A Decade Before Hades II, Supergiant Games Proved its Success Wasn’t a Fluke

A weekend in the city.

Supergiant Games
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Hades II is Steam’s top-selling game despite being in early access, which tells you what a phenomenon the first Hades was. The 2020 roguelike set in the world of Greek mythology sold an estimated 7.6 million copies on Steam alone and filled a virtual trophy cabinet with accolades thanks to its challenging gameplay, well-written and acted characters, and gorgeous music. Hades elevated a gameplay-first genre into a total package, and early impressions suggest Hades II is picking up where its predecessor left off.

Hades was a triumph for the San Francisco-based indie studio Supergiant Games, but that success didn’t happen overnight. The developer’s first title, 2011’s action-adventure Bastion, was brief, but lauded for its clever fantasy worldbuilding, strong writing and acting, and lush soundtrack — all traits that would reappear in Hades. Supergiant followed that up with 2017’s Pyre, essentially a plot-driven fantasy basketball game which saw Supergiant experiment with procedural storytelling (another Hades trademark). This leaves Supergiant’s 2014 sophomore effort, the semi-turn-based sci-fi Transistor, as a bit of a black sheep.

While it predates Hades by a decade, Transistor’s isometric style should look familiar to anyone who’s played the roguelike.

Supergiant Games

Set in the cyberpunk-y city of Cloudbank, Transistor stars pop singer Red moments after she survives an assassination attempt involving a sword even an anime protagonist would consider unwieldy. The sword takes her voice away, but a man absorbs its fatal blow and the weapon absorbs his consciousness. Red then uses the sword to fend off deadly robots while the unbodied man (voiced by Logan Cunningham, also Bastion’s narrator) offers guidance as they learn why Cloudbank is disappearing before her eyes.

This mostly involves beating up robots using both live-action combat and a rechargeable time-stopping mode that allows you to queue up a series of movements and attacks, then unpause and watch Red automatically rip through her foes. In a unique touch, all the moves you unlock serve triple duty as either a useable skill, a passive buff, or a modifier to another skill, which gives you a dizzying array of tactical options that must be explored to survive all the tricks and enemy types you’ll see thrown at you.

It's a deceptively simple system that makes surviving in real-time a struggle until you’re ready to freeze things and plot your enemies’ demise, and playing around with your options until you’re tearing through foes who troubled you earlier is satisfying. And, much like in Bastion, even your weapons are part of the story. Use Transistor’s skills in different ways rather than stick to a single strategy, and you’ll be rewarded with more information about Cloudbank’s vanishing citizens.

The city looks pretty, but something’s gone very wrong.

Supergiant Games

When you’re not butchering robots, information is metered out in asides and throwaway comments. Transistor trusts you to figure out what’s going on rather than spell its mysteries out, and intriguing details that hint at Cloudbank’s strange cybernetic status, like the remnants of polls allowing citizens to decide the day’s weather, encourage you to push forward. Supergiant’s confident approach to worldbuilding is on full display here, as is its visual style: Cloudbank is a lush city enhanced by a moody soundtrack and Cunningham’s memorable narration.

Like Bastion, Transistor can be completed over a weekend with little replay value. It feels like an iteration of Bastion’s lessons as Supergiant played with its approach to weapons, skills, and storytelling in ways that would be further refined in Hades. Even Transistor’s themes, without spoiling too much, feel like a riff on Bastion, letting the player decide whether it’s better to maintain a flawed world or allow it to fall apart in pursuit of the great unknown.

Transistor mostly succeeds, although some critics felt let down by the vague plot. Still, it was no sophomore slump. The game enjoyed strong reviews and eventually crept toward two million Steam sales. There are moments where Transistor feels self-indulgent and obtuse, but it oozes style, offers smart, satisfying combat, and proved Supergiant wasn’t just a flash in the pan. And yet, with the developer having never touched science fiction storytelling or tactical gameplay again, it does feel like the title Supergiant holds in the least regard.

Transistor’s combat emphasizes a blend of frantic action and tactical forethought.

Supergiant Games

Supergiant is understandably all in on Hades these days, as the two titles have shot the studio to a level of success it couldn’t have dreamed of when Bastion first hit the Xbox Live Arcade amid a growing indie boom. The roguelike nature of Hades and Hades II, which emphasize increasingly competent replays over dozens of hours, certainly offer a more captive fanbase than short one-and-done titles.

But rather than rest on its laurels and turn Hades into a trilogy, it would be intriguing to see Supergiant return to some of the ideas they abandoned a decade ago. Transistor, after all, ends with the implication that it’s futile to retread old ground forever when there are promising new worlds to explore.

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