Hades is already a killer combat game in early access

I press the 'Q' button I ping a magical shield off three floating skulls, destroying them instantly. Each hit triggers Zeus' blessing, sending balls of lightning rolling across the arena into the enemy mages on the outskirts of the chamber. They throw some slow-moving purple fireballs, but I simply dash through, deflect the bolts and smash the mages into the chamber wall.

Clearing a room in Hades is reliably cathartic, especially once you unlock the shield of Chaos. The default sword gets samey quickly, and the rhythmic draw and release of the bow just doesn't feel as good as spanging a shield off a horde of weak foes. I have enjoyed using them all, though. So much that Supergiant's latest hack 'n slash is all I want to play right now.

Loose an arrow at the right moment for bonus damage.

You play as the son of Lord Hades, on a quest to escape hell's shifting chambers. Every time a randomised chamber kills you you emerge from a pool of blood back in Hades' lair. New characters appear the more you die, and new chambers open upBefore heading out again you can unlock new weapons, and improve your skills with a magic mirror. I'm used to Supergiant games being slow and dreamlike, but Hades is repetitive, quick, and plays nicely in short sessions.

I miss the sense of a journey that I enjoyed in Bastion, Transistor and Pyre, but Hades is immediately entertaining, and preferable to Bastion's basic whacking and Pyre's strange cosmic basketball combat. I'm currently struggling up against Hades' first major boss, and I find myself almost seizing up with tension as I double dodge at lightning speed around the arena, narrowly missing one attack only to hit another enemy, or one of the game's bastard spike traps.

Hades looks and sounds beautiful, and I haven't noticed any bugs or other issues that indicate it's in Early Access. My main concerns are with the progression systems, and how they work alongside the randomised buffs you pick up on each run. You have three attacks: a basic strike, a special attack, and a magic attack. In some rooms a glowing orb spawns that lets you upgrade one of your attacks with a buff from one of the gods of Olympus. These are themed upgrades. Attacks buffed by Zeus tend to generate lightning. Ares gives you extra delayed damage, and give your dash a damaging razor blade effect.

Give Cerberus gifts and he'll give you a spiked collar. D'aww.

These chance upgrades keep runs fresh, but so far it's difficult to to build your character to supplement them. You earn purple currency from rooms that you use to upgrade yourself in the mirror back at base. Some skills feel essential, like the ability to dash multiple times in a row. Others let you skew towards certain styles of play. Improving backstab damage rewards quick dashing and crit upgrades that help you to one-shot enemies.

You can refund your skill points and rebuild yourself, but you can't plan around the buffs you receive, so you might as well put all your points into health regeneration and death saves. Hades is structured in a similar way to the brilliant Dead Cells, but Dead Cells gives you a lot more options in a run—you're constantly encountering weapons that let you change your loadout and moveset. In Hades you can see the rewards coming up in the next room but you only sometimes get a choice between them. You can use gold to buy items from shops here and there, but they don't seem to be very consequential yet—I always tend to go for the health boost. When I start a run, I feel like I'm at the mercy of the random number generator.

There's more to come, and significant balance tweaks are already happening (my beloved shield was nerfed just today). If Dead Cells is any indication, this roguelike-esque structure benefit greatly from iteration and player feedback. The moving and punching already looks and feels great. I'm going to be spending a lot more time in hell this Christmas.