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.
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.
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.
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.
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.