Combat skills are central to most games. They form a key aspect of the game experience and, as such, often reflect philosophies of the game in order to provide a streamlined playing experience. This can include how you obtain gear and what kind you can get (“drops,” things that drop from a container or monster), what determines how often you can execute skills (usually an energy bar that regenerates), and how your gear and skills synergize (a “build”). These will usually reflect the game world in some way; spellcasters in combat-heavy Dungeons and Dragons type games learn spells through documents that they either buy or find while adventuring. Conversely, the cop protagonist in Disco Elysium rarely sees combat and instead receives skills and substances that will affect how he interacts with people and solves the murder case he is assigned to.
Supergiant’s Hades, a combat-centric game set in the Greek underworld, draws heavily on its mythological inspiration in order to inform the combat mechanics. You play as Zagreus, the son of Hades and Persephone, who is trying to fight his way out of the underworld to join the rest of the gods on Olympus. The Olympian gods are intrigued by this and offer him “boons” to aid his escape, which modify his basic combat skills and help him to overcome the formidable enemies he meets along the way.
While gods helping heroes isn’t exactly a new concept – it dictates most of the Greek heroes’ exploits, as when Athena shadows Herakles during his labors or when Perseus receives Hermes’ winged sandals – what is novel here is Supergiant’s attention to ancient mythological accounts. Although the skills may seem superficial (Zeus gives you lightning, Dionysos gives you alcohol-themed abilities) they actually reflect a fairly sophisticated take on each god’s nature and established mythos.
Take Poseidon, god of the sea and brother to both Zeus and Hades. Mythology paints him as ruler-supreme of the ocean, with a palace full of his many Nereid daughters and (like Zeus) absolutely no desire to remain faithful to his wife. He is called Earth-Shaker for his power over earthquakes, and is the patron of horses and horsemanship. He controlled how plentiful fish catches were and how successful (or disastrous) sea voyages were. He also liked holding grudges, as evidenced by his continued hatred of Odysseus or the bull he sent rampaging through Crete after Minos snubbed him.
His character in the game is more of a Bro-seidon (an easy-going surfer-type portrayal that has become increasingly popular in recent years) but certain interactions still betray his traditionally volatile nature, such as when you choose another god over him. His boons are predictably water-based and further underline the destructive power he was known for in antiquity. They fall into two categories: crowd control and loot buffs.
The loot buffs, which either give you game currency directly (“Sunken Treasure”), increase the amount you find in rooms (“Ocean’s Bounty”), or give you a greater chance of finding fishing points in each room (“Huge Catch”). Apart from the last one, which is attested in dedications to Poseidon from antiquity, the currency boons seem to rely on an assumption of shipwrecks and their corresponding treasure that isn’t generally reflected in the myths. While the logical god to provide these boons would be Hades, since he is not only the god of wealth but the king of the underworld you’re adventuring through, he’s not exactly friendly with Zagreus and it wouldn’t make sense for him to help Zag get richer. Thus, Poseidon’s more modern associations with sunken treasure are a good substitute that most people won’t look at too closely.
Crowd control boons are by far the most popular for him, and are also tied more closely to his mythos. They work by allowing you to manipulate crowds of enemies (hence, crowd control) so that you can either clear an area or gather them together to damage them more effectively. They also provide a large damage boost and, in the case of “Boiling Point”, fill up the bar for your elite skill faster as you take more and more damage.
Poseidon was not exactly a subtle god, and he never reacted well to being slighted or disadvantaged. During the contest for Athens, in which he competed with Athena for patronage of the city, his salt spring was judged less useful than her olive tree and Athena gained the city. Poseidon responded by flooding the entire area. When Laomedon, king of Troy, refused to pay him what was owed for helping to build the city walls he sent a sea monster via tidal wave that ravaged the plains around Troy and demanded female sacrifices until it was eventually killed. He also killed the titan Polybotes by dropping a piece of the island of Kos on him and destroyed Odysseus’ raft with giant waves.
The crowd control skills directly reflect this tendency towards overwhelming watery annihilation. “Tempest Strike/Flourish”, “Flood Shot/Flare”, and “Tidal Dash” all knock foes away with a wave animation, while the latter two also damage enemies within an area rather than a single target. “Poseidon’s Aid” turns you into an invincible tidal wave for a short period of time, while “Typhoon’s Fury” gives you a damage boost when slamming foes into barriers like walls and blocks.
While waves might be the logical choice for water damage, the fact that they are used here for area-wide devastation and provide (via Hades‘ wiki) the third highest damage rating in the game is significant. It is quite similar to his flooding of the Attic and Trojan plains; Zag doesn’t get to drop islands on anyone but the damage boost from slamming them into a wall is a similar idea. One could even argue that Poseidon’s more reserved act of wrath, sending a giant bull charging out of the ocean, is also similar in effect. Theseus asks Poseidon to kill his son Hippolytus, which Poseidon does with a bull – the bull doesn’t gore him, but rather sends his chariot horses into a panic and lets the resulting wreck finish mangling the boy to death.
In short, Poseidon’s boons reflect his tempestuous nature far more than the Bro-seidon dialogue would suggest. Zag might be having fun surfing through the underworld, but those waves are just as easily turned against him should he end up on Poseidon’s bad side.
Dr. Kira Jones is a classicist and art historian who specializes in myth, imperial Roman propaganda, and reception of the ancient world in new media. She is an avid gamer and Dusa stan. She is also the creator of the Twitter hashtags #ArtofACOdyssey and #ArtofHades, where she discusses the art design of the video games Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Hades.