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Hades II’s audacious, invigorating spin on Greek myth makes it worth playing right now
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Hades II’s audacious, invigorating spin on Greek myth makes it worth playing right now

Time comes for us all, and in Hades II, even the gods are not spared its wrath. This epic Greek-mythology-themed action game is the first sequel by arthouse studio Supergiant Games, meaning it has the tough task of surpassing a progenitor that won countless awards and widespread critical acclaim. Fortunately, time is on the side of the developers: while you can buy Hades II right now, it’s under the guise of “early access”, meaning that there’s still some placeholder content in here. Its creators are amassing feedback from players in the hope of eventually releasing a finished game that lives up to the impossible hype.

Perhaps the closest parallel to what Hades represents within the world of video games is Emily Wilson’s translation of The Iliad, which came on the heels of her highly regarded interpretation of The Odyssey. Where Wilson’s work helps recontextualise Greek myth for modern audiences, the Hades series has the audacious aim of expanding those myths. The first game starred Zagreus, son of Hades, a rarely cited figure from the pantheon who sought to escape the grasp of the underworld. Hades II takes a similar route, placing players in the shoes of Melinoë, a character so obscure that scholars muse that she may be a syncretisation of Persephone. Esoteric figures like these are fertile ground for Supergiant Games, which has set up a familial drama that’s only possible when it involves a cadre of bickering gods.

Melinoë is on a quest for vengeance against Chronos, the Greek Titan who personifies time. In the original myth, Cronus rises to power by overthrowing (and gelding) his father – but Cronus is plagued by paranoia after a prophecy foretells that he, too, is destined to be overthrown by his offspring. To avoid this fate, Cronus eats his children (Hades among them), an act immortalised in Peter Paul Rubens’s famous, haunting painting. They are later freed from his belly by his youngest child, Zeus, whose mother hid him to prevent him being consumed, and Chronos is banished to Tartarus, in the depths of the earth. In Hades II, Chronos has escaped his imprisonment and taken Hades hostage, throwing the kingdom of immortals depicted in the first game into disarray. Melinoë, a daughter of Hades, must now fight her way into the underworld to defeat her grandfather.

Hades II, game screenshot.View image in fullscreen

Where most games prime the player to fear failure, in Hades II, dying paves the path toward enlightenment. Melinoë must wade through ever-changing rooms full of mythological dangers who are eager to kill her – and often do. It’s an impossible quest, worthy of Sisyphus, as every death strips the player of all the power-ups and boons acquired during their last run. Many players will be drawn primarily to the frenetic combat: Supergiant Games fills the dungeons with mobs of creatures so imposing that Melinoë has to slow down time to survive them. You can collect resources for all-new power-ups, or soup up individual attacks with magic, both of which weren’t possible in the first game.

Others, meanwhile, will be smitten with the sequel’s expanded cast of alluring characters, which include the personified spirit of revenge and Arachne, the weaver cursed into the form of a spider. The way these characters tie into the story can vary; sometimes they’ll pop up unannounced to help you in combat, but other times, in true competitive Greek immortal fashion, they might appear just to show off how much stronger they are than you. This interpersonal (or interdeity) drama turns what is already a compelling game into something even more irresistible. Even in its current unfinished state, it’s evident I will be spending dozens of hours in Hades II.

But the game’s true revelation lies in its willingness to acknowledge the player’s actions, however minor. If the player loses an unusual amount of health in a single room, Melinoë will note it. If the player is felled by a specific character, friends back at her camp will chide her for it – especially if she’s surpassed them before. A boss may reference previous encounters to taunt Melinoë, or acknowledge their own defeat. This flexible dialogue was in the first game, but it was often too brief. Hades II expands the breadth of things it remembers, however inconsequential. As you play, the game becomes an amalgamation of carefully considered details that bloom into something deeply personal. For a toiling player, these small but consistent nods to your efforts are powerful encouragement to keep fighting against seemingly impossible odds.

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All religions, including Greek myth, are founded on the premise that things have meaning and purpose: that someone, or someones, built the world to be the way it is, and that our actions have meaning. In Hades II, that is true. In this world, the gods are real. Perhaps they’ll answer a prayer with a boon, perhaps their fickle nature will smite you. Whatever the case, the player knows that the gods are always watching.

Source: theguardian.com