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Played in 2023
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This really is the definition of hit-or-miss. Despite the fact that this is a 5/5 review I can absolutely understand why it got the reception it did, especially when it was advertising itself as something other than a walking sim, and on top of that the insane price requirement of AUD$60 for <10 hours of gameplay. If you've been reading about Scorn and think it's up your alley, unfortunately the only thing I can encourage you to do is play it on gamepass, because no matter how you angle it, the dollar-to-time ratio can only be validated if it's a well and truly high-bar experience for you, and as it currently stands, it's very much not for most people, even the ones who have positive feelings about it.
Scorn is unflinching. More than anything, it's a game designed to provide a specific experience, with every other mechanic in the game layered on top of that experience, working in tandem to heighten it. If that experience - of a broken world using its last legs to try and kill you at any opportunity, of self-preservation and determination and blurring the religious with the scientific, of everything about Scorn feeling immensely heavy from the atmosphere to the combat - is not what you are after, then put the controller down. At the very least, if not enjoyable, it's then highly respectable that the experience focus was the route Ebb decided to go even after the development hell Scorn went through. If I were a game dev making Scorn and realised how much time and effort was going to sink into it, I would have been highly tempted to make this game appeal to a larger audience.
But that's not what happened here. Scorn is an exercise in despair and foreignness, in trying to grapple with what little you can understand and that no one will ever hold your hand along the way. Play this game if you're looking for an experience that's atmospherically unforgiving. If not, then that's perfectly fine.
I can't shake the feeling that I am thoroughly bored playing Hades. I've picked up Hades three times over the last few years, and three times I've found myself putting down the controller after a handful of hours, especially after reaching the third stage, and I couldn't figure out why it wasn't working for me. After giving it a few good goes, I've finally managed to pin down what it is that just doesn't click for me about Hades.
But first, Hades really does do a lot well. Graphics, music, sound design, character design, massive variety of dialogue lines, etc. etc., you've already heard it all before. When it comes to my gripes, they come solely in regards to Hades' gameplay mechanics.
All rogue-type games usually involve some form of combat. For the sake of clarity, I'm going to define a dexterity-based rogue as involving gameplay that asks the player to have good reflexes and timing in order to successfully engage in combat and progress through the world (examples include Returnal, Spelunky). The other way to approach combat in a rogue is usually turn-based, where a very high complexity ceiling is balanced out by giving the player time to make decisions about how they'd want to engage in the combat, and information is the name of the game (examples include Slay the Spire and any other deckbuilder rogue). In rare cases, a game like Crypt of the Necrodancer might skew these categorisations somewhat, but Hades is a roguelite that fits squarely in the former as dexterity-based.
A great dexterity-based roguelite will build its gameplay on a delicate balance between the power both permanent and temporary upgrades will offer the player, and how the wide variety of possible player skills may affect the speed at which a player progresses. If your roguelite game is too easy such that most players can breeze through the game in just a few runs, you might as well have made a linear campaign instead. Therefore roguelites must always have a baseline very high difficulty level at zero upgrades. So which parts of a dexterity-based roguelite's progression should be reasonably surmountable by a player with little-to-zero upgrades? The answer is that aforementioned balance between player skill and upgrades: both of these should influence how far a player can make it in a roguelite run before being kicked back to the start without one or the other ever wholly defining it, lest the game becomes stale. If you've had a shit run upgrades-wise, but you make it to a boss or challenge encounter, in a great roguelite there should still be the added tension that your player skill could be enough to surpass all the odds and beat the challenge! Unfortunately, Hades seems to enjoy defining player progression capabilities via upgrades by a quite substantial margin over actual player skill, making much of its combat boring and tensionless as you realise everything hinges on your run's upgrades to a surprising extent.
In the world of boons that increase your Special's damage, for example, Demeter's will increase it by 60%, Poseidon's will increase it by 70%, and Aphrodite's will increase it by 80%, on top of whatever passive effect they additionally offer your Special to inflict. These are extremely high stat increases for a combat game, and this is at base level. If you upgrade these boons or find them at a higher rarity they will provide an even bigger increase that can more than double your initial damage. Bosses must be (and are) balanced around you having these massive passive boosts to your abilities, which means that if you don't have a boon for your Special by the time you reach the Bone Hydra you might as well forget about using it in the battle. Because all of these boons are so powerful and because bosses must be balanced around them, when you defeat a boss it never feels like you're actually getting better at a skillset the game is demanding of you (other than dodging correctly), and are instead playing the same as before but just using the move with your best boon more often. Learning how to dodge attack patterns alone is not exciting when you solely have to press one button that will immediately dodge with barely a reset cooldown, and most enemies have a standard wind-up-to-attack animation type moveset. If you decide to go after a Chthonian Key or other permanent currencies on your run instead of more boons or boon upgrades, you may as well kiss goodbye your ability to kill the enemies and bosses in later areas, which compounds the issue as it means there is an illusion of choice going on, and actually a correct choice the player must make if they want their run to last. This started becoming a big issue for me in stage 3 where half of my runs' encounters felt like I was trying to kill a gang of speedy shinobi while armed with just a toothpick, and my guess is because by then, the game has to expect you have boons for all of your combat abilities (with enemies balanced for it), and boons are so powerful that without them...well, you get the idea.
My other issue with these upgrades is that 95% of the upgrades you will find (including both permanent and temporary run-only ones) are passive effects. Some of these are plain stat increases with a status effect attached that won't really change how you play (e.g. Aphrodite's 80% Special damage increase with a weakening effect), some might change how you play (e.g. increasing damage given to enemies when attacking their behind, an upgrade from the Mirror that I never felt like using because it's often hard to tell where enemies are facing when there's up to twenty on screen at once), and some give the illusion of gaining a new attack but are just another passive damage boost effect with flash (e.g. Zeus' boon where your normal Attacks initiate an additional chain lightning damaging nearby enemies). Most just seem to not really change how you play the game, though, including everything from gaining defence resistances to gaining health upgrades: you still want to deal as many hits as possible while taking as few hits as possible, likely in the style as you were before.
On paper this is fine, you're still upgrading Zag to be more powerful, but if upgrading Zag (especially via boons) is so powerful, run-defining, and therefore important, then why are they all so boring? They're changing barely anything about how I'm interacting with the combat mechanics and dealing damage. This beige focus in passivity to nearly every upgrade compounds with that major issue I have with the game balancing focusing on upgrades letting you progress further than your player skill ever will, because this boring upgrade system is what my player skill is being replaced by? I never found myself picking up a boon or unlocking a Mirror upgrade that made me truly think one of my runs was going to play out any differently than the last in terms of what I'd be doing (other than maybe how long I might survive), and the more I played the less I started caring about what boon drops might do for me because they'd just make enemy health bars go down faster than before rather than incite any new or meaningful change to my abilities I could get excited about. But I had to care. I was forced to care about these bland upgrades because I wouldn't be able to complete bosses without them, at least not without hanging around for a very overlong fight. None of the god-specific passive effects made me excited too: why should I care if I'm inflicting poison, lightning or weaken if nothing about my moveset and attacking methods were going to change, and I'm playing the same as before? I'm still going to be beating up a poisoned enemy the same way I'd beat up a weakened enemy. The rare exceptions to this were the boons that replaced my Cast ability with a whole new attack, which were exciting and made me play differently to incorporate them into my moveset combos, but as said, they were rare. I'm not saying boons should've replaced Hades' main weapon movesets with new moves focusing on the god they came from but...you know what, maybe I actually am, because it would've been more interesting than what it currently is.
Which leads me to my final issue with Hades' gameplay: the weapons and the possible variations between runs. Returnal's varying builds between runs hinge on a wide variety of gun types, and while you'll probably eventually settle on a select handful you prefer over others, there will be situations where you won't always get what you want. Plus, there's the added excitement of the randomised alt-fire types that means no two guns will likely be the same, and the risk-reward system of the randomised parasites too. Rogue Legacy is another dexterity-based roguelite. Its variations of builds between runs hinges on the variety of class types, but even when you become familiar with all the classes and have a specific handful you prefer, you won't always get what you want, and there's the added excitement of the variety of randomised quirky personality traits that affect gameplay to varying extents in unexpected ways, as well as the passive effects brought on by a wide selection of equipment types.
In Hades, variations of builds between runs hinges on one of six weapon choices that you're locked into once the run starts, with a variety of passive effects you will find on your journey, and that is it. There is no other mechanic in Hades that brings variation into your run (other than the definition of 'roguelite' that binds all these games to the same genre anyway). It begs the question: are these other roguelites more enjoyable because they had less player choice? Would I have enjoyed Hades more if only a random three of the six weapons could be chosen to bring on my journey each time I started a run? Imagine Rogue Legacy except there's only 6 classes and you can choose any of them before starting your run, and that's exactly how weapons work in Hades. It's boring because it's less of a challenge to the player, and it's boring due Hades' lack of additional elements affecting gameplay that IS present in roguelites like Returnal and Rogue Legacy, such as the randomised alt-fires and birth traits respectively. Rogue Legacy is by no means a perfect roguelite with how annoying and instantly-avoidable some of those birth traits can get, but I'd rather play a game with an exciting hit or miss mechanic than one that's straight up boring due to a lack of them. It's like Supergiant set up the minimum requirements to define a 'roguelite' on paper and then stopped before they added in any more mechanics that would have made the gameplay interesting. Hades' boss variations that unlock after you kill them the first time (such as the multiple Furies) do not alleviate this lack of variation as they are all quite similar to each other anyway, both visually and combat-wise. The dialogue and story outside your roguelite runs is fun enough, but the dialogue you encounter in the middle of your runs starts looking mighty skippable when you realise they add next to nothing to any story, Zag's goals, any of the characters' stories beyond their introductions, or the gameplay as a whole other than to show that Supergiant recorded a quippy one-liner for the specific moment you nearly died fighting a timed gauntlet of enemies in Athena's presence [or insert any other highly specific gameplay moment here]. Sure, it increases immersion, but I'm here for fun gameplay at the end of the day, and if dialogue is the biggest gameplay variation you will find between runs then this should have been a game with story-focused gameplay, not one where most of your hours is spent in combat.
One last thing: I am absolutely not fighting through a variation of a Fury and a Hydra every time I want to learn the moveset of a miniboss in Elysium. I cannot even imagine how frustratingly annoying it must be to fight a Fury variation every single run all the way from the early game to when you're consistently reaching the end game areas. If the reason for keeping this in is to continue Zag's relationship with the Furies, then again, I would have rather this been a story game, because keeping the fight in is a slog to have to do it every time and it still doesn't explain why I have to fight a Hydra variation every time too.
The only theory I can suggest for why someone would keep coming back to this game (enough hours for up to ten different endings too, by the way) is because this is a game designed for people who don't usually play dexterity-based rogues, so the rogue elements have been kept as simple as possible. It's great because the art looks good! And the characters are funny! And you already read about them in Percy Jackson as a teen! And the music is great! And the combat elements are so simple that the game doesn't actually require you to learn anything more than one weapon's attacks throughout the whole game! Sorry, I'm not trying to insult the people who found this game's combat loop more rewarding than I did. Games like this that are broadcasting a (somewhat) niche genre dominated by indie games to the masses (especially when the masses include non-gamers) should exist, and I hope that the people who did primarily enjoy the combat elements of Hades as their first roguelite have now found a gateway to enjoying more dexterity-based rogues. But as someone who has played many rogues before and will continue to do so, I found Hades to be quite lacking gameplay-wise. When I ask people why they like Hades and they say it's for the characters, the artstyle, I can understand, I really do, because it's true it looks and plays great! And that can be enough for some people even if the gameplay is surface level and stays that way. But I don't know how this game has reached the critical praise it has when most of your hours are spent engaging in gameplay loops that lack depth and have been done elsewhere in much more interesting ways.