Wot I Think: Apotheon

What big EVERYTHING you have, grandma

Apotheon [official site] is an attractive but shallow game whose more interesting ideas are marred by an unwieldy control system.

You play as Nikandreos, a man tasked with taking back power from the gods after Zeus decides to forsake mankind. You’ll achieve that by visiting the domains of key individual gods from the Greek pantheon and besting them in order to collect their powers as embodied by objects. There’s a hub world structure and between god domains you have access to the agora and agora market where you can buy upgrades for weapons or armour, as well as learning recipes for potions and so on.

The game is styled after the black-figure Greek pottery prevalent about 6 or 7 centuries BC, where black silhouetted figures enacted scenes across the surface of vases. It’s a lovely conceit and one which theoretically lends itself well to a two dimensional side scroller – the game equivalent of twirling a vase to get a story. That’s not quite the reality of Apotheon, though.

The main game is based around combat. You’re given an apparently limitless ability to carry different types of weaponry, each piece of which feels different when you practice wielding it. There’s the doru – a kind of spear – and the javelin. There’s the knife and the hatchet. The xiphos – a shortsword – and the hydra fang – an arrow which splits into three when fired.

Chimera? I 'ardly knew 'er...

It’s a pleasingly varied arsenal with a wonderful associated vocabulary, and yet it’s difficult to navigate and in actual combat the blows and parrys aren’t nearly as satisfying as they need to be. Picking your weapon involves selecting a number key and scrolling to the correct weapon if you’re on mouse and keyboard, or tapping on the D-pad and scrolling if you’re on a game pad. It’s clunky and time consuming, meaning I ended up just trying to make sure I had broadly useful weapons and potions selected in each category because selecting the right thing often took more time than was feasible in combat.

Also a problem were some of the boss fights at the end of the god segments although a number felt true to the god’s own story. One of the first gods you encounter is Artemis, the goddess of hunting and the moon. In order to defeat her you’ll need to survive her arrow attacks after she turns you into a deer while passing moon lanterns or shrines. When all have been visited the roles are reversed and you hunt deer-Artemis. There’s a playful arrogance which feels true to Greek mythology as I know it.

Prancing in the moonlight

But many other encounters lack that verve or variety. You find out what you need to do and you do that until the boss’s healthbar is ground down. Poseidon has you needing to stay on a boat and whack away at the god when he comes close. It’s boat, boat, whack, whack, got hit, swim back to boat, boat, boat, whack, whack until he falls over.

I wonder if part of the combat is the art style. That doesn’t excuse boring fights but it felt difficult to be precise and that might be because of the animation. It has that articulated shadow puppet aspect to it which isn’t something I associate with pinpoint accuracy and hitboxes. I often found it hard to judge the distance to stand from an opponent in order to land a hit. The two-dimensionality also caused irritation when it came to descending from one floor to another. Floors where this is possible are marked as thin black lines where you hold the down button and jump in order to fall through. Mid-combat that’s not always a clean experience. You can fall further than intended or not fall at all.

The mouse and keyboard controls felt awkward so I switched to a gamepad which was far better. However aiming became a problem at times as the character would suddenly switch to autotargetting another object as it came into view making it difficult to trigger the environmental traps.

There's a wonderful sculpture of Daphne and Apollo by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Villa Borghese. If you take anything from this review it should be that Bernini was an amazing sculptor and his marble work is some of the most exquisite artwork you will ever see.

Repetition is used to irritating effect in battles but well in the art style of the game. The spaces where you encounter the gods generally have a pleasing visual similarity which feels rhythmic in its recurrence. Each of the worlds, too, keeps that instantly recognisible art style, but adapts the colours and motifs to give you a sense of that god. Waterfalls of red blood spatter Ares’ domain while Poseidon’s world is a blue-ish thing with fish featured on the murals instead of beasts.

The voice acting is patchy. Some is captivating, adding to the sense of being told a story, other sections involve jarring unexpected accents or several lines of dialogue have been strung together in a way that means you can hear the joins. Each world has NPCs with only a handful of different barks. Sometimes that grates, sometimes it feels like the developers, Alientrap, were aiming for a Greek chorus effect – shoring up the plot and providing an ambient refrain.

Yeah. That's a horse's butt.

Finally, we come to the story. There’s not really much to it. The gods are being dicks (as an avid reader of Greek myths as a child that seems completely legit) and a human needs to do something about it. There’s an overarching plot about taking the power of the gods for yourself but the resolution is obvious if you know what the word apotheosis means and, frankly, the game feels more like a special episode of a TV show – one which gets stuffed with flashbacks and references to countless previous happenings. The idea of taking back power is an excuse to interact with the different deities and make reference to the rich interweaving of existing mythology rather than to retell a story or craft something new or noteworthy.

With such a light story and relatively sparse worlds the game needed its combat to feel polished in order to shine. Sadly the unwieldy controls mean it’s an interesting-looking game which never quite delivers.

30 Comments

  1. Brosecutor says:

    Shame, really love that visual style.

  2. Matt_W says:

    The visual style looks very similar to the 2011 console platformer Outland (released last September for PC).

  3. Frosty Grin says:

    Personally, I like the idea of the visual style, but not the implementation. Looks too busy to me, with tinting, layers, scuffs and smudges (or what it’s supposed to be)… Doesn’t have the same appeal as the Greek pottery it’s styled after.

  4. Mansfield says:

    Mouse & keyboard controls definitely weren’t very good. I enjoyed the game a lot more playing with an Xbox360 controller

    • ShadowNate says:

      I had the opposite experience. I prefer the mouse and keyboard control for the game.

      Also, I quite disagree with the review, which is quite a negative one. The game is very enjoyable and offers much diversity in its levels, along with satisfying and often clever enemy and boss encounters. There is also a significant story behind it. Is it familiar? Maybe to some? In my experience, Apotheon manages to be respectful and consistent with Greek mythology (while weaving its own story from the parts), in a way that alone makes it stand apart from other games that just borrow the basics and proceed to completely destroy the original stories, characters, deities and creatures.

      For anyone curious about how the game plays, I’d advise to watch some gameplay videos of it. It would be a better way to form an opinion on the game, though I have to say, that as far as the visuals are concerned, the actual game on a/ your PC looks a lot better than what some videos will make you think.

      • Manburger says:

        I concur heartily! It had a sort of nice oldschool-meets-new adventure feel to it.
        Though I can see where the complaints are coming from; It’s flawed in some ways, but not enough to diminish the fun times, in my opinion.
        Your mileage may vary, of course.
        If the combat does not click, then you won’t have a good time.
        This game needs a demo. Man, games need demos. What’s up!

      • Magus44 says:

        Yeah, I’ve loved it. One of the better games I’ve played recently. But then I love platformers.
        The combats a bit weird sometimes for sure, with people rolling around, swiping at you, and I’m not sure how you change the different attacks that each weapon does. And there are definitely too many weapons, but you can pretty much just stick to the basic ones and win most fights. Plus you can pause and select and important item if its really necessary.
        I like how some of the areas are thematic to their respective gods and the way that’s reflected in what you need to do in each. The Artemis fight was really interesting. Same goes for the Apollo one. Athenas main area and he subsequent jaunt through the battlefield summoning skeletons to fight for you as well. The area where you meet Ares is really interesting too.
        Plus It looks amazing. The different hues and the subtle shadows and lighting. I really enjoyed it!

  5. Unr33l says:

    Personally NEVER had many of the problems this review talks about when playing with M&K. I don’t wanna be too quick to judge, but maybe have a skilled player review a game based around combat next time.

    • Faldrath says:

      … you are being too quick to judge.

    • Bradamantium says:

      What indication is there that Pip’s not skilled?

    • SuicideKing says:

      What if Pip and I have identical mad skillz? I’d rather read Pip’s review.

      (point being: How on earth can you judge “skill” from the review of a random game? How does her skill compare to other readers like myself? Or your skill compare to mine? What frame of reference are you speaking from? What the fuck is this skill you speak of, anyway? It’s not like this is the first game she’s played. Etc.)

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        john_silence says:

        Naah. We all know he just means someone named Philipp instead of Philippa. Carrying a penis around requires so much skill that us men are innately better at fiddling with little sticks and fondling buttons and stuff.
        To review such a game adequately, knowledge of Greek mythology is more relevant than gaming skill anyway (not that I think Pip isn’t skilled – I’ve had my ass handed down to me enough by girls in Day of Defeat to know better).

      • Unr33l says:

        Regardless of the skill thing, I just find it weird this review is so negative, considering the rating on Steam is 96% positive. And maybe I just have mad MLG sik skillz m8, but regarding most of the issues this review adresses, I never had them at all.

        • ShadowNate says:

          To be honest, I think the review / wot I think, is negative because the writer was disappointed by the controls. She also talks about repetition, shallow story and controller being better than keyboard and mouse support, but my experience with the game was quite on the opposite side for all of those. The developers really seem to have put extra effort for each God’s domain to feel different, adding new types of enemies (some can regenerate health, some can use potions, some can simply not be killed etc) and new gameplay elements, and that’s not even mentioning the cleverly designed boss fights (and there are many of those). Keyboard and mouse has worked awesomely well for me. And the story elements that comprise the main story have a lot of variety and span across quite a large spectrum of stories from greek mythology. You may choose to ignore what each of those stories are and go for “Oh so now I have to get that or beat that boss, ok” , but the story behind that is there in the game.

          The controls for the game do require some getting used to, and perhaps even then, they lead to some hilarious moments in combat (when you throw everything you have at an opponent – and almost every weapon is a throwable in Apotheon). And the way it controls, seems to have been so by deliberate design. The developers have posted some quite informative comments about it over at the Steam forums. There is also a topic over there explaining further how the combat works (it is a lot more elaborate, than jump, shield up and smash the mouse buttons to hack an enemy).

          Different is sometimes good (also being better than doing the exact thing with other games that don’t match or align well with your game’s mechanics). You just have to allow the game to show you why it controls like so. If you expect it to control like Guacamelee and cannot accept anything else, then I guess you will have a hard time with Apotheon.

          It’s probably good to have a review that focuses so much on what the reviewer perceived as negatives, so that people won’t go into the game unprepared or uninformed. However, thank God there are also quite a few positive reviews for the game, so that people who care won’t expect an all-style-outside-garbage-gameplay-inside game.

      • El_Emmental says:

        The word “skill”, when it comes to gaming, has no meaning without a context detailing what kind of “skill” it is.

        It is also very different from the definition you might find outside of gaming (ex: someone skilled in carpentry, poetry or pony riding), or a medical/psychological approach (ex: skills related to psychomotricity, like being able to predict the movement of an object to catch it or having quick reflexes).

        In my opinion, in gaming “skill” often mean the ability to successfully overcome the difficulties and challenges related to the interaction with game mechanics.

        These difficulties and challenges can come from:

        (1) The controls.
        a) Physically speaking: gamepad, joystick, keyboard, mouse, microphone (orders through voice recognition), headtracking, etc.
        b) In terms of controls design: the player can only jump after charging-up for 1.2 seconds, the player has a limited stamina, the player can wall-jump but requires precise timing, etc.

        (2) The game mechanics/dynamics themselves:
        (a) The “basic” core ones: the combat requires a dash or a sidestep, one hit, then either shield/dash back/sidestep, rinse and repeat, apply combos when possible/necessary. The levels require using double-jumps or a short-bursts jetpack.
        (b) The more complex ones: the levels/campaigns (when the game is not linear) (= should I go to the Haunted Forest first? Should I do the Yellow Kangaroo mini-quests now?), the upgrades for the characters (should I boost my stamina first? how about dexterity?), the gear (armour, weapons, special items), etc… up to min-maxing and knowing the “meta” (if there’s a comp scene (time trial/high score/records/100%) or a MP feature), the AIs of the NPCs (enemies, bosses, environments).

        What does it mean when it comes to reviewing an indie 2D game featuring combat?

        It’s all about identifying the type of difficulties and challenges the game has to offer, how much of it is by design (= on purpose) or accidental (= didn’t intended it to be a challenge/part of the difficulty)(nb: there’s often a mix of both), and adequately* playing that game to understand what gameplay and challenges it has to offer.

        *By adequately, I mean identifying if the game will shine if the player spends 2 hours learning the controls and game mechanics, or if the game simply failed to craft an engaging gameplay with depth. It’s pretty clear games like Super Meat Boy or Dark Souls will require a lot of learning to simply enjoy the latter levels (or any level, for DS): it is hard, especially for players who haven’t played demanding platformers (or Demon’s Souls) before, but it is rewarding and actually fair. Nearly everyone agreed that SMB (or DS) was a successful title for its own niche audience.

        Example with SMB: from the few levels I played of it, I’m not really the type of people for SMB. I don’t have the necessary “skills” (ability to overcome these challenges) nor the desire to learn them by playing the game in an intensive manner (trial and error, analyzing the timing of each level and my own human reflexes). But I know the game is well crafted and the controls are reliable: I’ve learned a few of these “skills” on the first few levels, and I’ve seen a lot of people learn all these skills, enjoying the whole process.

        The consequence is clear: I’m not the best suited to review the game – or at least not the best suited to review that game for its own niche audience. I might release a review titled “Super Meat Boy, according to an impatient platformer newb”, analyzing how the game felt for me and how it failed to meet my interest – but it will only be interesting as a “meta” analysis of the ‘demanding platformers’ genre: the people in that niche won’t be helped by my review, they won’t know if it’s a good demanding-platformer or a bad one, the only 2 information they’ll get from my review will be:
        – it’s a demanding platformer
        – it’s not El_Emmental’s cup of tea

        However, if I’m tasked with reviewing an online multiplayer FPS with teamwork elements, I do believe I can bring something to the table that would mean something to the audience of that kind of games.

        It’s just normal to be specialized: it’s impossible for someone to be “competent” (here, being able to adequately review a game) in all existing genres of games. That’s just insane: nobody can claim to be proficient in all music genres, or all sports, or all branches of sciences or mathematics.

        Commenting that maybe a more “skilled” player would be better suited for reviewing a game is simply pointing that maybe the reviewer is not specialized in that genre, or not specialized enough, to adequately cover said game. It’s perfectly ok to be a brain surgeon and being suggested that maybe flying a plane is more suited to a pilot, or being a rocket scientist and being asked to let a GP handle the human health part.

        (there’s also something else to be said about trust and the gaming press, but I’ve got to go for the moment, brb)

  6. feverberries says:

    “**** is an attractive but shallow game”

    This only describes every indie game ever. They look pretty, play shitty (gameplay is shallow, not necessarily shitty, but shitty rhymed).

    • Philotic Symmetrist says:

      “every indie game ever”

      …like Dwarf Fortress?

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Most indie games look and play like shit and never get accepted in a store, to be honest. But among the good ones, you’re completely wrong. Take a look at Dominions 4 or the Eador series, and tell me if they are pretty but shallow.

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      MercurialAlchemist says:

      The last indie action game I played was Hotline Miami. I hadn’t heard the combat being described as “shitty” before. Or more recently, Satellite Reign, even in its unfinished state, is not “shitty” or “shallow”.

    • sicbanana says:

      …FEZ?

    • Niko says:

      Bastion and Transistor?

    • SuicideKing says:

      Mark of the Ninja?

    • Chris D says:

      SpaceChem?

    • Napalm Sushi says:

      After allowing for Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is shit), I’d argue that that’s a far more accurate description of the AAA scene.

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      Phasma Felis says:

      “**** is an attractive but shallow game”

      This only describes every indie game ever.

      Funny, I was just thinking it describes your mom.

      If you know what I mean.

      • El_Emmental says:

        What is this, Youtube comments? please, at least find a pun or something :s

    • SD says:

      Eschalon, Books I, II and III??

  7. ansionnach says:

    It even looks floaty and fiddly in the trailers.

    Like the captions for the screenshots (when you mouse over or disable images), especially the Bernini one!

  8. 3Form says:

    Well this is the first game I’ve played where I can stab a Merman with my trident while riding atop a seahorse, several hundred feet beneath the waves – all on the side of an ancient Greek vase. I think it deserves some praise just for the intriguing art to be honest.

    For anyone having trouble with the combat controls – point in a particular direction to stab, or flick your mouse up/down as you click to make the appropriate slashing motion. Once you’ve got the hang of that the combat becomes a lot more intuitive, particularly as you’re not randomly clobbering your weapons on walls and such, destroying them quickly.

  9. frogopus says:

    I completely disagree with this review. As someone always looking for great games to add to my couch gaming PC, (and someone who took so many classical courses he accidentally picked it up as a random minor in his college days), I love this game. The art style is such an obviously good idea that I can’t believe that it hasn’t been done before. The game is designed for a couch setting and as such it should be perfectly forgivable that it is primarily designed for a controller. The combat is fun, physics based, with a little bit of rpg mixed in. Ranged weapons feel great and combat is meant to be challenging. If you’re struggling with the inventory system, only carry a few that you prefer and you can switch out pretty easy. You can also change gear in the pause menu if the action is heavy. Weapons are meant to be disposable, all of them can be thrown for damage, you can attack legs for knock downs, headshots for double damage, and velocity affects damage. Your shield bash feels satisfying. And don’t forget to turn up the difficulty when the game gives you the option. Ignore this review and take a look at all the user reviews on Steam to see what the majority is feeling about this game. Just remember that the combat is as intended by the developer:

    “The fact that you have to adjust your own position in relation to your enemy’s position, the type of weapon youre using, and other environmental factors is what we think makes the combat interesting. It’s not a “click button to sword” type of game. Simply hitting an enemy is a learned skill, and not just a given. The combat is awkward because being good at it takes some time and learning, and practice. We tried to capture some abstract essence of real fighting, which is awkward and clumsy sometimes. Sometimes you miss. Sometimes a strike isn’t at critical as it couldve been if youre opponent wasnt dancing all over the place. It takes some practice to figure out when to strike and where to stand.

    We understand that the combat system isn’t for everyone. Some people want straight forward “if enemy is in front of me, and I attack, I hit enemy” type mechanics that are more common in these sorts of 2D combat games. Some of these reviews reflect that. And some make other valid points with problems in regards to UI or ‘feel’.
    But the problems youve voiced are essentially the combat system working as intended.”