Apotheon - Review
Smaller, independent games are well known for using unique visuals to attract an audience. When you're working on smaller budgets and tighter timeframes it makes sense to have a striking and original visual style in order to get attention. In many cases the visual style will inform the gameplay itself; whether it be Limbo's melancholic, monochrome colour palette, or Thomas Was Alone and its simple shapes that are given so much character.
Apotheon, developed by Alientrap, continues in much the same fashion. In this case it possesses a gorgeous art style that gives the impression that the game is taking place on ancient Greek pottery. It's an evocative look and certainly makes for some impressive screenshots as you can no doubt tell, but then the game begins to play in motion...
In its simplest sense, Apotheon is a 2D hack-and-slash. Areas however, are presented in a non-linear fashion, much like a classic Metroidvania title. In many cases, it's possible to take on various locations in any order you wish, with your character's overarching quest being to kill the gods of Olympus.
This would all be great if the game controlled at all well. It might take place in ancient Greece, but it may as well be set in space given the floaty nature of your character's jumps and attacks. Jab with a sword and your character will awkwardly wobble forward with an ineffective thrust; maybe he'll hit his opponent, or perhaps he'll flop his sword around in a circular motion, likely dislocating his arm socket.
It's these awkward physics that undermine a lot of what Alientrap have tried to achieve. Combat, in theory, is well thought out, with various weapons having different properties and attack animations. Swords hit fast, spears, such as the Doru, have greater reach, whilst clubs and maces have better hitting power, potentially overwhelming enemy shields.
Likewise, enemies come equipped with variety of armaments, which encourages you to use your arsenal to the best of your ability. Sadly, it's all for nothing as most fights descend into a miserable Happy Wheels parody as characters contort and flip around in awkward fashion. Blows will never land where you expect them to in many instances, with characters sometimes careering a full screen away with one attack whenever gravity decides to stop working.
It's a shame because Alientrap clearly put a lot of effort into crafting a combat system with a diverse array of options. Alongside the aforementioned melee weapons, there's also a bevy of long range equipment, such as a bow and javelins and even a rudimentary crafting system. It's disappointing that many of them aren't that useful for many encounters, with the bow being far too unwieldy to use in most fights.
The decision to have weapons be breakable is also a contentious issue. While it does encourage players to switch between different equipment, it also leads to much of the game being about collecting junk, and there's the general sense that you've not really gotten all that more powerful throughout the game, as every sword you have seems to break after three or four fights.
Metroidvania games create the sense that you're slowly accumulating new abilities and powers as the game progresses; your arsenal gradually expanding as you overcome challenges. Whilst Apotheon does grant you some very minor abilities after defeating a boss, there's also the sense that the weapons you have are never your own given their poor durability. There's nothing more depressing than having to switch to a farmer's fork in the middle of a dramatic fight against Ares, because your epic sword of destruction gave out on you.
It doesn't help that swapping between weapons becomes an absolute nightmare. Your equipment is divided into four lists; one for melee, one for ranged, one for offensive items and one for support. So far so good. Unfortunately, given the frequent times you need to switch between weapons it becomes unbelievably frustrating in the middle of combat. Doing something as simple as switching to a Shield Breaker to down the enemies defences and then swap to a blade to deliver the finishing blow, is a genuine hassle.
For all the supposed complexity of the game's combat system, many fights end simply when you stop mashing the attack button.
The game's quests also suffer from some rather poor level design. Every area generally sticks to the same pattern of doing three smaller quests to unlock the big quest, then beating that. It becomes repetitive quickly and there's little story or plot, other than the usual "mortal rages against the gods" that's been done before. The dialogue and voice acting is by no means terrible, but everything that's uttered is so bland and predictable, it's clear that much of the writing was an afterthought.
To their credit, the developers do try to vary each location visually. Towns and cities come in warm hues of reds, oranges and yellows, contrasting well with the earthy greens of the nearby forest, whilst the pits of Hades are a suitably miserable blend of murky grey shadows. Each area is also aided with a surprisingly effective score and some impressive sound design; wandering around Hades' domain will have half-dead husks shambling towards you, begging to get a taste of life once again.
The major problem with Apotheon is that it has plenty of ideas, but none of them work well together. The art style is its high note, but is undermined by the silly, almost comical looking animation. The diverse combat system would be rather deep and strategic were it not for the dreadful physics that make every encounter feel like a mushy, imprecise mess. It has a crafting system but you sometimes wonder why it's even there, other than to say that the game has one.
Many games go for safe and predictable, and Apotheon should be commended for not doing so. It fails not because it has a lack of ideas, but because it doesn't know how to use them, and its faults actively undermine many of its positive aspects. It might look pretty, but beneath the striking art is a unbalanced, poorly thought out adventure game that, sadly, is rather shallow.
Apotheon was released on February 3rd for PC and PS4.
This review is based on the PS4 version.
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