“The Gods have abandoned you”
There haven’t been many games set in Ancient Greece, Kratos’ escapades being the most recent in memory, so it’s refreshing to see another title enter the fray, Apotheon a side-scroller adventure that channels a mix of something in between Castlevania and Dark Souls. However despite its stunning artistry, the game handles a little clumsily and certain gameplay mechanics simply don’t work out, it all means that Apotheon is all Classical Greek style over substance.
There’s only one place to start with Apotheon and that’s with how it looks, and man does this game look beautiful. The art style evokes Greek pottery exquisitely, it really sells you on the illusion of authenticity, and additionally the sprawling environments are remarkable in their contrasting styles. For instance, the depths of Hades is detailed in an eerie colour palette of chilling blues and layers of darkness, but the Olympian Gates is illustrated with a brilliant warmness. Moreover, the 2D character models are cutely presented as silhouettes, perfectly conforming to the ancient pottery aesthetic. Indeed flourishes such as these just highlight the painstaking commitment to this wholly original artistic direction. It is truly a gorgeous-looking game and such artistry seduces you to explore every area in this mythological world.
Apotheon’s narrative is grounded in its mythological origins, that of the Man and the Gods, you play as the warrior Nikandreos who finds that his home village of Dion is in ruins, the crops will not grow, the water will not flow and the sun will not shine. The Gods have abandoned humanity to their fate. Nikandreos however will not accept such an end so easily and travels to Mount Olympus, the home of the Gods; there he finds a willing collaborator in Hera, Zeus’ disillusioned wife where she guides him to bring about the fall of the corrupt pantheon of Gods. It’s somewhat surprising (and refreshing) for Apotheon to take its subject matter seriously, instead of indulging in a savage crusade of violence, the game instead adopts a more poised presentation in its storytelling. For instance, each God is characterised in depth, Apollo is exceptionally arrogant, Ares possessed by conflict and so on. Although this sounds cliché, it’s in fact completely fitting because the tale is strictly founded on its mythological origins, a simplicity which is mirrored in its poignant ending with its promise of a continuation in the cycle of rebirth. The game also contains a curated collection of excerpts from ancient poets such as Homer and Hesiod, these quotes provide flavourful descriptions of the Gods and their traits; again although this doesn’t seem like much, it’s a canny move that sprinkles just a touch more intrigue to the world.
This is all well and good but the core experience of any game is the gameplay itself and so is it up to scratch? Eh, yes and no to be honest. The combat itself is slow and methodical, it takes a white to strike your enemy for example, it resembles a form of tug-of-war, moving around delicately, raising your shield to block and attack, then prod when you see an opening. But problems arise when there are multiple enemies to hack down, it all gets a bit too chaotic, the enemies and the impact the weapons make feel utterly weightless, it’s often better to just exhaustively swing blindly to clear a room of enemies. To put it more bluntly, the combat is simply unwieldy, the move-set for each weapon is limited and the aiming mechanics for ranged weapons are excessively fiddly to manage, this unfortunately leads to much frustration throughout the game.
In addition, the combat is hampered further by Apotheon’s clunky inventory system, it’s real-time so you can’t simply pause the game and ponder your next move. This is a fine concept, but the execution is sloppy in this instance, flicking left and right through a drop-down menu over different categories is too clunky to handle effectively under pressure. Moreover, on many occasions, my character would use up an item that I had not selected, despite clearly scrolling down to my preferred action. This could have been solved with a few hotkey equipment slots, but alas it isn’t there.
A similar kind of frustration is found in the weapon degradation mechanic, where if you use a weapon so many times it will eventually break and become unusable. Again, this shouldn’t be a big issue but it is; having saved up coins to buy a more powerful weapon, only to see it disappear after a dozen blows is disheartening. It is understandable that the developers wanted players to mix up their fighting style but it leaves the combat overly-disorganized, it’s very unlikely you’ll not be able to find another weapon to pick up, but crucially it may be one that you don’t find much enjoyment in using. It’s strange considering other mechanics such as armour upgrades work much the way you expect them to, you find them in chests in hidden areas or buy them, giving you a permanent boost, weapon upgrades would have been better suited to work the same way according to the game’s economy and loot system.
Alongside combat is a few platforming sections which are humdrum to say the least, it’s basic stuff but it also requires the player to jump again once Nikandreos is trying to scramble up the wall or ledge. This can be exasperating due to the stickiness of the physics, even more so when they pop up during the higher-stakes boss-battles, so you could be flailing up the wall trying to get up and then an arrow hits you in the back causing you to fall maybe even to your death.
Where Apotheon does shine apart from its art is its level design, from the intricately connected hub worlds that serve a variety of functions, to the evolving nature of the boss stages, it’s a very impressive affair. Largely, you’re free to tackle the Gods in any way you want, although they are in batches for instance, you are told to tackle Hades, Apollo and Demeter first before moving further up Olympus, but you can fight anyone of these Gods in an order you wish. The level of exploration involved in Apotheon is indeed quite surprising; there are a lot of little side-quests and secrets to discover on your travels, be it taking on one of the challenges from a ‘lesser’ God such as Hephaestus or hunting for a sunken ship carrying valuable treasure. What’s curious is that Apotheon does not employ any form of an XP system, instead you’ll largely be rewarded with special weapons and potions for your endeavours.
Beside from the hub-worlds, the design of the boss battles is diverse and exciting, with each having its own individual domain with particular rules and challenges. For example, Artemis the Goddess of the Hunt transforms you into a deer to partake in a bit of sport, you have to dodge her arrows until the roles are reversed and you become the hunter. This novelty is reflected in other encounters with Ares later in the game forcing you to navigate a nightmarish arena of warriors and traps to satisfy his bloodlust. The evolving nature of these battles never ceases throughout the experience, and it should really be commended, the Gods are appropriately treated rather differently than the standard soldier and you’ll have to adapt to the challenge accordingly.
Apotheon is believed to mean ‘one who is exalted to state of Godhood’, and with that the reader can probably guess the turn of events that are fated to happen in the game. Thus, it’s a shame that the core gameplay experience does not mirror such an epic journey, the combat is clumsy and a struggle to slog through. No amount of luscious artistry and arresting level design can ever make up these failings in such founding elements.
Despite brushing with greatness, Apotheon will have to stay down here with our unenlightened selves.
+ Beautiful art direction
+ Evolving level design
– Unsatisfying combat
– Frustrating inventory system