Opening in Tartarus, the prison of the Titans in Greek mythology, you’re thrown quite literally into Hell. At first, you have little idea who you are, outside of being unimaginably hot. You might meet a couple of Greek gods of equal of greater attractiveness who seem to see you as family, but - almost inevitably - you’ll be slain by one of the vicious shades and the game really begins.
Turns out that you are Prince Zagreus, son of Hades himself, and that previous failure was an attempted escape from both your father and the halls of Hell itself. Some sort of disagreement has led to your flight, and the other denizens of the House of Hades happy to revel in your defeat or steel you for the next attempt, from the hero Achilles to your mother Nyx, Night Incarnate.
Here lies the first key strength of Hades. All of the gods, incarnations, heroes, and monsters are so well designed and written that even just the interactions between them and Zagreus are a delight - no doubt aided by some phenomenal voice acting across the board. Also, if you needed any more indicator of the greatness of character interactions here - you can pet Cerberus.
Well, only one head of the creature, but it definitely counts.
The game itself sees you fighting to escape the realm of Hades. The various chambers will change between each attempt, as decreed by Hades himself, but they will largely follow the same pattern. The entrance to the next chamber will give an indication as to the prize of clearing the next; whether that be spendable resources, communes with the gods, or other bonuses.
The gods of Olympus are where this gets interesting. A quick conversation with the god in question will grant you a choice of three boons that will change your abilities, boost your power, add status effects to your attacks, or even give you access to more powerful attacks. These boons can make or break your run, and you’ll quickly find your favourites (mine is Ares).
At the end of each level of your escape attempt there is a powerful boss from mythology barring your access to the next area. The reward for defeating these is far higher, and often game-changing in some way, but these are unrelenting battles of skill. Also, if you fall against these creatures, Hypnos in the House of Hades often has some quip to rub that salt in.
It cannot be denied just how satisfying the gameplay loop is here. This is possibly the purest form of learning through failure, more so than Dark Souls or any other game like it. You uncover more of the story of Zagreus and the state of affairs in Hell as you fail in your escapes and speak to the characters. This gentle and steady revealing of information really drives the player forward.
Furthermore, as you go through the chambers again and again you gain the resources to unlock new weapons and innate abilities as you only lose progress through Hades and money upon death, but keep all other spoils. Every run is worthwhile, no matter how short. Also, as you progress, new gameplay elements and events will happen, and new characters appear.
A particular highlight is Chaos, a being that grants great power at considerable cost and should be approached with caution as accepting their boon alone can make or break your run.
This isn’t even including the events that occur in the House of Hades itself, with new characters and areas appearing, the option to spend the gems you collect on aesthetic upgrades to the building, and being able to listen in on conversations between characters to further build the world. There’s a tremendous amount to discover in Hades if you want to look for it.
While on the subject of looking, Hades is absolutely stunning. The cel-shaded art style and creative designs of the characters (read: unbelievably attractive) and world come together to create one of the most gorgeous gaming experiences this year. Add on top the brooding, metal-laden score from Darren Korb and the aesthetic palette of the game is almost flawless.
It should be highlighted too that the music of Hades actually folds into the gameplay itself with the latter appearances of Orpheus and Eurydice who actually sing in-game - of which the Lament of Orpheus is a particularly haunting and emotional moment. Supergiant Games have put a lot of work and care into every facet of this world, and it shows.