(This review pertains to Apotheon’s single player aspects only.)
Calling Apotheon a case of style over substance doesn’t totally feel right. To me that phrase makes it sound as if developer Alien Trap somewhat purposefully created something flashy and vapid. I don’t believe this to be the case, even if that tag does tell a lot of the story. I think Alien Trap set out to create an artful and substantial experience, but simply failed to stick the landing because of clunky controls, a shallow story, and an awkward interface. Despite its awesome art style, Apotheon is sorely lacking in the fun department because its gameplay just isn’t up to par.
A word on that art style: wow. Apotheon is one of the most original looking and expertly styled games I’ve come across in recent memory. If this review were based entirely on looks, it’d be near a perfect ten. The game looks like a Grecian urn painting come to life. It’s such a smart choice and Alien Trap pulls it off with great overall design direction and exceptional animation. The look of the game is so singular and impressive that I recommend that anyone with an appreciation for great art in games at least give it a look on YouTube. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay is this: if Apotheon did not feature such an incredible look, it would go from “decent” to “pretty terrible” in an instant. The art style is just that good.
Unfortunately that’s were the praise more or less ends. Apotheon has a great body, but pop open the hood and one finds the engine rather lacking. The gameplay doesn’t pass muster because of control problems and an unintuitive user interface. Often referred to as “Greek-a-melee” in the run-up to its release, Apotheon is indeed a 2D action RPG in the “Metroidvania” style. The game presents an open world and tasks the player with completing objectives in a fairly fluid order, opening up more of the map in the process. The meat of the game is the combat, and sadly, it’s passable at best. It can be semi-fun at times, such as situations where it’s just the player vs. one or two other human enemies. The actual use of the game’s many arms feels okay, and burying a hatchet in an enemy soldier with a sickening squish is decently satisfying. The combat is all about blocking and timing, and there’s a stamina bar, so “2D Dark Souls” actually gives a pretty decent idea of the feel.
As soon as the difficulty ramps up and enemies become harder to hit and dodge, the gameplay falls apart. Combat quickly grew frustrating and tiresome as I grappled with the sluggish controls in an attempt to fight. The player character tends to stick to walls and ledges, wrecking the fluidity of his movement and making it tough to move and fight in desirable ways. The obtuse UI doesn’t help either, and switching between various weapons, shields, and items – in both arms no less – in the middle of combat is an exercise in frustration. It’s bad enough when I wanted to swap from say, a javelin to a fire bomb mid fight, but further exacerbating the problem is the fact that shields and weapons degrade. This will cause them to vanish in the midst of combat, leaving the player to fumble clumsily with the UI in order to select a replacement.
The platforming is impacted by the bad controls as well. Running and jumping just doesn’t feel good. The player character takes too long to build up to a full sprint, making the movement feel all the more sticky and sluggish. I think perhaps a dedicated “run” button might have gone a long way in this regard, but there are other issues still. Platforming is marred by the aforementioned tendency to get hung up on walls and such, and getting any kind of running start without a lot of room is impossible. I missed jumps left and right, and it became very tedious just navigating the world. I should mention that I encountered some rather annoying bugs while wandering around and fighting. The worst came when an a enemy tossed me off a cliff and I fell through the floor when I landed. I was trapped inside of the ground and had to restart my game. Another time I defeated a boss who then dropped an essential item…which then fell through the floor, forcing me to do the fight again. Other instances of getting totally stuck on walls and behind objects occurred as well. Some more polish really would have helped.
All of the aforementioned fun-killers are a real shame, because there really are some good ideas and positives here. There are a lot of cool weapons and items, and some of the boss fights are pretty unique and interesting. The levels are actually well made from a design perspective. The different areas of the world are very distinct from one another, with lots of different color palettes and assets. The world is sizable and the amount of content is commendable, especially for an indie game. And again, this game is simply wonderful to look at, and it should be a model going forward for wholeness of vision and execution in art design. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the story, which is very thin. It’s boilerplate gods vs. humans stuff seen countless times before, and I was terribly bored by it. It’s the final nail in the coffin of a game that reeks of wasted potential. There really is a great game lurking here, it’s just obscured by too many big problems. I can only recommend this one to huge fans of Greek themed stuff and brilliant art styles – and I do so cautiously at that. They’re the only ones I could see perhaps tolerating all of Apotheon‘s failings.
*played on a Playstation 4*