capable of ending the threat of imminent cosmic war. I really wanted to see that dinner party.

After this point, there are no more plot developments in the main story. I won’t bore you by going through all of the side plots, but I do want to highlight one of them to give you a taste of what the game does narratively outside of the main story. Well, to give you a taste, but also to justify the ridiculously long time it took to complete it.

One of the last major characters to show up in the game is Thanatos, who you encounter in your first run through Elysium. You know that Thanatos is in the game beforehand because other characters mention him and he often shows up on the Employee of the Month board (yes, there’s an Employee of the Month board, and I was very proud when I finally got Zagreus on it). Thanatos is the personification of death – while Hades is the god of the dead, Thanatos is the one who actually deals it out. He dresses like a particularly gaudy grim reaper and shares Hades’ proclivity for work. Early in the story, other characters tell Zagreus that Thanatos is off collecting souls from a war between the mortals. He doesn’t show up at the House until the mid-point of the game, but you can gather through context clues that Zagreus knows him the same way he knows characters like Hypnos, Nyx, and Achilles. There are also other characters like Dusa, the adorable gorgon housemaid, and Megara, one of the Furies and a Tartarus mini-boss, who appear around the House intermittently, and Thanatos functions like them.

Actually, quite a bit like them.

Here’s a fun story:

So when I first got to Elysium, I was not doing well. Getting through the second level is hard enough, and there’s a big jump in difficulty from level to level on top of that. You have to work out how the new enemies fight, and some of the Elysium enemies are particularly vicious. There are large pink balls that churn out murderous butterflies, warriors who turn into little blobs that revive if you don’t kill them fast enough, and angry chariots that chase you, some of which are on fire. It’s not a nice place.

I mean it is a nice place, because it’s supposed to be paradise, but it’s not a nice place for Zagreus.

And then, a few rooms in, Thanatos appears, heralded by this ominous green light. And my first thought was, “Oh yes, finally! I’ve been wondering when you’d show up.”

He and Zagreus have a testy confrontation that sounds very much like Hades has sent him after Zagreus, which Thanatos denies, but then he’s like, “Okay, fight this!” and suddenly waves upon waves of enemies – Elysium enemies — show up in this room in addition to Thanatos himself. And you quickly learn that Thanatos has a shield that means he cannot be harmed, and a massive area attack that kills anything inside.

I believe the words I said to my computer at that point were, “O fuck.”

So yes, of course I died almost immediately, which was especially embarrassing when I found out I had misread the situation entirely. Thanatos is waiting in a little nook back at the House, and when you approach him, he turns to Zagreus and says something to the effect of, “You left me hanging, bro. I had to fight all of those guys by myself.”

Thanatos’ role in the story is very much friend rather than foe, despite all appearances. It turns out he and Zagreus have been close since childhood and while he takes his job seriously, he’s not above sneaking out during breaks to help Zagreus clear a difficult room. These encounters serve as little contests where if you kill more enemies than him, he’ll give you an extra health bonus, and if you lose, there are no consequences. Thanatos will even clear the entire room for you if you leave him to it long enough, so if, hypothetically, you only have one health point and no revives left, you can frantically kite around trying to dodge enemies while Thanatos gets rid of them for you. You know, hypothetically.

The Thanatos encounter is of the unique little mechanics built into the game, but it also ties into Thanatos’ subplot quite well, as his infrequent visits give the him and Zagreus time to talk in private. Thanatos’ initial coldness toward the other soon gives way to a long friendship that has recently been eroded. It seems that Thanatos wasn’t just absent from the start of the game because he was busy – he has been avoiding Zagreus out of frustration at the latter’s decision to leave. Unlike Zagreus, Thanatos respects Hades’ authority and values dependability. He sees Zagreus leaving as an affront to the House itself and everyone who lives and works there – himself included.

By the time you meet him in the game, Thanatos has cooled off a bit and grown curious about Zagreus’ quest. He doesn’t approve of what Zagreus is doing, but it seems to mean a lot to his friend, and he’s decided to help him in what small way he can. Gifting Thanatos nectar and building up his and Zagreus’ relationship helps to smooth things over and makes Thanatos into a valuable ally. However, his subplot goes beyond material rewards.

Like many of the other characters, Thanatos has pre-existing relationships with others in the House besides Zagreus. He has a strong reverence for his mother, Nyx, but is perpetually frustrated with his slacker brother, Hypnos. In talking to Thanatos, Zagreus will mull over his own quandaries and ask Thanatos about his own. While Thanatos isn’t likely to express his thoughts unprompted, Zagreus’ genuine curiosity tend to be good at prompting. They have a good dynamic and Zagreus will get him talking about everything under the sun, from the nature of mortality to that one time Thanatos gave himself a haircut.

Let me put it this way: shipping and handling comes free with these two.

Apparently the creators of the game agree, because Thanatos is one of the three romance options available to Zagreus.

It meant a lot to me when I realized that’s the direction this subplot goes. Even in 2021, it’s rare I run into queer characters in games that aren’t explicitly about being queer. It’s even rarer when one of these characters is the protagonist.

You have the option to pursue a romantic relationship with Thanatos or keep it platonic, and the other two romance options are women, so there are certainly playthroughs that exist where Thanatos comes onto Zagreus but the latter is disinterested. Still, even having that option is powerful, especially since this isn’t a game where you play a voiceless blank slate like in Skyrim or Fable. The characters already have a deep relationship before you even realize it can become romantic, and once it does, both of them have a delightfully awkward time realizing it.

One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this game during Pride Month was because of the Thanatos subplot, but that’s not the only reason. There are actually quite a few queer characters throughout the game, even with its fairly sparse cast. In addition to Zagreus and Thanatos, Achilles has a boyfriend, Patroclus, who appears in Elysium; Chaos, a primordial chthonic god who sometimes appears in runs, uses they/them pronouns and is coded as nonbinary; Artemis regularly mentions her hunting partner who appears to also be her girlfriend; and while Dusa is one of the other romance options, you can’t actually enter into a romantic or sexual relationship with her because, as she puts it, “it’s not really [her] thing.”

There are games that do better individually with queer subplots, but I was floored as I got into this game how much it’s just a presence in the background. I had no idea there were any queer characters when I first started it, and it’s just heartwarming to me how many there are. The game is more textured because of them. It’s a little thing in some ways, but it just cements Hades in my mind as something special.

I’m at a point in the game now where I’ve completed everything that isn’t a grind to get, and while I think I’ll keep coming back to it every now and then, maybe even start up a new game to revisit the story, it is largely finished for me. Structurally, the game is open-ended in a way that easily allows future expansions and I hope the developers do add more, because I’d love to play it. But I think even if they put this one to rest and move on to other projects, Hades is going to stand on its own for years to come. It’s one of the most creative games I’ve played in recent years, and I don’t say that lightly.

I still think I favor shorter experiences for most narrative games, if only because they’re easier to convince other people to play. However, Hades points to a shift in the way we look at story in games, and maybe outside of them as well. There are plenty of games with compelling talking points when it comes to story, but they usually take on a certain appearance. As much as I like games like Firewatch, Before Your Eyes, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and Papers, Please, there’s something all of these have in common that games like Skyrim, Halo, and Dark Souls don’t. It’s not that those latter games are devoid of story – far from it – but most games that don’t set out to tell a story are a game first and narrative second, if at all. I find most games have difficulty blending those two elements together into a single experience. Usually, if you aren’t good at video games, you’ll come to a barrier that you cannot cross, and at that point, the story ends. Games with a strong story focus often have to simplify the gameplay because mechanics can easily get in the way of narrative.

Hades is the rare exception of a game that is split evenly between both its gameplay and its story, and the two are blended together tightly. It does that by splitting its story into small pieces, and crafting the mechanics so that they slot alongside the dialogue, which is an admirable accomplishment for both the writers and game designers.

I don’t think everyone should play Hades, nor do I think everyone who plays it should play it for over a hundred hours. But I’m glad that I did. I don’t know if my rambling here has given you a sense of what it’s like, but playing it was a special experience for me, and I wanted to share some of that with you. Maybe this is enough. But if it isn’t, you know where to go.

___________________________

Breakdown Rating:

Characters: 9
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Gameplay: 8
Main Plot: 8
Subplots: 8
Sum: 40/50

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