It was late September when I joined the Cult of Hades players. I had been patiently waiting for Star Wars Squadrons to release so I could devote countless hours to chasing the feelings I had while playing X-Wing and TIE Fighter back in my younger years. Numerous people I follow on social media were mentioning Hades and gushing about it; and the interesting thing was the people were not in the same circles. My Twitter feed is an amalgam of folks from tabletop roleplaying games, Hearthstone, sports, and politics – and people from each sphere of influence were talking about Hades.
I was intrigued.
Not knowing much about the game, I purchased it on my Switch, and the last six week have been DELIGHTFUL as I’ve been sucked into a pleasing gameplay loop that feels like a combination of Diablo II and various “one-more thing to collect” mobile games like Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes. And yet the game design is not exploitative of the player’s time or resources. There’s a hypothetical version of this game where the player could spend money to purchase upgrades or make the game easier – like how Candy Crush levels are near-impossible unless you play them 100 times or purchase special upgrades for a few bucks. Hades sometimes feels like that though the upgrades are all built into the experience; it’s not trying to bilk the player of additional cash even though the game has multiple currencies for various upgrades. The allure of collection and progression is baked into the gameplay loop. For those not familiar with the loop of Hades, a primer.
You are Zagreus, son of Hades, living in the underworld with his family, their pet dog, Cerberus, and a few other members of note. Zagreus wants to escape the underworld as he does not get along with his father, so he must leave the House of Hades, which means fighting past monster-filled rooms. The gods of Olympus learn about Zagreus’ quest and offer him support along the way in the form of bonuses (Boons) so he can be faster, stronger and/or more resilient. Zagreus begins his quest with little in the way of Health or resources, and achieving success in terms of escape is not something that happens quickly.
Zagreus dies. A lot.
However, each escape attempt rewards the player with something he or she can use to either help Zagreus get stronger or to form a better relationship with the folks living with Hades or with the Olympic gods. Hades holds you by the hand to teach you how to play the game, and I cannot overstate enough how vital this aspect of the design is to making Hades a wonderful experience!
Hades visually tells you what you can accomplish as a player. An icon pops up to Talk to a character when it is an option, and once you have collected a bottle of Nectar, the game visually alerts you that gifting Nectar is an option. Once you Gift a bottle of Nectar to a character, the player is rewarded with additional story elements and Zagreus gets a Keepsake, which is an item he can equip to aid in his next escape attempt.
In addition, Hades provides a visual prompt to encourage the player to view the character’s profile sheet in the Codex. The Codex activates a Heart icon (think Legend of Zelda) on the character’s profile page, which indicates the relationship has grown stronger. Not only does this teach the behavior of Gifting, it rewards the player and it demonstrates to the player that the relationship can go much further as numerous Heart icons are greyed out. It gives the player a goal of building relationships with other characters and gods, and it offers a clear visual representation of progress.
Zagreus (and the player) have multiple currencies to collect and spend. These currencies are mostly collected by clearing rooms during escape attempts, making trades with the Broker character back home, or a bit later by turning in fish (of course there’s fishing) to the Chef. The currencies are:
- Chthonic Keys – used to unlock weapon and abilities in the Mirror of Night
- Darkness – used to upgrade abilities in the Mirror of Night
- Gemstones – used to renovate the House of Hades
- Nectar – used to build relationships with characters
- Ambrosia – used to build stronger relationships with characters and upgrade Companions
- Diamond – used for expensive renovations in the House of Hades
- Titan Blood – used to unlock and upgrade weapons
- Charon’s Obol – used to purchase benefits for a single escape attempt
- Pom of Power – used to increase the level of a Boon for a single escape attempt
- Daedalus Hammer – used to upgrade a weapon ability for a single escape attempt
- Centaur Heart – used to increase Health for a single escape attempt
They are rewarding carrots to chase!
While the list sounds complicated, Hades goes out of its way to visually teach you how to use these items – and visually reward you when you do. The Mirror of Night mentioned above is a mirror in Zagreus’ room that has numerous abilities that make him stronger – and thus more likely to survive an escape attempt. Zagreus needs Chthonic Keys to unlock the abilities and Darkness to activate and improve each ability. Hades shows you how many keys are needed to unlock additional abilities and how much Darkness is needed to improve the abilities until they are maxed out. The Chthonic Keys are also used to unlock new weapons, which are displayed in your room right before Zagreus leaves for an escape attempt. The player can see the weapons, understand they are locked, and clearly understand how many keys are needed to unlock it. It gives the player another goal. Collect keys to unlock Mirror of Night abilities and weapons, and collect Darkness to improve those abilities.
Gemstones and Diamonds are used to upgrade items in the house, some of which are cosmetic and fun while others significant help Zagreus in his efforts to escape and collect more resources to become stronger. Titan Blood and Ambrosia come into play later in the game. The nifty thing about Hades is rewards are consistently given to the player, though they are randomized to a degree.
During each escape attempt, Zagreus has to clear rooms filled with enemies and traps. As Zagreus encounters new types of enemies, his Codex adds information about the enemy, and Hades encourages you to view the Codex by popping up an icon on screen that is basically, “Hey, go look at the Codex!” Opening the Codex will show some information and lore about the enemy while also giving the player a specific number for how many they need to vanquish before more information is added. It’s another visual cue to alert the player to potential goals and how she or he is progressing toward those goals.
When all enemies are defeated a reward is granted and one or more doors activate to advance to the next room. Each door has an icon above to let the player know what the reward will be for that room. For example, one door may have the Chthonic Key icon and another may have the Darkness icon. Hades presents the player with at least two door choices after most rooms. The player can decide what reward they want to pursue. It gives the player control and feels great when you think to yourself, “I really need more keys to unlock that weapon,” and clear out a room to earn a key.
Another form of reward is a Boon from one of the Olympian gods. They have heard about Zagreus’ effort to escape The Underworld and they want him to succeed. The gods (and a general summary of their Boons) include:
- Zeus – lightning
- Poseidon – knockback
- Athena – deflection
- Aphrodite – weak/charm
- Artemis – critical hits
- Ares – doom/damage
- Dionysus – hangover
- Hermes – speed/utility
- Demeter – chill
Most Boons from the gods come with a verbal back-and-forth with them, and these interactions are finely executed. Each god has a unique illustration, voice and personality, and I find myself gravitating to one of their rooms just because I want to spend time with them again. Dionysus is hilarious, though they all bring something unique to the experience. For a while, Poseidon was my boy and I was smitten by Artemis. There are many folks out there that have called the Olympian Gods and other characters in the game thirst traps, and I cannot argue with them.
Boons come in different power levels (Common, Rare, Epic, Heroic, Legendary) and there are also Duo Boons, which require already having Boons from two gods. For example, Ares and Artemis can combine to give you the Hunting Blades Boon, which allows Zagreus to fire spinning blades that track enemies; they’re glorious! In addition, Boons can be improved by leveling them up with a Pom of Power (my current record is getting Poseidon’s Flood Shot to Level 19) or interacting with a certain character during an escape attempt.
Hades throws in some randomness as each god has approximately 15-20 Boons to offer, though half have specific requirements to be offered, and only three are offered at a time to the player. The player again gets to make a choice when interacting with the gods, “What’s the best Boon to select right now?” The player can enjoy the random element of interacting with gods each escape attempt or begin planning out what gods you want to meet and what Boons you want to select. There are methods in the game to ensure you’ll meet your god of choice at least once and to be offered higher-quality Boons. I’ve played with both mentalities and the game is enjoyable either way.
Again, the visual aids on screen are incredibly rewarding. Ares’ Doom effects ripple in red, Zeus’ yellow chain lightning crackles around the screen, pink hearts float around from Aphrodite when enemies are weak, and blue waves splash when Poseidon knocks enemies away. Hades teaches you quickly how the gods are capable in helping you escape. Athena may not seem that powerful, and then you have a run where you figure out, “Oh, so THAT’S how Divine Dash works!” There are nine gods, each with 15 or so Boons, and they are presented somewhat randomly each escape attempt. It’s a glorious slot machine to crank on each and every time!
I do not compare Hades to gambling lightly; it seems the team behind the game is aware of behavioral reinforcement schedules – and it makes the game a great experience. Hades offers Continuous Reinforcement in the sense that the player is always making progress on one of the various goals offered in the game. As described above, a reward of some type is given after the player interacts with a character or clears a room of enemies. The progress might be increasing the strength of a relationship with a character, inching closer to getting enough resources to make a renovation in the house, reaching a new area during an escape attempt, or making Zagreus stronger through the Mirror of Night. If the player makes an escape attempt, then they are going to get a reward that connects to one or more of these goals.
There is Partial Reinforcement as well, which is when the player gets a reward occasionally instead of all of the time. For example, Zagreus has to escape four levels on his way to join the Olympian Gods: Tartarus, Asphodel, Elysium, and Styx. Hades wisely created four unique levels to advance through as the sounds, color palettes and enemies vary across the four locations. The exit to each level is guarded by a Boss, and that Boss offers a rare and specific reward (see Titan Blood, Diamond, Ambrosia above). The player learns that these Bosses represent an obstacle in their way, and that defeating each Boss will result in a valuable reward. The gameplay loop is satisfying because Hades teaches you a lot of what you need to know on screen and it relies on video and audio cues to reward your time.
It’s really rather elegant.
The final teaching and reinforcement element about Hades I want to mention is the Fated List. This is an item that can be purchased rather early in the game through the Contractor for 20 Gemstones. Once purchased, the Fated List can be viewed in Zagreus’ bedroom and it contains a literal to-do list of tasks in the game. Examples include collecting all Boons from each individual god, using all upgrades for each weapon in the game, and making an escape attempt with each Keepsake. The list shows your progress, and many of my early runs were geared toward checking things off the list. For example, a Fated Choice icon appears on screen for any selectable option that contributes to checking off the to-do list; that simple visual cue shaped much of my behavior in early escape attempts. Knowing I might die before escaping Hades, the Fated List gave me another set of goals to chase – and it felt great!
Something like the Fated List exists in many games, though how its incorporated organically into Hades feels better. It is not buried in an Objectives Menu; it’s a decorative item that must be earned, and it appears cosmetically in Zagreus’ bedroom. It becomes part of the gameplay loop….
Talk to characters in the House of Hades, buy upgrades (if possible), decide on abilities in the Mirror of Night, check the Fated List, pick a weapon and beat on Skelly (he’s an animated skeleton you can use for target practice before each run; he teaches you about weapons and on-screen prompts tell you what each weapon is capable of – it’s brilliant!), make an escape attempt, fight monsters, collect rewards, die (or escape), return to the House of Hades….
Each phase of the loop does not overstay its welcome. There is zero wasted time. Let me repeat – ZERO. WASTED. TIME. The game does not force me to wander around large areas to unlock fast travel (Breath of the Wild, Skyrim, et. al.), introduce puzzles that are impossible to solve without tools I don’t yet have access to (God of
Rowing War), or provide limited methods of reinforcement while I basically do the same thing over and over again (Hearthstone). The overall experience is tight, and there isn’t a cumbersome inventory screen to manage; the materials Zagreus has are conveniently displayed in the bottom right of the screen. The player doesn’t have to pause to wonder, “Wait, how many Nectars do I have? Can I afford to give one to Achilles?” It’s there on screen; the player cannot miss the information.
And I haven’t even mentioned the Symphony of Destruction that is combat in Hades. Zagreus will ultimately have six weapons to choose from, which in turn have four Aspects (abilities) to them. That is a total of 24 different ways to approach combat in the game – even before you factor in the 24 options in the Mirror of Night and the near-endless combinations of Boons from the nine Olympian gods. Each weapon offers something unique and completely changes how you approach combat in the game. Again, the combat reminds me of Diablo II only I don’t have to grind XP for different character classes to unlock cool and interesting playstyles – Zagreus (and I) have access to all of them!
Want to clear rooms as quickly as possible up-close-and-personal? There’s a Blade or the Twin Fists for that. Want to sharpshoot enemies from a distance? Try the Bow or Rain Gun. Want to dart in and out of combat with an option for range attacks? Grap the Spear. Want to patiently wait out enemy attacks and then turn the table on them? Enjoy the Shield of Chaos.
Another random element to the game is one of the weapons will be glowing before each run. It’s another ingenious way the designers shape the player’s behavior; the glowing weapon gives Zagreus the Dark Thirst bonus, which increases the Darkness earned during the next escape attempt by 20%. Since I was certainly chasing Darkness early on, I selected whatever weapon was glowing, which in turn taught me about the various weapon options, which in turn taught me about how to respond effectively to enemy patterns.
Hades shows you these things. The weapon is glowing and when you go near it a (Darkness + 20%) icon pops up. You can’t miss it! I love that Hades teaches me like I’m a seven-year-old.
More games should externalize, simplify, and reinforce like this!