Everyone is raving about Hades, having newly discovered Supergiant's roguelite upon its 1.0 release in September. Myself, I got in on the ground floor: I picked up Hades for a game to play during the holidays during its 2018 early release on the Epic store. I loved Bastion and Transistor's gameplay but found myself severely disappointed by their storytelling decisions, so I thought a longer, more combat-focused title - themed on Greek mythology, which I've loved ever since lugging around Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves when I was a kid - presented an opportunity to capitalize on the studio's strengths. Plus, I'd always been wary of early access, but since this title was from an established, trustworthy manufacturer, there wasn't the usual gamble of it being released in a normally-unacceptable state and abandoned - and it'd be neat, I thought, to have the unique experience of following a game from its very first public incarnation and seeing how it evolved to its end.
Well, I played everything that was available of Hades during that initial release - up until the Hydra, the mid-boss of the second area - and I thoroughly enjoyed it. You probably know its strengths yourself: the combat and combat systems are as satisfying as they are voluminous. The voice acting is awesome, and there's a metric ton of it. Jen Zee's art bursts with personality, and these are some of the liveliest gaming incarnations of the Greek gods. The highlights of the Supergiant factory are indeed leveraged to the greatest effect.
...But I haven't gone back, for three reasons that are perhaps more about me than the individual game. Though, frankly, I think the game is the problem.
1. Everything I used got nerfed. The classic heartbreak for players of under-construction titles. In the first big update after I completed the currently-available content, my entire panoply got busted down: the Athena shield deflection boon, the various damage-dealing dashes, the sword's AoE - gone, all gone, like Ralphie's Christmas turkey after the Bumpuses' dogs descended.
It's not as if I don't expect the devs to tinker with their product, but there's a big pitfall in balance adjustments: it's easier to break good stuff than it is to fix bad stuff. (The former can almost always be accomplished by lowering numbers, but the latter is often busted in a fundamental way that resists anything but ground-up redesign.) If players love Air Guitar Solo but shun Porridge Crash, the solution should be not to break Air Guitar Solo but to make Porridge Crash worth using. Unfortunately, there's usually someone on the dev team who really, really likes Porridge Crash and is infuriated that there are players who dare main anything but Porridge Crash.
(This drives me nuts beyond issues of mechanics. Children of Mana, for example, offered four playable characters, but if you pick the girl, the teenage sword boy hero archetype in the lineup will, as an NPC, gripe about how she's not the real protagonist and you should have picked him instead. If you get mad when I use an option, then why do you have it in the game??? This is also partially why I have respect for The 7th Saga to this day: do you want to solo a healer? Well, you go for it, you mad lad; we're not going to stand in your way.)
Now, even if the devs buck the odds and fumble their way to making Porridge Crash into a perfectly viable way of attacking the game: I like playing the game with my build. Using a different build is a fundamentally different play experience, and though it may be valid, it may not be one I enjoy. If you insist on taking away the game that I find enjoyable, it's entirely possible that what you put in its place may not be to my liking. Neither of us may be wrong, per se - all right, one of us is wrong; it's the one who likes Porridge Crash - but, even though it's a matter of personal preference, it will determine whether or not I want to continue with the game.
Nerfing also sends the message that any time I put into experimenting with the battle system and working out loadouts is not going to be rewarded, since anything worthwhile will be ultimately busted down. There seems to be a reflexive presumption that "oh, if you want to use something that's popular enough to get nerfed" - i.e., anything that works - "you're lazy" - but I put time into trying stuff out to find what clicked for me and learning to make it work even better to the point that I could use it to complete the game. If the devs are trying to make the time I put into the title fruitless, I mean, what's the point?!
Man, this item could have been a standalone post. Anyhow, nerfing: except for really glaring issues, it almost never makes a game better. I remember when Bloodstained (after I finished the game, mercifully) came out with a "balance patch" whose most notable feature was "hey, we nerfed the giant chainsaw that comes out of your hand!" What human being would think any part of that sentence was conducive to an improved and more enjoyable play experience!?
2. I need an end. This links into 1), in a way, since the contagion of balance patches, which used to be confined largely to the hyper-competitive, multiplayer-focused world of fighting games, has led to endless tinkering with a game way after its release to dubious effect. Not just with changing things: adding things. Endless games are the model now. Every game should monopolize the player's attention (and keep his or her bucks away from the competitors) for as long as possible.
I don't find this satisfying, and not just for the reasons outlined above, with the rug constantly being pulled out from me mechanicswise. I have a lot of different games I'd like to play, and a ton of demands on my time. I need the titles I play to come to an end, eventually. I need a satisfying standalone experience of reasonable length. Prevailing opinion in the gaming world is that bigger is better, a greater value, but good stories don't keep going on and on and on. There are considerations like pacing and attention spans and the need for a narrative to find a natural conclusion before the heat death of the universe. Even if I love a game, I find myself getting annoyed when developers keep adding content years after the release; when my beloved Mini Metro recently announced new levels for Lagos and Santiago five years after the fact, I was like, just let me have my platinum already.
Now, I never played Hades during a period where stuff was being added just to prolong the experience (though it could be argued that by the end of that two-year-long early access period, they indeed did reach the will-you-just-go-to-the-fucking-final-boss-room-already stage). It was made very clear that only a portion of the game was being made playable and that the additions were to fill in the framework and build it up to the developers' complete vision. Where this comes into play with Hades is that when the next update was released for the game, nerfed abilities aside, I found that...I was okay. I was good. I didn't need more of the game. I had finished what was available at the time, and after that, I had put the game on a mental shelf, digested it, and felt satisfied with my experience, and I was resistant to unsettling all that by taking it off the shelf again. My mind had found an ending, even if the developers yet hadn't.
(This could be termed the Kentucky Route Zero problem, which took years between its hour-long chapters. Following the next part of the narrative involved resurrecting the game from wherever you'd installed it and dredging up memories of what the hell was going on, among other significant problems, and I found that roundabouts outweighed swings on this front after Part III.)
This is more of a personal preference than the nerfing thing, but I'd rather have a tightly-designed title I can experience from start to finish. I don't want to devote my life to a single play experience to the exclusion of all else the medium has to offer - I need satisfaction, and that's about quality, not quantity. So I don't think I, personally, am built to follow endless helpings of a game delivered piecemeal. (However: I played Cook, Serve, Delicious 3 bit by bit in early access, and that's shaping up to be my best gaming experience of the year - though the nature of its gameplay makes it better-suited to modular delivery than Hades.)
3. I was wary that the writers were starting in with another of Supergiant's classic ill-considered morals. This is a huge flaw about which no one will speak, because Greg Kasavin used to be at GameSpot: Supergiant writers are laser-focused on the implications of the story for the protagonists only, to the complete exclusion of what they mean for anyone else in the narrative. That's a problem, because the implications have been pretty huge. (This is going to lead to a very large chunk of spoiler text for Supergiant's previous games, but I'm afraid that's inevitable if we're going to discuss matters.)
Spoilers for Bastion ahead, highlight to read: I've gone over the issues with Bastion's story here, but I'll recap for consistency. In Bastion, you're attempting to power up the titular flying fortress/time-travel machine to go back and avert an apocalypse that has ravaged your planet. You later learn that this doomsday was triggered by a misfired final-solution government weapon meant to exterminate a Native American-analogue subjugated minority called the Ura - and that you are, in fact, in the process of finishing off this genocide, as collecting power cores for the Bastion is collapsing the Ura's last remaining fragments of land. You keep going, though, because powering up the Bastion and going back in time is the only way to save the Ura and everyone else...until you get to the ending, where the writers will sockpuppet one of the stupider characters to opine that, hey, your group has been having a really fun time bonding and sightseeing in the post-apocalyptic hellscape; why don't you just cruise around the dead earth in your awesome flying fortress and forget about that whole "save known civilization and the other 99.9999999999999999% of the population" thing?
If you respond, "um, no; I didn't commit provisional genocide just to score a flying Winnebago," the game will go, you idiot, you fool, you complete and utter fraud, and deposit you back at the beginning of the game in a New Game Plus scenario; sorry, it claims, but, um, you went back in time, but you didn't keep your memories or something, so The Future Refuses to Change, so there. So don't you feel silly about wanting to save everyone instead of embracing FREEDOM and a neverending holocaust-fueled road trip? Never mind that your party includes the engineer who built the Bastion and that it makes utterly no sense for him not to understand how his own invention works; the writers wanted to shoehorn in their BREAK FREE OF YOUR PAST moral, and damn its suitability to this narrative, much less the practicalities or larger implications, which are particularly icky considering that the doesn't-count genocide is based on an actual historical crime.
OK, switching to Transistor now: Transistor is another apocalypse scenario, it's a bit more unique. It takes place in Cloudbank, a '30s-style city inhabited by computer people - not Matrix-style jacked-in humans; computer-native entities with human appearances - and governed completely by majority-rule public opinion. Tailoring absolutely everything to the current public whim, though, has put society and culture on a hamster wheel of ever-changing stagnation - the unfamiliar is unpopular, creating an environment hostile to visionary innovation - so a small cadre of Cloudbank's brighter lights (giving themselves the transparently villainous handle of "the Camerata") have hatched a plan to break free of the cycle by, essentially, creating an algorithm that will provide the populace with what they want, before they want it, allowing both public opinion to be sated and breakthroughs to be made. Two things are necessary for the plan. The first is the Transistor, a USB-come-sword device that controls the forces that make & remake the computer city, a collection of bots and bits called the "Process." The second is the "incorporation" of the "traces" of Cloudbank's best & brightest into the Transistor so that the algorithm can draw upon their genius, creating an effective hit list of the city's top talents.
The plan goes bad with one of the hits, a singer named Red, when her boyfriend intervenes - he's absorbed into the Transistor instead of her, and they (and the Transistor) get teleported away in the resultant glitch. Red is your player character, and she takes off on a roaring rampage of revenge for the pseudo-death of her boyfriend, who provides audio-only running commentary from within the Transistor as Red runs around. Problem, though: without the Transistor, the leaderless Process is now running amok, defaulting to a "wipe the slate clean" mission absent any other direction and - well, deleting everything and everyone in the city, leaving expanses of pure white in its wake.
This discovery should drastically reshape the game's stakes and priorities, but neither Red nor the game seem really to realize this or care. She does collaborate with the last remaining member of the Camerata to stop the Process absent another way to move forward or find him and cross him off her kill list, but there's never a sense that the death of everyone in Cloudbank is a pressing problem. (There's also the complication that Red has been inadvertently complicit in this crisis, as her use of the Transistor for her revenge scheme has kept it away from its proper role in controlling the Process. It wasn't her initial choice to take away the Transistor, and the fallout happens so fast that it's hard to fault her for not realizing what's happening, but there should be a moment of pause upon this realization of moral complication that never comes.) The midgame suicide of the leader of the Camerata and his spouse out of guilt, in response to the enormity of what's happening, should spark a reassessment, a shift in perspective, but the game stays largely mired in its Kill Bill mindset - the game indeed ends once the last member of the Camerata is dispatched, justice served and everything returned to alleged rights, and we're supposed to agree that, yes, avenging Red's boyfriend is top priority, even over the death of known civilization and every last individual within it. The final scene, in which Red gains the power to rebuild Cloudbank but ultimately opts only to recreate the place where her boyfriend was killed and join him in death - or, rather, existence in the heaven-like plane those in Cloudbank call "the Country" - inspired much gnashing of teeth from some, including Pat Boivin and myself, who initially viewed Red's choice as immoral: as choosing to give into self-indulgent grief rather than do what one can for the world. We misunderstood that Red gains only the power to rebuild the place, not reconstruct its people...but the game doesn't effectively communicate this, as it is never at any point concerned about the people of Cloudbank in the first place. The resolution, focused on the reunion of Red and her love is supposed, ultimately, to be happy: the upshot of events is not "this world is a tomb, and this was a horrific tragedy"; it's "hey, these two people are together and in love. Don't worry that everyone is dead. Don't worry about it." Again, as with Bastion, our emotional focus is meant to be on the protagonists, to the complete, sociopathic exclusion of the utter horror outside this narrow window.SPOILERS FINALLY END HERE, BY GOD.
Right, so for most of what I played of Hades, it was (save for the hero's drive to meet his alleged mother) a largely plot-free romp focused on character and snappy dialogue, which suited both the roguelike structure and Supergiant's strengths very well. Then there's a point in your talks with the musician Orpheus where he gets into a heavy conversation about how he looked back, that's where it all went wrong for him, and how you shouldn't look back, and you unlock a song by him that plays every time you revisit the hub area with a subtle refrain of - you guessed it - "Don't Look Back," and my Oh, No, Supergiant Thinks It Can Handle Adult Themes Again radar started pinging. Then, as an early access backer, I got a free soundtrack (unfinished at that point, I imagine) featuring a yet-unheard song by Eurydice entitled "Good Riddance." It was then that I started looking at my watch and thinking maybe I'd better be leaving this party.
Part of my reluctance here is that I don't want a shitty, smug modern take on Hey, Undying Romance Is Bad, Actually and how Orpheus and Eurydice are better off speed-dating. If you're into the drama of Greek myth, it's likely that the grand tragedy of how, for a moment, love won over death - though it could not win permanently (or did it? After all, they were both fated for the same ultimate destination) - appeals to you more than Tumblresque rationalizations about how the decidedly shallow state of modern affairs is an improvement. If our fictional characters can't have something transcendent, then where are we. The other part, though, is me being gun-shy after previous stupidity from this studio: No, you don't get to have a moral. You don't get to speak about what's right or wrong after your last two narratives (no one cares about Pyre). You near a probationary period before you're allowed to come within 500 feet of adult themes.
Also, certain characters were better off in their cloaked-figure early-access placeholder incarnations than in their finished art - Orpheus, Sisyphus. I mean, this is Artemis?
A moe loli eensy little baby girl? What?