Review: Apotheon

Greek mythology might sound like it’s already made its place in games thanks to the success of the God of War series, but there’s something to be said about a game that takes the trials and tribulations of the Olympian gods and makes it into something less in-your-face. Indie developer Alientrap deliver Apotheon, a Metroidvania that’s heavy on stylized, ancient Greece-inspired art design. Instantly captivating in its aesthetic, Apotheon attempts to give the world of Olympus some much needed restraint in its emotive drive, but misses quite a few marks in delivering a game that can follow in the footsteps of other indie platformers of its nature.

Apotheon follows Nikandreos, a mortal soldier of ancient Greece who is thrown into danger after his home is abandoned by the gods of Olympus. With no sunlight for crops, treacherous weather and a constant thirst for war at their doorstep, Nikandreos and his people are in peril. In comes Hera, wife of Zeus, who claims that she can help Nikandreos dethrone Zeus and the other gods of Olympus and reclaim humanity’s well-being. With her own motives guiding her, Hera leads Nikandreos across the various parts of Olympus, as the soldier encounters other deities like Demeter, Hades and Apollo.

Apotheon takes its subject matter seriously. Instead of a tone of constant action, Apotheon treats the various personalities of Olympus with depth and reverence. Apollo is a pompous egotist, Demeter a motherly tender of the earth and Poseidon a furious and bloodthirsty tyrant of the sea. These characteristics stay true to the mythology they originate from, giving Apotheon a much humbler and more poised presentation in its narrative; it’s the anti-God of War. This all comes together in a stellar climax and an ending that, while a little simplistic, is a fitting one.

At its core, Apotheon is a Metroidvania game. You have a large map with different detours and paths, all with an objective marker directing you where to go. There are numerous side rooms which can be lockpicked, which can offer currency to buy items or even some new gear altogether. The map isn’t hard to explore, thanks to some relatively forgiving jump controls, and you rarely ever feel lost thanks to the map, which can be overlay across the screen with a tap of the DualShock 4 touchpad. The game mixes up the motions with new objectives and challenges, which keep things fresh throughout. Sometimes you’ll be facing off against colossal guardians; sometimes you’ll be dodging arrow-flinging turrets. There are quite a few moments in Apotheon that’ll leave you in awe, like the clever boss fight with huntress Artemis or the dizzying challenge room of Athena. These moments take advantage of the unique characteristics of the deities, while also offering some cool twists on the game’s design.

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Sadly, Apotheon just doesn’t play as well as it should. Taking cues from side-scrolling action games like Castlevania and Zelda II, Apotheon’s combat gives players access to different weapons and skills to take out enemies, with spears, swords, bombs, arrows and even elixirs at their disposal. Enemies come in multiple types, some heavy and slow, others with flight. Combat is varied thanks to the use of armor upgrades and weapons with additional effects, but the problem is the controls: Apotheon’s combat is stiff. Different weapons have different ranges and features, meaning a spear might do better when attacking enemies from a distance, while a club is slower, but packs a mean close-range punch. This means you’re swinging your weapon around like crazy, mad-dashing around the room just to get a clean shot.

Unlike Castlevania, the combat doesn’t feel intuitive and the collision detection is noticeably sketchy in the heat of a fight. Not to say the game is difficult because of this. It’s not, and once again, that comes down to the combat. Apotheon doesn’t offer any real advantage to changing up your battle strategy. You can mindlessly swing your sword at enemies and you’ll eventually win. If you’re low on health, you’ll find plenty of health potions on the fly, while also being able to craft more in the Pause menu from ingredients you find. The many weapon types, armor upgrades, skills, ranged tools; none of them matter when simply swinging your sword around and taking a break to heal up is so effective. This makes Apotheon’s combat feel watered down, which is a shame because aspects like weapons breaking over time are amazing ideas. It just never grows from that simple start-up point, relying on an unfulfilling gameplay design crutched by attrition.

Apotheon follows in the footsteps of games like Outland, humble indie action-platformers with stunning art design. Apotheon’s graphic design clearly wants to replicate the art and architecture of ancient Greece and it does so remarkably well. The color contrasts are amazing, as the gloomy swamp of the forest is a stark contrast to the brilliant light of the Olympian Gates. Character models are in a 2D plane of sorts (very similar to ancient Greek art), but more abstract models like the Direwolf mix things up well. However, the art design can get sketchy when it comes to navigation, as various level design can make seeing where you can or can’t go more trouble than it should be. I also noticed some frame rate drops in the heat of battle and I did experience a few game crashes that threw me back to the PS4 menu.

Fortunately, the voice acting is superb. Voice actors like Caitlin Glass (Fullmetal Alchemist) and Xander Mobus (Smash Bros.) keep the authenticity of the subject matter alive. None of the voice acting sounds heavy-handed, making for a believable and enjoyable performance. Apotheon’s presentation is downright striking.

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Closing Comments:

Beyond Apotheon’s amazing presentation and story is a clunky, combat-heavy Metroidvania that rarely ever pushes players outside their comfort zone. The controls are already weak and frustrating, but even they pale in comparison to a combat system that can be easily abused. Apotheon doesn’t challenge the way it should, and with so many available weapons and tools, it’s insulting that the action is so one-note. The Metroidvania elements are honed well enough, though, with some unique twists on the gameplay that give the game (and its characters) personality. It’s also a stunning use of art in a platformer, complemented with a sophisticated approach to Greek mythology. It’s just a shame that so much of the gameplay in Apotheon feels so undercooked. Deep in personality, but shallow in mechanics, Apotheon is a classic case of style over substance.