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Hades 2 early access review - polish and terrifying power from some of the best out there

The fable of Arachne.

hades 2 key art of melinoe wielding magic
Image credit: Supergiant Games
Supergiant's first ever sequel may feel very comfortable and familiar, but Hades' best weapon remains the power of surprise.

Sequels are always difficult, I imagine. How to capture the core brilliance of a thing and build on it? What to add, what to remove? I've always loved Sid Meier's rule of thirds for Civilisation games: one third remains the same, one third is improved, one third is totally new. But not every game is Civilisation.

Sequels for roguelikes, though? Cor. Difficulty cubed. This is because roguelikes, with campaigns composed of endlessly repeated runs, all with their own fine chances for variation? Roguelikes are games that already carry an infinite number of sequels within them. I have Spelunky runs even now which feel like sequels to the first game, where something unprecedented happens, and where I feel like I see the whole challenge in a new way, completely reframed. If Spelunky struggles with this, what hope for everyone else?

Hades 2 seems very happy being a sequel, even a sequel to a roguelike. Everything from the swift-pen art style and the evocative, pensive soundtrack, down to the menus and the fonts and the UI choices speak of a desire for continuity. After years of racing through baddy-filled rooms packed with classical horrors as Zagreus, there was almost no period of reorientation needed before I started racing through baddy-filled rooms packed with classical horrors as Melinoë. I've spoken to a few people about this, actually, and it's almost perverse: the sense of being right at home from the off is almost the most confusing thing about Hades 2.

Here's the Hades 2 reveal trailer.Watch on YouTube

That said, there are changes, and big ones. And yet before I get into them, two interlinked questions and answers. Firstly: are any of these changes big enough that they don't feel like the sort of thing that might have cropped up in a Hades run back in the day? Not sure, actually. Secondly: in terms of the fun I'm having, does that really matter? Not at all.

Melinoë is a great new lead, quick and smart and, so it seems from the current build, even more devastating in battle than Zagreus. Her standard weapon is a witch's staff, which is like weidling a holy cattle prod, but I'm particularly fond of an unlockable weapon, the Sister Blades. Firstly: that's a great name for something. Secondly, it has a standard one-two-three attack where the third beat goes off like a machine gun. Nothing standard about it!

Hades 2 - Melinoe talks to Arachne in the form of a spider danging from a web. She says: "This is beautiful, thank you..."
Hades 2 - A choice of boons from Apollo, with descriptions of each boon
Hades 2 - a boss fight, with the player sending arcing golden arrows at a huge foe.
Hades 2. | Image credit: Supergiant Games

Like Zagreus, Melinoë has a sprint dash, and she has a standard, special and cast attack. The cast attack is now a circle laid on the ground which can do various forms of nothing-good to anyone inside it, depending on your upgrades. But the biggest change to the system is the addition of Omega attacks.

Omega attacks work on a pool of Magick mana that sits above the health bar. (Or maybe below? Hades 2 remains sufficiently frantic that my concept of the UI is even more impressionist than normal.) Omega attacks cost Magick, and you trigger them by holding down either standard, special or cast attacks for a bit of time, and then you let rip. They're bigger and more devastating, and if that hold-down-to-release brings back happy memories of Fable 2's combat, continue to be happy! They do feel a bit like that to me.

A special attack zings through enemies leaving a trail of flame in Hades 2.
Attacks go off in a circular movement in Hades 2.
Hades 2. | Image credit: Supergiant Games

Crucially - and I feel this gets at the heart of Hades 2's intentions - that Magick pool tops itself up when you move between rooms, even before you start to get upgrades that might top it up even quicker. Pay attention to that: Hades 2 wants you to have easy access to Magick. It wants you to pay for wasting it on a room-by-room basis, but it also wants it to flow sufficiently cheaply for you to feel you can experiment with it, come to understand it, without feeling that you have to conserve it, or that you should hold off cashing it in when you want to.

This is just one way that Hades 2 shows a deep comfort with the traditional Hades flow. You know: you enter a room, kill everything in it, and then choose which room to go into next, guided by icons on the doors which tell you which God will give you a gift in the next room, or which of the game's resources you'll be rewarded with. Two things about this - it's clearly a two-things kind of day: The first is that, for the casual player, Hades 2 is yet again a muddle of resources that you can ignore for a while, because ultimately they all do good things. They all unlock opportunities back at your home, which is now a witch's camp, which will either grant you new options, like weapons, or allow you to level up your character in a more permanent way than each run offers. The second is that Hades 2 seems to be very interested in cumulative power from the off. Melinoë feels so dangerous because the gods fall over themselves to give her upgrades that feel overpowered at first, and then get more and more overpowered as your choices stack.

Hades 2 - hectic combat with arcing arrows emerging from the player
Hades 2. | Image credit: Supergiant Games

Example: I got a boon in my last run that gave me a 100 percent attack bonus for my first ten seconds when I entered a room, every time I entered a room. Reader, it was like being given very fleeting control of a Zamboni at the start of each round, and it turns out that you can do a lot of damage in ten seconds when you have a Zamboni at your disposal. That was overpowered enough, but by the end of the run, that 100 percent attack bonus had steadily risen, via upgrade choices, until it was nudging 150. If I had to say there's a core theme emerging from Hades 2 at the moment it launches on Early Access, I would say that I think it's this: you're going to be very overpowered here.

Well, you're going to be extravagantly powerful, anyway. A typical run might now have me racing along, deadly for my first ten seconds, blitzing enemies so they live under moody little storm clouds, and firing off golden arrows every few seconds like it's Vampire Survivors. But the enemies build too. Even early rooms have a few more waves than I would be expecting, generally of gaunt horrors who often have a strange Jonty Ives feel to them, a hint of glossy white plastic along with the bandages and entrails. Bosses, meanwhile, are not screwing around. Hades 2 isn't screwing around. That might be its defining feature.

hades 2 official screenshot of combat against multiple enemies
hades 2 key art melinoe in in-game landscape
Hades 2. | Image credit: Supergiant Games

There's so much more I could get into, but it really comes down to what you want to pay attention to, and where you want your focus to lie. Some people play this for the slide-and-smash combat. Some people love the Classical reality show going on as the gods weigh in. Others just love the cosiness of the hub, which is a classic here, a glade with a friendly frog and a massive cauldron, and where you unlock upgrades as Tarot cards and then shuffle them into a maximally thrilling hand.

I play to be surprised - and I'm still surprised, just as I was in the first Hades. A few runs back I entered a more quiet room amidst the carnage, and found myself face-to-face with Arachne. She offered me a choice of dresses to wear, each of which limited my resources in certain places while providing upgrades elsewhere. I chose and moved on and was pretty happy about things.

But I thought: Arachne. And the more I thought, the more a connection formed that allowed me to make a bit more sense of Hades 2. I'm going to very briefly invoke Spanish artist Velazquez here, so apologies and yes I really need a wider range of cultural touchstones. Anyway, Las Hilanderas, one of Velazquez' last paintings, was thought for many years to be a painting of a bunch of people spinning yarn. That's until someone discovered that the real drama was playing out in tiny form in the background of the image. This is where two hard-to-identify characters were engaged in the fable of Arachne, in which a great weaver makes a fool of a goddess and pays for it in a manner that, given her name, you can probably predict.

For years, this piece of art had been misunderstood, its point missed, in part because it was yet another masterpiece from an artist who only really worked in masterpieces - which is probably pretty close to how I see a team like Supergiant at this point. You know: oh gosh, another vivid classic, fine.

My point is, Hades 2 often strikes me as more of the same at the moment, but - two things again! - one: maybe I'm not yet dialled in sufficiently to see the deeper, secret point of the whole thing. And, two: we're right at the start of this journey and it would not surprise me if the game I'm playing today, a game I already love, is not the game I'm playing a year from now. And that's quite a thought.

Hades 2 code was provided for review by Supergiant Games.

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