Powered by chugging guitars, frenetic fighting and luscious, flamboyant depictions of figures from Greek mythology, this excellent action game from the arthouse studio Supergiant has been many years in the making. We play as Zagreus, wayward son of the underworld, trying to escape his father’s gloomy domain and see the world above. As an immortal, he cannot die – but each time he is defeated by the denizens of the underworld, whether by the fallen warriors of Elysium or the flaming skulls and witches in Tartarus, he is returned to his bedroom like a shamed teenager, ready to start again.
In most games of this nature, where each attempt strips you of progress and hard-won powers, being sent back to the start makes me want to quit. But when Zagreus re-emerges into the chambers of Hades, there are gossiping shades and surly servants; the lord of the underworld grumbles over stacks of paperwork, barely glancing upwards to reprimand his son for his latest escape attempt. I am quickly distracted from my failure by some words of sympathy from Nyx, or Megaera mooching in the corner. And before long I am back at it, trying to escape from fiery Asphodel, running into a zombie Charon mumbling over some treasures for sale or descending into a pit to meet Chaos.
This is the kind of video game fighting that puts your heart in your mouth, an exhilarating whirl of slashes and strikes and dodges. Each jewel in Zagreus’ armoury – brass-knuckles, greatshield and sword, railgun, spear – has its own rhythm: some favour quick flurries at close range, others charge up to unleash hell on rooms full of gorgons and cursed chariots. Conquered chambers sometimes bring a new blessing from one of Zagreus’ relatives up on Mount Olympus, boons that add a watery damage-dealing flourish to your dash or imbue your weapon with lightning, calls that summon gods to unleash magical arrows or make you invincible.
These abilities arrive in endless new combinations, starting fresh each time you set foot into Tartarus. It makes each run at the underworld exciting and different, even with the same few weapons; each time you think, yes, this is the build that’s going to get me past the hydra or the minotaur.
Claiming these blessings also offers up opportunities to have conversations with the gods, which is just as interesting. The bickering, shifting alliances and long, long histories of affairs and grievances between the Greek deities and their entourage shines through in Hades’ writing. Zagreus says “mate” far too often for any wayward immortal – indeed, he says it about as often as a London market trader – but the relationships and characters here are nonetheless believable and intriguing.
Every time you succumb to the legions of Hell, the disappointment is tempered by the prospect of returning to Hades’ chambers again for a chat with Achilles and to give Cerberus a snuggle. This game has found the secret to (almost) eternal storytelling: a play loop that repeats itself, but dialogue that doesn’t. Interesting things happen all the time, in conversations and chance encounters as well as in battles, and no matter how long I spend with Hades I feel like I am only just getting acquainted with it.
Quite apart from its fine qualities as a hellish hack-and-slasher, Hades has what Twitter would describe as strong bisexual energy. Perhaps this is just everyone’s lockdown libido desperately searching for an outlet, but in the past couple of weeks social media has gone mad for art director Jen Zee’s wonderfully drawn gods and monsters, with their elegant musculature, casually revealing outfits and appropriately godlike profiles. I get it. This game worships the beautiful lines of the human body almost as much as the classical sculptors who hewed the Elgin marbles. Even the Minotaur is kind of hot.
I make it to Elysium every time, now, usually with my bow or broadsword. I have met and vanquished all the Furies, several times over. I know I won’t stop returning to the underworld until Zagreus sees the surface. Just as each run holds the promise of that perfect boon, that lucky run of enemies perfectly suited to the weapon I’ve chosen, something can always happen to screw things up. But that’s Greek mythology for you: fate can be cruel, and the gods don’t really care what happens as long as they are entertained.
Hades is available now, GBP19.99