Regardless of what’s been going on in the outside world, 2020 was a pretty major year for games. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” came out at the perfect time to help everyone get through the start of lockdown (check out The Daily’s Dylan Yono’s coverage here), Sony dominated the summer with the one-two punch release of “The Last of Us Part II” and “Ghost of Tsushima” and the next PlayStation generation began with a running start just last month.
Despite the great games released, I didn’t expect to fall in love with not one but two games centered around Greek mythology.
I love Greek myths. I spent my childhood buried in “Percy Jackson” novels and will steadfastly tell you I am a child of Athena. So I felt blessed by the gods when two high-profile, polished but vastly different games came out within months of each other.
“Hades” by Supergiant Games concerns itself with Zagreus, the child of Hades and Persephone, as he tries to escape from the Underworld to find his mother. He can choose one of six powerful weapons to fight his way through the demon soldiers that inhabit Hades. (Note: Hades is both the name of the god of the dead and his realm — it’s confusing, I know.) When you die — and hoo-boy will you die often — you get sent back to the start to try again.
No run is ever the same: Each room, enemy and treasure are chosen at random. The gods may assist you, but the game relies on skill, so the more you play, the better you get and the more you can upgrade Zagreus and go further before you die again. Tie this addicting gameplay loop with a thoughtful, carefully paced story in a world full of compelling characters, and you come out with something that many are calling Game of the Year material.
Oh my god this game is good. I was obsessed with “Hades” for a good two months and I know that I will be revisiting the land of the dead as soon as I’m finished writing this article.
One important thing to note about the game is that it sets out to decolonize Greek history and mythology. It is admittedly silly to believe that the ancient Greeks were as white-bread as modern entertainment portrays them — Greece was a sailing society smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean, indicating a darker skin tone like their Italian neighbors. Supergiant Games set out to present the gods as a much more diverse, and frankly attractive, group of immortal beings. I truly believe it is impossible to view the portrait work of this game and not come out crushing on at least one character. The writing also elevates these static (but again, beautiful) portraits into complex, entertaining characters brimming with personality.
“Hades” is a wonderful first step in the direction of retracting the white-washing of history, and hopefully sets a precedent within the games industry as a whole going forward.
Another game, “Immortals Fenyx Rising,” from the team at Ubisoft Quebec, is much more standard, which is by no means a bad thing. Typhon the Titan has arisen once again and captured all the gods, so Zeus turns to Prometheus for help. Prometheus offers help, but only if the hero he creates fails. Thus, players get to create and control the titular Fenyx as they try to rescue the gods of Olympus and defeat Typhon. As soon as players are off the leash, the entirety of the Golden Isles is at their disposal.
Do you want to save Aphrodite first? Or maybe Ares or Athena and oh, what’s this chest doing here? The world of “Immortals Fenyx Rising” is littered with enemies to fight, goodies to collect and vaults of Tartarus — essentially bite-sized themed dungeons — to explore.
The exploration often feels great; being able to climb anything or glide anywhere helps make traversing the rather large world an easier task than it initially seems.
Possibly the best part of the game is its comedic tone. Whether it’s Hermes and Aphrodite gossiping about the clothing of the other gods or Zeus and Prometheus bickering over the exact way an event happened, the game is full of laughs. However, that’s not to say everything is a joke. I was happily surprised to find moments of sincerity and self-reflection mixed in with the light tone. Ten hours deep into the game, I was just getting to the second exploration area, so I can say I was thoroughly enjoying my romp through the Golden Isles.
The comparison between how the two games use specific characters is interesting to examine. In “Hades,” Achilles is a friend and mentor to Zagreus, providing him with the weapons needed to help slay the hordes of the underworld. Achilles is compassionate, slightly reserved and holds a mysterious past, bristling at the mention of his former friend and probable lover Patroclus.
Conversely, in “Immortals,” Achilles is a wraith, one of four great heroes who failed to stop Typhon and has been corrupted into serving the Titan. He haunts the land, a literal shadow of his former self and is another thing for Fenyx to help set right on their path to save the gods. The Greeks gods’ characterizations also have interesting similarities and differences, always benefitting the tone and story of the game they are in. Much like Arachne, the gifted weaver in Greek mythology, the developers took the same starting material and weaved two startlingly different tapestries.
“Hades” and “Immortals Fenyx Rising” are two sides of the same drachma: the former using its Greek mythology for a story driven rogue-lite and the latter for open-world checklist game that Ubisoft is known for. These two approaches are nothing alike beyond their shared mythos. “Hades” limits player exploration in favor of randomly generated maps, skill-based combat and a slowly doled out story, while in “Immortals” the player can go anywhere, climb anything and do whatever their demi-god heart desires.
But that shouldn’t dissuade players from trying (and enjoying) both equally. Both producers establish themselves within the Greek mythology canon by building on what came before to make something truly unique and captivating.
Whether you’re a Greek mythology nut like me or crossing the Styx for the first time, both “Hades” and “Immortals” provide a fantastic experience. Now hand one of these developers the reins to a “Percy Jackson” game and you’ll have literally all my money. Gods, I wish I was joking.
Daily Arts Beat Editor M. Deitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.