The level of critical acclaim for what in my eyes is one of the worst games of 2015 so far is puzzling me like nothing in even The Talos Principle ever did. Apotheon is receiving virtually no serious negative press – Steam reviews are at 96% positive, it’s receiving ratings upwards of 7 across the board, and hell, Destructoid has declared it “apotheonestly great”.
Are they being hypnotized by some kind of swinging pendulum hidden in the game’s stylish pottery art design that only affects professional journalists? They must be, just as they are every time an indie with spunk comes bounding down the aisles of the digital store, and explodes all over every shelf in the vicinity.
This game is a hot fucking mess. A sometimes fine, sometimes knee-deep layer of baffling design and broken interactivity has seeped all the way through to the bottom of Apotheon. Next to no facets of the game are spared from the onslaught of unpolished gameplay.
Apotheon is an action platformer with a few RPG tropes sprinkled in for good measure. There’s exploration, fleshed out combat mechanics, crafting, and item drops – it’s the all-in-one package.
All of this is done in the name of saving the world from Zeus, who has decided to… end the world. Zeus’ wife Hera takes pity on the player character Nikandreos after an attack on his hometown and sends him on a mission to enter Olympus and kill some gods. Each god has a special area dedicated to it such as Artemis’ Forest of Artemis, populated by wild animals, nymphs, and centaur hunters. These are all connected by the game’s hub, the Agora, a market complete with shops and gods wandering around and babbling to themselves.
This all sounds well and good in theory, if a bit run of the mill, but Apotheon finds a way to botch it. Several ways, in fact. Apotheon, next to Tetris Ultimate, is one of the select few games I’ve ever played that feels like next to no one played it before it came out.
Apotheon contains some of the worst platformer movement and combat I’ve ever had the displeasure of handling. Movement is floaty and frequently impeded. Angled surfaces have a 60% chance to reset your speed, forcing you to accelerate all the way to running all over again. The joysticks are ultrasensitive to movement, so fine platforming and especially movement during combat is next to impossible to have any control over because the game is accepting the slightest movements of the sticks. I tested it by slowly moving the stick, and before I could even feel a movement, Apotheon was off to the races.
A reticule can be positioned in 360 degrees around you to aim melee weapons, throwing weapons and arrows, craftable items and shields. At first the combat is a hectic mess. It eventually becomes doable, but situations with several enemies at once (especially if some of them are archers) remain stab-and-pray throughout.
All weapons and shields, even those of the enemy, are subject to wear and tear and eventual destruction. At first this sounds like a neat concept, especially considering that some weapons do more damage to shields, seemingly making room for some tactics on your part. However, it quickly becomes apparent that management of any kind, and especially the micromanagement required to do the kind of weapon-switching the game wants you to, is impossible. Weapons are selected with the D-pad, which you can probably already tell is going to be an issue when you’re controlling your character through already frantic combat with the left stick.
Once I realized that I was never going to be able to pay attention to things like this I quit paying attention entirely to which weapons I was using, turning combat into a chaotic, inventory-clearing battle of whatever-the-fuck-weapon-is-automatically-selected-next. The cherry on top is that weapon stats are not even displayed on the quick-selection menu, so what weapon you’re using is largely meaningless to you anyway unless you’ve memorized their damage ratings.
All of these combat quibbles add up to an especial feeling of relief after every encounter, and not in a good way. It’s not the sort of relief I feel after beating a boss in Dark Souls, the feeling of “Man, I’m so glad I accomplished that,” it’s more along the lines of “Fuck, I’m so glad I don’t ever have to do that again in my life.” I’d be glad to fight the Gaping Demon or whoever again for the rush, but the challenges I have to regularly surmount just to make menial progress in Apotheon are not ones I’d ever like to come back to.
Unfortunately for Apotheon, its problems don’t stop at mere gameplay. Art style aside, its presentation is also totally bunk. Text is extremely small, as if someone DarNified the UI without realizing it’s on a console, and hard to read font-wise. The interface is clunkily designed, feeling like it was made for a Flash game. You can press the touch pad to bring up a Diablo-style overlay map, but it’s virtually useless for anything but a quick reference to something nearby. The next local map is in the Start menu and four buttons down, which very quickly becomes extremely annoying to navigate to. Also on the Start Menu is for whatever reason a Last Save button, directly below the Save Game button, which as you can probably already tell leads to a lot of fucking bullshit happening.
The art department is the only place where Apotheon unwaveringly shines. Its art design is beautiful and Greek pottery art turned into a game isn’t something I’ve seen before to this extent. Despite some minor situations where enemies are kind of hard to see in all the thick black foliage, the game is a pleasure to look at. Color palette changes are especially striking.
Music and atmosphere are all surprisingly top notch. Hades’ area is especially intimidating, its combination of moans from the damned, creepy soundscapes, self-resurrecting enemies and low lighting coming together perfectly to create a singularly haunting place.
One really terrible thing about the game’s fidelity, however, is its absurdly low frame rate. Usually in big combat, the game will slow to a crawl. I’m not sure if this is a conscious design choice, but I’m going to give the game the benefit of the doubt and say that it’s awful optimization. Frame drops are frequent, lengthy, and very annoying as the game is already incredibly floaty.
Apotheon is really just a shame. Its outstanding art direction is wasted on a completely broken game, whose nearly every system is fundamentally flawed in some way. Suffice it to say that Apotheon is impressively high quality art-wise, and impressively low-quality mechanics-wise.
Apotheon can be purchased on Steam and the PlayStation 4’s digital store.