Apotheon is a 2D Metroidvania with a familiar conceit: the gods have turned their backs on humanity, so its up to one man to murder his way through the Greek pantheon, stab Zeus in the eye with something pointy, and take his place as ruler of the heavens.
As was the case in obvious touchstone God of War, Apotheon’s hero doesn’t so much climb Mount Olympus as ascend it on a rising tide of its inhabitants’ blood. As was also the case in David Jaffe’s celebrated epic, surfing said claret is a hell of a lot of fun.
The game’s simple story is bolstered by juicy passages from The Iliad, some inspired voice-acting, and neat characterisations of its deities and mythical creatures. The permanently-erect satyrs and despairing lost souls are particularly amusing and depressing, respectively.
Combat is a simple yet enjoyable affair, the keystones of which are distance, momentum, and timing. The swing of an axe or jab of a pitchfork takes a decent chunk of time in Apotheon, with the exact duration dependent on how cumbersome the weapon is.
On top of that, only the pointy or sharp parts of a weapon will hit an opponent, so attacking close enemies with a spear is a complete waste of time. As such, a dagger is a quick draw and reliable hit but only up close, whereas an axe only splits heads at a middle distance, and each swing must be timed to coincide with the presence of a head therein.
These factors make anticipating enemy movement and controlling the distance crucial, so it’s fortunate that a shield can be used with any one-handed weapon to block incoming blows and, if timed correctly, stagger an opponent. You can also dodge roll, but doing so rapidly depletes your otherwise stoic stamina bar, and besides – no-one likes a show-off.
On top of all that, more damage is inflicted by a weapon that’s swung with some momentum, i.e. in the direction you are travelling. Your top running speed is reached through gradual acceleration and is curbed when running uphill, so for best results you’ll be charging downhill swinging an axe very early to gather flesh as it rises and send bodies rag-dolling out of the screen.
This sort of treatment sees weapons degrade quickly, but all fallen foes relinquish theirs so there’s never any danger of having to spit your way out of trouble.
Inflicting pain from a range greater than melee distance is an equally satisfying option, with various bows, traps, and proto-grenades available to buy or steal. You can even craft various concoctions (and buffs) that summon wolves or warriors to do your dirty work for you – something that comes in handy against the game’s hardier soldiers and larger bosses.
The short version: there are many options when it comes dealing death – right down to setting bear traps or just throwing your sword at dudes – and plenty of opportunities to experiment. Few methods will disappoint.
However, visuals are the real star of Apotheon. Drawn to mimic the starkly bold and deceptively intricate stylings of ancient Greek art, they are a unique point that lend even the most wicked acts of violence a striking elegance. To further sell the effect of ‘game as a moving ink drawing’, everything is presented as if on ancient pottery, glossier parts of the clay background reflecting fuzzy light and betraying small fissures in the ceramic.
Wind is a visible element, characters’ limbs move in the freewheeling marionette fashion suggested by the awkward poses of those early works of art, and the world is a bright orange, temperate green, or harsh red depending on location. It’s uniformly beautiful, and thanks to a playful tone and a great soundtrack, has atmosphere to burn.
It’s too bad, then, that the PlayStation 4 build of the game is so unstable. Any death during one passage of play – wherein the player must escape a growing lake of fire in Hades – completely crashes the game, and similar software rage-quits that crop up at random (but perhaps only every hour or so) are a black smudge on an otherwise flawless vase.
It’s also a shame given the strength of the voice cast that the main character does not speak, but along with a slightly cumbersome inventory navigation system this is a minor quibble rather than a full-blooded complaint.
In all other respects, Apotheon brawls far above its station and meagre price tag (and in fact, it’s free on PlayStation Plus this month). It doesn’t reinvent the Metroidvania genre, but it does nicely update it with a slew of well-considered systems and great boss battles, and it does so with a large measure of flair, tongue firmly in cheek.