Image: Supergiant Games

When you think of speedrunning in games, where does your mind go? Is it Super Mario 64? Breath of the Wild? Dark Souls? Undoubtedly, the 'classics' are popular choices with speedrunners, but there are plenty of others which defy expectation; Ring Fit Adventure is a recent prime example that's attracted the attention of players trying to beat it as quickly as possible. Traditionally, a roguelike — with their procedurally-generated levels that change with each run — perhaps isn’t the first type of game you’d think of, either. However, ever since December 2018 when it first arrived via Early Access, Hades has leaned into speedrunning territory quite naturally. A fast-paced action-RPG with roguelite elements, Supergiant Games showcased an intriguing side of Greek Mythology with a game centered on Zagreus, Prince of the Underworld, attempting — again and again — to escape the domain of his domineering father, Lord Hades.

Almost two years on from its Early Access debut, Version 1.0 launched last September, coming to Nintendo Switch as a console launch exclusive and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Having won numerous awards, critical acclaim and some pretty high sales, it’s reception is not lost on Amir Rao, Studio Director at Supergiant Games. “Hades has exceeded every reasonable and optimistic expectation we have had for it," he tells us. "We are blown away by the reception to the game.”

Hades has exceeded every reasonable and optimistic expectation we have had for it. We are blown away by the reception to the game

Since the beginning, Hades offered an in-game timer for each run, allowing players to compare times. Rao’s own best is just under fifteen minutes, but some players at the top have now escaped in under six minutes; fleet-footed Hermes himself would be jealous. With a vibrant speedrunning community having formed around the game, we spoke with two of its most prominent members.

For Vorime, his Hades journey began back in January 2020. Having been a speedrunning fan since the mid-2000s, he began his own runs in 2012, starting with smaller titles like Moneyseize. Though he performs a wide range of Hades speedruns, he holds a strong interest in two specific categories. The first is “All Weapons”, which involves killing Hades using all six weapons in succession without quitting or restarting, taking real-time into account. “Fresh File” runs are a separate focus; one he holds the world record for at 21 mins 44 seconds. This concentrates on completing an escape attempt from a brand new save file. No extra skills, no choice in weapons, just the base Zagreus.

Asking what drew him to Hades speedrunning, naturally, fun was at the top of Vorime’s list, but he’s also someone that seeks a challenge. “Personally, I prefer hard and fast difficulty settings, so climbing heat bounties was getting to be a bit of a drag. Fresh File was the perfect answer for me, upping the difficulty and providing a great excuse to get back into speedrunning.” Like many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has kept Vorime homebound and he’s gained a lot of unexpected free time, allowing him to attempt the game’s other speedrunning categories, too.

On the other side is Raamon “Jerds” Vaccaro, who’s been involved since Hades was in closed beta testing. His love for the game is clear, and he credits its addictiveness to “how incredible the game design is, along with the gorgeous visuals and audio.” He’s not had as much time for runs recently, but his work as a community moderator is significant and that’s something best exemplified via a racing run series, the Hermes Cup.

Launched in July 2020, streamers compete against each other in a knockout tournament every fortnight, taking place in a best-of-three format. Asked how this all started, he said it was a community “pipedream” at first. “I was itching to commit to a project to go all in on. I didn't know how to stream or produce video content at the time, but I had big ideas”.

I was itching to commit to a project to go all in on. I didn't know how to stream or produce video content at the time, but I had big ideas

Thankfully, he found supportive members within the community, providing necessary resources to make that pipedream a reality. Adding experienced players into these races, ones with their own accolades on speedrunning boards, he tells us it "makes for something unique and fun to watch”. Both players are undeniably proud of the response the Hermes Cup has gotten and since that inaugural tournament, they’ve brought in several Supergiant guests, including Darren Korb (composer on each of Supergiant's four games to date and voice actor for Zagreus and Skelly) and Courtney Vineys (veteran Supergiant voice actor who plays Dusa and Aphrodite in Hades). Amir Rao has also guested, so when asked about Supergiant’s internal reaction, his enthusiastic response was not unexpected. “We love the speedrunning community! Speedrunners play games deeply and dangerously, so they provide a unique perspective on the game."

Factoring in Zagreus’ customisation potential, you can see why Hades might attract a speedrunner following. Out of nine Olympian gods in the game, Zagreus can draw power from four in a single run (Hermes being an exception) and they offer unique gameplay abilities of varying rarity called Boons. Gods can combine their abilities for Duo Boons upon hitting certain criteria. After a few attempts, you can unlock talents via the Mirror of Night, improving your innate abilities (which, unlike Boons, carry over between runs) like increasing damage dealt or invoking 'death defiance' to keep Zagreus alive should he run out of health. Every weapon holds four individual “aspects” too, changing how they play, and there’s also summonable companions who can deal significant damage.

That’s without even considering — SPOILERS AHEAD! — the Pact of Punishment, which becomes available once you’ve successfully escaped once. Offering 'Heat Bounties' in exchange for increasing an aspect of difficulty, that might seem counterproductive for speedrunners, but we’ve witnessed some creative uses. Many utilise the 'Forced Overtime' condition — not only increasing enemy attack speed but also spawning them quicker. 'Extreme Measures +2' is also commonly used, which powers up bosses but groups Lernie’s heads more efficiently. It’s worth acknowledging the 'Tight Deadline' condition, too, which Supergiant implemented to encourage quicker completion, forcing you to beat an underworld region within a set time.

In short, you’ve got a lot to consider before even starting and top-level play requires significant progress into Hades’ endgame. Despite all your planning, these runs come with a significant RNG factor and as a roguelite, nothing is ever quite the same twice. You can equip keepsakes which guarantee a favoured god’s appearance, to say nothing of the mirror’s Fated Authority ability to reroll chamber rewards, but several elements remain unpredictable. Jerds doesn’t believe that the random element is decisive, however. “When it comes to watching someone speedrun, it's fluid, there's the excitement of understanding the creative build and the many decisions along the way. Although RNG is obviously an element in Hades, it isn't the primary factor to the success of a run.”

there's the excitement of understanding the creative build and the many decisions along the way. Although RNG is obviously an element in Hades, it isn't the primary factor to the success of a run.

Saying that success rides more on your own knowledge of Hades and strategic decisions than leaving your fate to the RNG gods, it’s a hard point to argue, although one aspect of the game remains contentious: the Temple of Styx. Serving as your last underworld biome, Cerberus blocks passage to the surface, requiring a food sack bribe to let you pass. Styx holds five branching pathways where this might be hiding and your first choice is never successful. Lucky players can nab it on the second path, but some might end up exploring all five, ruining their time. It’s led to two separate community members — EllomenoP and Museus7 — creating a widely used racing mod to balance this issue, one of very few mods allowed within the Hermes Cup.

Asking what strategies they leaned towards when playing, Vorime confirmed he’s a fan of 'Merciful End' builds, a Duo Boon approach which he admits “I catch a lot of flak for”. Utilising Ares and Athena, this strategy inflicts the Doom curse when deflecting with weapons. “It's like flipping a switch and you effortlessly glide through chambers.” He also favours the Bone Hourglass keepsake to increase how long support items from the Well of Charon are active, which you can stack.

As for Jerds, he believes that the answer varies depending on your overall goal, instead offering a few tips. “It's common to start with a god keepsake to force the Boon you want at a higher quality, which compliments your Aspect of choice.” As an example, he cites Zeus’ attack mixed with the Aspect of Eris — used within the Adamant Rail — before suggesting swapping that keepsake when entering Asphodel, if there’s a particular god you still require. Indeed, the Aspect of Eris is a commonly utilised speedrun strategy. Letting you absorb your special attack’s blast, Zagreus can deal significant bonus damage afterwards; if you look at the scoreboards, this Aspect appears frequently.

Supergiant Games patched Hades back in December, reducing Eris’ bonus damage duration, but for the most part it hasn’t majorly affected players at the top. Vorime thinks it often gets downplayed but argues the nerf still had a significant impact. “Certainly, I lose a few seconds here or there to the buff running out that I wouldn't before, and those add up over the course of a run”. Jerds agrees, calling Eris an “outlier in strength” but says it now requires more skill to keep the buff’s uptime.

Haelian is such a skilled player, that it feels like a victory as a game developer when you catch him in a mistake. I had to seize it!

With such moves having an impact on top players, we ask Rao whether speedrunners came into consideration during these balancing updates. “In some ways,” he replies. Since Early Access, he has enjoyed interacting with the community, taking on feedback, watching streams and reading up on people’s impressions. That’s led to some humorous moments and, on one occasion, he called noted speedrunner Haelian mid-stream to offer some opinions. “Haelian is such a skilled player, that it feels like a victory as a game developer when you catch him in a mistake," he says, joyfully. "I had to seize it!”

These interactions haven’t been lost upon the community. Jerds had great things to say about Supergiant’s engagement with players, talking about how open they’d been during testing. “All said and done, Supergiant designers have put Hades in an incredibly balanced position, considering the sheer amount of variety and content that shapes the combat of the game.” He considers the game 'a true masterpiece'. Vorime agrees that Supergiant has done a great job, especially in finding “creative solutions to the issues a wide variety of player types were experiencing”.

Hermes Boon
Image: Supergiant Games

With all that in mind, is there anything either of them would change? “Nothing that immediately springs to mind." says Vorime. "There's definitely some room for additional speedrun-centric features but as far as the base game goes, it's pretty rock solid.” Jerds believes the game’s balance is in “an incredibly good place” but adds that he would “very slightly pull up the strength of some of the known-to-be weaker aspects”. That includes reducing the Aspect of Eris’ offered buffs and improving damage done by Zagreus’ sword, Stygius.

As for the community’s long term prospects, both speedrunners were optimistic. Vorime is impressed by the incredible growth Hades has seen since leaving Early Access and he’s still got a long to-do list of ideas in his runs; he calls the game's followers “the most welcoming and supportive community I've ever been lucky enough to be a part of". Describing Hades as very moddable, he wants to service this community more directly, alluding to an upcoming mod by the aforementioned EllomenoP and Museus7.

Jerds believes the game will only continue to grow in speedrunning stature, calling it “in a unique place when it comes to speedrunning”. He hopes to expand the Hermes Cup further and, praising the wider community, he believes new speedrun categories will continue opening.

You can’t help but feel inspired by it all. There’s obviously a strong relationship between Supergiant Games and its fans, who have cultivated an evidently mutual respect. Even outside of realm of speedrunning, Hades has formed a fantastic following, offering strong gameplay versatility, a sumptuous blend of audio-visual feedbac, and all backed by a brilliant story. Drawing many players into a genre they wouldn’t normally consider, its success only looks set to grow in 2021, and we cannot wait to see how.

Hades Cerberus
Image: Supergiant Games

Our thanks to Amir, Vorime and Jerds — click on their names to find their respective Twitter/Twitch accounts and give them a follow.