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The kissable frogs and sparky combat of Hades 2 looks set to bewitch fans

Impressions of the "technical test"

The ancient Greek goddess Demeter greets the player in Hades 2
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Supergiant Games

Were we to pluck up a passing stoat, or wandering pigeon, and inspect their entrails for omens as regards the quality of mythical roguelike Hades 2, we would find ourselves covered in blood and perhaps a little wiser. But I have been given strict editorial directions not to kill any more small creatures for gambling purposes. So let us instead use the semi-public "technical test" as a portentous looking glass from which to discern whether this hell-hopping sequel seems promising. Fine by me, the approach is no less stabby.

The pacy dash 'n' slash of the previous game is alive and well, unsurprisingly. You still weave around scores of enemies, picking them off with a mix of close swipes and ranged attacks. You can still use the terrain to your advantage (here by smashing withered trees into foes). You still suffer the lip-biting tension of surviving a boss fight with a sliver of health in your back pocket. So worry not, the basic sensation of being a slick little hell-fencer remains intact.

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What's new is extra. Holding down each face button instead of furiously tapping will add some "magick" to your attacks (or, in the case of your dash, it lets you sprint). Long lines of powerful purple will spill forth when you hold down the basic attack, for example. A glowing orb of hurt will bowl across the arena when holding down your ranged attack. Your ward-like "cast" ability, which normally stops enemies on the spot, will erupt in a painful blast when you give it the ol' magick charge treatment. And this is all for one weapon, a witch's staff. The magick of other weapons will be distinct. It's classic risk/reward stuff, as magick-bolstered attacks also momentarily slow our witchy hero to a crawl.

And what of this new gal? Melinoë is the younger sister of moody smirker Zagreus, he of the first game. She spends her days at the "Crossroads", a purgatorial hangout zone between Hades and (I'm guessing) Olympus, alongside the remnants of the underworld who've been dispossessed of hell. The unlucky fate of Zagreus, Persephone, and Hades himself is hinted at but not fully revealed. For now, Melinoë is introduced as a capable but naive assassin. Whereas Zagreus wanted to escape his hellish home, Mel wants to murder the Titan that reportedly brought her family (and much of the Underworld) to ruin. "Death to Chronos" has been repeated so often among these refugees that it has become a form of salutation.

The goddess Hecate reassures the player in Hades 2
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Supergiant Games

In this she is aided by a bunch of returning characters. Some show up without much aplomb; Demeter and Poseidon carelessly toss down boons like the good old days - bonuses that add an icy freeze to your ranged attack, or let you recharge magick while standing in the circular comfort of your cast. Others show up in more fun ways; Artemis taking potshots at enemies from off-screen to help you out. Hypnos, the God who once welcomed us back from every death, is snoozing in the hub zone and (for now) totally unresponsive; a case of Chekhov's nap.

There are new faces too. Apollo, conspicuous in his absence during Hades the first, shows up to give boons of light. Hestia, the Goddess of fire, is another boonifier. Others seem there for fun and games. Dora is a shade haunting your tent who flips between adorable housemate and FURIOUS HARBINGER OF THE DARK. For those who grew tired of Zagreus' red robes, the presence of Arachne will be welcome - she is a spider who weaves various silk miniskirts for our hero to wear. In other words, there is no shortage of horny deities and cute pals. I think we can all sense the strange ships coming into harbour here.

Melinoë pets her frog companion, Frinos, in Hades 2
The ancient Greek figure of Nemesis goads the player in Hades 2
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Supergiant Games

But the most important new face (aside from Melinoë herself) is our hero's adoptive mum and determined murderwitch Hecate, with a voice you might recognise as the narrator from Baldur's Gate 3. Witches continue to be en vogue, as Alice B briefly mentioned in a recent Electronic Wireless Show episode on gaming trends. Hades 2 is going all-out in this regard. You grow nightshade in a herb patch. Your "headmistress" hangs out at a big cauldron where you concoct potions. In one fight you are briefly transformed into a sheep. You may or may not routinely kiss a frog who welcomes you home after each death. And, in more practical terms, there is a meditation pedestal where you flip Tarot-style Arcana cards to upgrade your character's attributes.

These have the kind of names that belong in a Rider-Waite desktop folder marked "unused Greeks". The Huntress, The Furies, The Wayward Son, The Titan, and so on. Flavourful monikers for upgrades that grant you the ability to briefly slow time, or heal passively between rooms, or simply buff your health and magick bars. I only saw nine of these cards during the demo but I wouldn't be surprised if more show up. You can only have a limited number of these active at any time but collecting "Psyche" during runs will increase the number of cards you can have active. It's a simple but effective skill tree.

There are simple things I appreciate in combat too. When you dash it leaves a sparkling trail behind you, and when that trail vanishes, it means your dash cooldown is over. A straightforward way to keep the player informed with a snazzy, universe-appropriate effect, where other games might use a basic UI icon or cooldown bar. Although I did need this visual tic pointed out to me by trusty training instructor Skelly, now sporting the more prestigious (self-appointed?) name of "Schelemeus".

There were some weirdnesses befitting of a "technical test", including the auto-aim feature getting a little confused during the first boss fight (Mel will usually target the closest baddie by default although you can turn this off). The presence of placeholder art for some characters is not one bit bothersome when witnessing just how polished many of the characters and environments already look. It's a very glossy demo, even if it is short, taking about 3 hours for me to feel sated.

So, it's shaping up to be more of what fans like. The differences in movement, in attack and escape, feel subtle. I get the feeling the appeal lies mainly in keeping the well-tuned combat intact (it was one of our best action games, why mess with things?) while renovating the cast and their mythical misgivings.

Odysseus reassures the player after a defeat in Hades 2
Melinoë beseeches the three Fates with a rhyme over a cauldron in Hades 2
Melinoë battles enemies in Erebus, a zone in Hades 2
The player battles the witch Hecate in Hades 2
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Supergiant Games

And this is what I find most interesting about Hades 2. Supergiant have a knack for narratively stylish games, and much of the studio's success comes from being inventive, never resting on a single world, a single idea. This is the first sequel they've made, so it's fun to see how they're applying that inventiveness within an established world, bravely doing away with entire characters to focus on new faces and new themes. If Hades was about a father and son at long-term loggerheads, perhaps Hades 2 will be about a mother and daughter in a crumbling cahoots.

That iconoclastic sequelising also allows for leaving favourites longingly on the bench, eliciting an emotion games don't often tap into: the feeling of missing someone, of smarting from their absence. But with the cast of Hades, that is bound to happen. People will yearn for Meg or Zagreus or the Minotaur or whoever. If and when such beloveds show up, this will act as payoff, as relief, as joy. And if they don't? A continuous yearning, a new perspective. Either way, the omens look good. The potential is here for another emotionally resonant Supergiant tale.

You can request access to the technical test via the Hades 2 Steam page

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