Like so many other indie games, Apotheon uses its visuals to draw your attention. Designed to look as if all the action is unfolding on an ancient urn or vase, the Ancient Greek adventure looks an absolute treat.
The bold characters are silhouette-like in appearance, and their animation has a shadow puppet feel. As you clamber around against backdrops of cracked orange clay or cerulean blue glaze, the effect is utterly enchanting. This is the sort of game where you eagerly anticipate every new location, every new enemy, just so you can see how they look and move. Thankfully, Apotheon has depth and intelligence to go with its eye-catching looks.
Inspired by Greek myth, but not tied to any particular story, it casts you as Nikandreos, a lowly soldier who finds himself caught up in a quest against Zeus himself when his skill at repelling invaders inspires Hera, Queen of Olympus, to use his talents to bring down the entire corrupt pantheon of Greek Gods. So far, so God of War, but this is a more faithful and thoughtful jaunt through familiar territory. The writing is mannered without being stilted, and its brought to life with some genuinely impressive voice acting. That's not an area where low budget indie games usually shine.
In gameplay terms it's a little bit Castlevania, a little bit Legend of Zelda 2, as side-on platforming collides with open plan levels which scroll in all directions. Each of the game's areas contains various objectives that must first be reached, then tackled in further standalone maps.
For example, one early task is to locate Persephone, who sits at the side of Hades in the Underworld. First you must make your way to this domain via Charon's ferry, then master four damned rivers. Each of these manifests as a separate sub-level. One requires observation and puzzle solving skills, another tests your combat abilities as you fend off skeletal warriors on a boat. Yet another has you relentlessly climbing upwards as flames rise from below.
That last one is the trickiest, but also a rare moment where Apotheon leans too heavily on platform game cliché. For the most part, this isn't a game where precision jumping is required. It is far more interested in combat, boasting a rich fighting system that offers multiple ways to play. Weapons fall into three categories - melee, ranged and thrown - and you can store pretty much everything you find in your generously proportioned arsenal. Swords and spears sit alongside hammers and pitchforks, while bows, javelins and even stones and slingshots are all possible offensive options. You can also brew up fire bombs or set exploding traps.
Melee is where the game seems most focused however. It's a simple system, but a flexible one. High, low and normal attacks can be combined with jumps and rolls as the situation demands, knocking enemies over before delivering a crushing blow from above, or holding them at range with a shield before retaliating. Axes and hammers are slow but powerful, while spears offer longer reach. Knives and daggers are devastating, but require close quarters to be effective. As you explore the worlds, you'll find improved versions of most weapon types: triple-shot arrows, or assassin blades that deal 800% damage from behind.
It can take a while to get to grips with the myriad attack options that the game offers - particularly where aiming ranged weapons is concerned - but even once you've grasped the basics, combat is never quite as satisfying as it could be. The sprites look lovely, but feel oddly weightless. This means that when combat gets hectic - as it inevitably does - it's easy to find yourself swinging blindly in a morass of characters, unsure as to what effect you're having.
The answer, of course, is to avoid such scrums but that's not always possible and even when it's just you against a single enemy, contact lacks the beefiness needed to really underpin the otherwise admirable move set. It doesn't help that selecting weapons and items relies on a slightly clunky method, where you flick left and right through different categories with the d-pad, and then scroll up and down to find the one you want. Under pressure, it's too much of a scramble and you'll find yourself wishing for fast access equipment slots for your favourite weapons.
It's nothing disastrous, but it does dull what could otherwise have been the game's strongest feature. In that respect, it's actually closest to Abyss Odyssey, another gorgeous looking 2D platform-slash-fighting game ever so slightly held back by control that was a little too soft for what was being asked of it.
And, much like Abyss Odyssey, it's the prospect of exploration that sees Apotheon over whatever minor bumps are in the road. There's no XP, but there is a steady escalation in weapon proficiency and armour strength, purchased from the Agora Market in the central Olympus hub. Mostly, you'll be lured into optional locations - houses, barracks and other such places - in search of rare weapons, loot and simply because, in such a confidently realised world, finding new places is fun.
There's a lot of game here, but not too much. Perhaps realising the limits of its design, the tiny creative team at Alientrap has opted for perfect pacing. Each new world takes around an hour to complete, ensuring there's a constant sense of momentum, and you'll reach your final confrontation with Zeus before any of the minor wobbles becomes a real problem.
If it played just a little tighter, Apotheon would be brushing up against greatness. As it stands, it's stunning to look at and a pleasure to play, and what flaws it does have can be easily overlooked by anyone looking for something smart and stylish.
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