Returnal is noteworthy for many reasons. It’s a PlayStation 5-exclusive twitchy shooter with an intriguing story from a studio that had never made a game with a narrative in it, much less a AAA one. However, it’s also one of the first big-budget roguelite games, a genre almost exclusively relegated to the indie space. Given its quality and AAA stature, it probably naturally got many people into the genre and those people should not miss out on Hades, one of the best roguelikes — if not the best — as it makes its debut on PlayStation (and Xbox) platforms.
Hades and Returnal seemingly don’t have that much in common. The perspective is an easy differentiator since Hades is an isometric hack-and-slasher while Returnal is a third-person shooter. Yet these two camera angles only put the same roguelite core through a different lens.
One of Returnal’s many strengths is that it constantly throws choices in front of the players. There’s a whole arsenal of alien weapons ready to blast, each with a host of random mods. A whole assortment of consumables offer a quick one-time assist, but players can’t hold them all at once. Limited keys means only a limited amount of secret doors can be opened. Secret rooms may offer a leg up or a quick trip back to the start of the loop. Malignant chests can cause, well, malignancy but can also yield a sweet reward. Weighing a parasite’s debuffs and buffs is epitome of the game’s pool of choices as it clearly boils down the risk and reward inherent to each run.
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Returnal takes all of these variables and mixes them up in a way that leads to a third-person shooter that stays consistently fresh. It’s impossible for two runs to be exactly the same or, in many cases, similar. This feeling of finding new styles even grows after the credits as players can continually discover new consumables and artifacts that change how the game is played.
Hades similarly offers players an absolutely gobsmacking amount of tools to play with; a toolset that also grows from run to run. From the exhaustive list of perk-like Boons from an assortment of unique gods, six radically different weapons with four variations each, parasite-like Chaos Boons, Pacts of Punishment that make the game harder for better rewards, and the handful of unique room setups, objectives, and rewards, Hades is a game that almost never feels even remotely the same even after dozens of runs. Hades even has more variables than Returnal — likely because of its smaller scope and extensive time in Early Access — and is something Housemarque should address in its unannounced future DLC.
The two are as similar in their approach to moment-to-moment action as both titles prioritize a smooth frame rate and incredibly responsive action controls. Selene and Zagreus are agile protagonists, ready to dash in and out of danger at a moment’s notice. Dodges are full of invulnerability frames and mean that death is never the game’s fault since players have the means to get out of the way. Such reactive controls allow for each game’s high difficulty to be a fair challenge worth tackling over and over. The hack-and-slash nature of Hades and the third-person shooting of Returnal aren’t as dissimilar at their core because of their fast, rock-solid controls.
Gameplay is only half the package since Hades and Returnal feature engrossing stories that make intelligent use of the roguelike genre. Selene’s inability to leave Atropos is demonstrated by her canonical deaths since not even dying frees her from the cycle. This mystery is at the centerpiece of Returnal’s overall mystery. Players use respawning as a means to delve further into Selene’s decaying mind, which puzzles her as much as the player since it isn’t waved away under “video game-ass video game thing.” Dying opens up the story and unlocks collectibles that further yield insight into the world and Selene herself. It’s all trippy and utterly unique because Housemarque creatively built a story within the limits of a genre that doesn’t often tell stories.
Hades does not traffic in the obtuse; it’s all relatively straightforward. However, it still uses death and respawning as a central pillar of its narrative. Zagreus wants to leave the underworld and when he dies along his journey, it naturally makes sense that he’d just return straight to the Great Hall in the House of Hades.
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These deaths allow players to explore Zagreus’ relationships in the house and dig into why things are the way they are in Hades’ domain. Twist and turns await players after reaching certain milestones and Hades uses a central mystery to narratively keep players on the hook for more runs, something only made easier by the stellar writing and performances. Returnal also uses a central mystery to compel players to keep going, which seems to work quite nicely in the typically story-lite roguelike genre.
However, players looking to Hades for a PS5-ready experience might be a little disappointed in that regard. While it runs nearly perfectly and has an absurdly strong art style, there’s not much PS5-exclusive support, which was something Returnal specialized in. The DualSense doesn’t vibrate in any remarkable way and the adaptive triggers aren’t supported well. They do tense up during some actions like fishing using Calls, but neither fishing nor Calls even use the triggers. Activity Cards are also unutilized. The controller’s light does correspond to the god Zagreus is speaking to, but it’s not likely players will be looking down at their pads, especially with such spectacular writing. Returnal was a PS5 showpiece and Hades simply is not.
Those trivial oversights shouldn’t dissuade any Returnal fans from trying Hades. The two titles are cut from a similar cloth in their array of choices, replayability, focus on nimble action, and intrigue-laden storylines that are built around the trappings of the roguelike genre. These two Greek mythology-infused titles don’t appear to have a lot in common, but they are similarly excellent in how they both show how flexible the definition of a roguelite is while also keeping true to the essence of it in the same ways.