With my interest in metroidvanias piqued slightly after The Mummy Demastered I began digging through unfinished or overlooked games in my Playstation library and came across Apotheon, a game that was given out for free on the Playstation Plus service back in February 2015. I remember spending maybe 45 minutes with the game at the time and I’d gotten the impression that it was a shallow, basic platformer and never finished the first task in the game. Why was it so easy to dismiss the game and move on quickly? This was a quiet month before bigger games like Axiom Verge, Bloodborne, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt all began to release in succession. PS+ games already had a reputation for being mostly Sony’s in-house art projects or smaller, buggier games barely fit for the iPhone app store.
First impressions informed by assumptions are generally worthless but with several of my most anticipated games on the horizon, and my Playstation 4 relatively fresh in my hands, I had other shit to play. So a full three years later I finally dove into the game thinking it’d be worth checking off my list and zipping through in a couple of evenings. It turns out that Apotheon is less of an artsy-fartsy video game and more of a metroidvania-lite thanks to semi-branching paths and an emphasis on exploration and discovery with side-quests expanding the playthrough. In terms of mechanics there are few gameplay elements that help Apotheon to stand out from the herd of metroidvania releases of the last five years. Looking back on the experience the physics/environmental puzzles were often clever, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild system of breakable weapons helped drive the need for exploration and adaptive combat style.
The art style was immediately striking but the slightly floaty physics of the combat and was off-putting to begin with. The Grecian black-figure pottery art style is strikingly beautiful throughout but not as compelling as the actual tale being told. You play as Nikandreos a warrior of the city of Dion, which quite literally sits in ruins near the foot of Mount Olympus. You wake up with the city in siege and the modus of the game is instantly employed: You’re given four goals in four locations with a marker leading to each. You can tackle these in any order and the story progresses once you’ve accomplished everything and decide to continue. With Dion saved, you learn that Zeus has damned humanity to ruin and essentially shuttered the doors to Olympus. Hera appears to Nikandreos and grants him access to Olympus and the realms of the gods to murder her siblings, children and taking their power in hopes of overthrowing the tyrant Zeus.
Nikandreos is close to the name of Nikandros, a Spartan king mid 700 BCE, but the lore here focuses less on Sparta and more on Olympus as Nikandreos ascends the Agora and the Acropolis as he slashes his way to the top. I like the story here because it portrays most Greek gods as figures of duality and not one-dimensional cliche. Some are willing to work with you, some are duplicitous or arrogant but none are caricature. The game is fully voiced and even if they aren’t award winning performances the presentation has the appeal of a graphic novel. As appropriate as the voice acting is, the soundtrack has a few tracks that are mixed quite loud and I was unable to turn down the music volume successfully. This is not the fault of Marios Aristopoulos, who has scored mods for Rome: Total War, Dragon Age: Origins and Oblivion among others, and his score for Apotheon evokes ancient Greece beautifully. The native instrumentation used in the score is also echoed in the sound design for the game and the use of sound as cues for actions, combat, events, etc. again echoes the basic design of modern Zelda titles.
So the hook for Apotheon didn’t come until I began exploring the Agora, an open public space that acts essentially the first of two main levels of Mount Olympus that the gods and their servants inhabit beneath Zeus’ palace. The fortified Acropolis is the second level. These areas act as two main hubs for the overworld as you progress and though the connections are limited between stages of Olympus much of the world is interconnected if you choose not to use the fast travel system. Even with fast travel available you have the realms of twelve gods to search through with each realm containing at least 2-3 hidden or gated areas outside of their main map. When considering the size of the game in terms of metroidvanias, I’d say it is about the size of your average Game Boy Advance Castlevania game with fewer interconnections. Each area either has a different color palette employed or certain effects that differentiate the environment. Not all environments are sized equally, as Dionysus area has one task and takes three minutes whereas Poseidon’s area took several hours with four main tasks, a boss fight, and even more hidden/secret side-quests.
The ‘hook’ or the draw of the game that makes it worth recommending is likely echoed by games like Breath of the Wild where you start out surviving with what you’ve got and the more you explore and complete challenging sections of the game the more your combat and traversal options increase. I found that the game gave Doru (spears) more often than anything else and you can store up to five at a time after you upgrade your spear level at the weapons trainer in the market. So, my play style was a lot of spear use because it was fast and powerful with decent range. This all had to change when certain sections of the game called for ranged weaponry to solve puzzles or defeat certain enemies. Some enemies are crushed easily by maces, others die quickly to arrows. Fire weapons, bomb arrows, Greek fire, mythical spears, several specialized shields, and about 20-30 types of projectiles give an incredible range of approaches to use when your main weapon isn’t cutting it. Some things you’ll want to use sparingly because they’re needed to find/open secret areas but the game is nice about never leaving you stranded.
This isn’t simply a platformer with some stabbing involved, though. Character progression involves collecting/buying armor upgrades (which also allow for appearance customization) and buying weapon proficiency upgrades, based on weapon type, from the aforementioned weapons trainer. You’re also able to buy crafting recipes so you can use collected resources to craft weapons, tools and potions. You can craft poultices that raise an undead warrior to fight alongside you, or you can make automatons that shoot arrows at nearby enemies, as well as traps, bombs, and even potions that help you see in the dark without a torch (or light-bearing shield). Since about half of the dungeons in the game are dark or dimly lit I found the Sun Disc’s ability to light up a room incredibly valuable and I sometimes didn’t block during combat so that it wouldn’t end up breaking. The game’s progression hinges on either killing or convincing gods that you deserve their powers and with each power comes a vital perk. You get a ‘double jump’, reduced knockback/interrupt, and even a perk that restores your shield’s durability when not in combat.
With some reasonable amount of system depth, and about 8-10 hours of exploration and narrative total, I felt that this was one of the better stylized metroidvania games I’ve played in quite some time. The downside for me was that a lot of the Greek mythos and lore was simply posted at optional pillars that you could read rather than integrated into the main narrative. I found a lot of the more interesting stuff, be it Homeric quotes or footnotes on a god’s realm or personality, served as a sort of intermittent director’s commentary rather than offered anything important to the experience. I have a vested interest in Greek philosophy and mythos and would have liked at least some of them to have been voiced, animated, or expressed through vignettes in the game’s story. The other drawback of the storytelling is the momentum of it’s second half where you’re basically Kratos running around with a reputation killing gods and the interactions directly with Nikandreos are limited to conversations with Hera.
The short list of bugs I encountered did a lot to turn me off of this game’s otherwise professional presentation. Despite feeling invested in it’s storyline, I could really tell this was the studio’s second officially published title. A mermaid punched me through a wall that I couldn’t escape from. I scaled a wall and fell into an unfinished drawing. The game crashed a total of five times, including during the final boss fight. Luckily the fairly persistent auto-save feature helped me avoid any game-breaking issues. This is still fewer bugs than even the first 8 hours of Kingdom Come: Deliverance (pre-patching) but I felt that if a game still has some very obvious boundary and run-time issues after three years perhaps they don’t care about how frequently they appear. I understand on some level and I know their other games have had fewer complaints from what I’ve read in professional reviews.
If you’re like me and you have an addiction to exploring these sorts of sprawling 2D worlds with multi-directional paths, then Apotheon offers a unique ‘lite’ version of that type of world with a greater focus on customizing the combat experience and options. Making the game look like old Greek pottery and setting it in a time where gods and men clashed surely helped maintain my interest once I gave the experience a chance. My feelings on the game are overall more positive than The Mummy: Demastered despite that game looking better, and controlling better, but at the same time Apotheon‘s beautiful art and more original conceptions don’t necessarily hold up to a game like Outlander. I’d recommend giving it a try around the $10 price point as you’ll get your money’s worth with 8-10 hours of gameplay and if you go for the achievements/trophies with the harder difficulty it might take even longer.
|Genre||“Metroidvania”, 2D Action Platformer|
|Released||February 3, 2015 | Alientrap|
|Platform(s)||Playstation 4 Pro|
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