Originally released in early access back in December 2018, then released as a finished game on consoles in September 2020, Hades is an action rogue-like game about escaping from the greek underworld. It’s fast paced, responsive, and it has quickly become one of my favourite games of this year.
You play as Zagreus, son of Hades, trying to fight his way out of the underworld and to the surface above, for reasons that become clear the longer you play. Powerful monsters try to stop you, every death sends you back to the start, and even victory tends not to last long. This is a game about trying, and failing, and learning more about the story, and trying some more, and failing some more, all in a big cycle.
Hades is a game that is as much about its plot as it is about its action gameplay. It’s not enough to simply defeat the final boss, you need to defeat them over and over, learning more about the world each time you do so. The game also gets harder as you progress the plot, making seeing the ending of its plot quite a challenge.
With that in mind, I was incredibly excited to see the game’s developer, Supergiant Games, include a difficulty mode setting in Hades called God Mode. It’s an incredibly well thought out accessibility setting that will ensure Hades is completable for most players, without reducing the difficulty of the actual challenges you’re facing.
God mode is an example of video game difficulty done right, that rewards players for their perseverance, translating hard work into the ability to progress.
So, what actually is God mode? Well, put simply, it’s a sort of optional levelling system which can be switched on and off as you play without penalty. With God Mode switched on, any time the player dies, they will gain a 2% buff to their defense. Nothing else about the game changes, you just take slightly less damage from enemies now.
What I really like about God Mode in Hades is that it doesn’t impact the rest of the way the game’s progression is balanced. A lot of easy modes in games will cause enemies to not use some of their more powerful attacks, or make you so strong that enemies now fall to a couple of simple basic attacks. They fundamentally change the experience of the game you’re having as a player, and while sometimes that’s desirable, often it’s not needed.
By keeping all of the enemy attacks present, and keeping your damage output, you’re still being presented with the standard difficulty version of the game. You’re going to get better at dodging, you’re going to get more practice at timing when it’s safe to attack. You’re still facing the base game’s challenges, you just have a better chance of coming out the other side intact.
So, let’s talk a little more about the specifics of how God Mode in Hades works. As stated before, God Mode in Hades gives you a 2% defense buff for each death while it is active, to an upper limit where you’ll take 80% less damage from attacks. God Mode doesn’t take into account deaths that happened before you activated god mode, and it remembers your defense buff percentage if you switch the mode off, then back on again later. You can also switch it on and off mid run, if there’s only one boss fight you find yourself getting stuck on. Let’s say you can generally complete a run of Hades at its base difficulty, but the Bone Hydra boss fight kicks your ass every time, you could switch on God Mode at the start of the boss fight. If it kills you, you’ve gained a 2% defense boost to help you next time. If you manage to defeat the boss, you could turn it back off again. It’s there to be used when you need it, and switched off again afterwards.
As you progress through Hades, the game encourages players to increase the difficulty of certain parts of the experience as they keep progressing, such as giving individual boss fights additional attacks or more harsh terrain to fight on. The way God Mode balances out with this is really interesting to see. Players with god mode on die over and over, making it a little further each time, until the defense boost they are receiving is high enough for them to complete the run. Then, the game asks them to make things a little tougher. The player goes back to dying along their journey, but once again progressing forward with each death. God Mode never makes it so that the game has forever lost its challenge, because as soon as it has helped you complete a run, it knocks the challenge up a little higher to compensate. That’s really interesting design, as it ensures players can progress, but makes them continually try again and again to earn it.
So, it’s pretty clear I think very highly of Hades God Mode, and how it allows players to progress through this challenging rogue-like through perseverance, seeing its world and its story if they are willing to try their best and die a few times along the way. However, I think to really understand why I like God Mode so much as an accessibility feature, it’s important we contrast it with another very difficult game that allows for players to increase their stats as they play. Dark Souls.
On Paper, Darks Souls is also a game where, theoretically, you could eventually get through a series of very difficult challenges by sheer perseverance. When you defeat enemies you get souls, you can spend those souls on levelling up attributes of your character, and you could in theory simply fight manageable monsters eternally to level up your defensive stats, until you are strong enough to progress. However, there’s a few key differences between Dark Souls and Hades that make the latter much more viable to complete this way.
In Hades, God Mode allows players to gain a set boost to their defense every single time they die. Progression is not predicated on how well you did on that run, but instead on the fact you gave it your best shot. You can play risky, you can aim for tough bosses, you can try your best to progress and succeed. On each attempt, you know you’re going to be rewarded for that attempt.
In Dark Souls, the amount of work you need to do to increase your defense isn’t a linear path. Early on in the game, the number of souls needed to level up a stat is pretty small, but the amount needed increases the more times you level up. This means you’d need to level grind for longer and longer periods of time to see that defense boost. Additionally, because you need to actually defeat enemies to gain experience, you’re incentivised to fight enemies you know you can defeat repeatedly, rather than risk time on fights that may not pan out for you. Fighting the same fights over and over isn’t fun, and it’s certainly not equivalent to a straight defense increase upon death.
Hades’ approach to difficulty rewards perseverance, and steadily helps players progress towards victory over time. It doesn’t do away with the need to play the game repeatedly to see the story, which is integral to the plot, and it doesn’t make it so easy you’re likely to beat the game on your first attempt. Hades is a game designed to be played tens of times in a row, you’ll miss huge amounts of the game’s plot if you complete it too quickly. God Mode maintains this structure, maintains the fighting past adversity through repeated failure plot motifs, it just allows players to know that each attempt will be a little easier than the last. Zagrius is getting stronger the more times he tries to escape the underworld, and so are you the player. It’s an incredibly smart implementation of difficulty.
Roguelikes as a genre are typically designed with the understanding that you’re going to lose most of the attempts you make. They’re a difficult and often luck based gaming genre, and one that requires luck, skill, and patience to complete. Considering how major a part of Hades’ appeal is its plot, and progressing through it, I think the game’s God Mode is a pretty perfect solution to difficulty. It isn’t a sudden step down in difficulty, it’s a gradual buff, keeping you playing the game to progress, but inching you slowly closer to progression, and increasing the difficulty again just as the difficulty curve levels out.
For all the talk I have seen over the years about a potential Dark Souls easy mode, I think Hades offers a really interesting look at what that could look like when implemented. A gradual buff to your character, so that with enough determination, you can see the story that this difficult game has hidden within it. Every attempt, you’ll be in a slightly better position than the last.