All Your Vase Are Belong To Us: Apotheon

As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

I’m happy to report that Apotheon is not the first game I’ve played to feature art inspired by Ancient Greek vase painting. That honor belongs to ACE Team’s Rock of Ages (for which a sequel was recently announced). But Rock of Ages uses this style as only one of several periods in art history that players smash up with giant rolling boulders. Apotheon, by contrast, goes all in on the Ancient Greek theme, casting players as Nikandreos, a warrior fighting to save his village after it is forsaken by the Gods. Before long he meets Hera, who explains that Zeus is a dirtbag and enlists Nikandreos to raid Mount Olypmus itself to bring Zeus to his knees.

It’s also made by Alientrap Games, the developer responsible for Capsized, which I liked a lot. As such, Apotheon has been on my radar for a while, and I finally got around to playing it.

In fact, Apotheon may be the first platformer I’ve played since the close of my Indie Platformer Marathon. I had not intended to take quite so long of a break from platformers, it just happened that way. Likely due to unplanned and time-consuming forays into Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup.

Anyway! Like Capsized, Apotheon is a platformer with a strong emphasis on combat, but unlike Capsized it takes place in a large persistent world in which challenges can be tackled in any order. This will please many critics of Capsized, who somehow got the impression that it would be about exploring a world in the tradition of the Metroid series, rather than a series of levels resembling combat arenas more than anything else (but don’t hold that against Capsized, it’s fantastic!). Apotheon does not feature quite so much backtracking as the classic Metroid titles, which gated progress via the acquisition of new abilities and equipment. Apotheon allows players to go wherever they wish from the outset, although the unfolding story dictates which options are available at which times. There are optional stashes of equipment, however, that can only be opened after finding the appropriate keys, rewarding players for careful exploration.

My favorite places to explore in Apotheon are the town hubs. While my main objectives tended to lie elsewhere, in primarily hostile environments, the town hubs are friendly, provided Nikandreos doesn’t provoke the guards or break any laws. It seems that while Zeus has abandoned humanity, he has offered sanctuary to all the nymphs, fauns, and other supernatural creatures that once lived on earth. They have flocked to Olympus to wait out the cataclysm unfolding below, and at first no one knows that Nikandreos is not simply another refugee. He’s free to visit the market to buy equipment and training, sneak into homes and storehouses, and find some secondary objectives to pursue. These areas reminded me of towns in the Elder Scrolls series, full of both legal and illegal opportunity. I enjoyed picking locks and sneaking into restricted areas, hiding myself with invisibility potions (which I could craft for myself using ingredients raided from supply caches) and using special “assassin” weaponry to backstab guards when needed.

I also enjoyed just how much inspiration the game takes from Greek mythology. I don’t want to spoil events for prospective players, so I must remain vague and say that each god Nikandreos encounters has their own realm with a distinctive feel that is true to their own myths. Artemis presides over a garden full of wildlife to hunt, Hephaestus labors in a massive mechanical workshop, Ares leads endless battles through a trap-filled combat arena. I’m tempted to list more but do not want to spoil them; suffice it to say that I was genuinely surprised at how well the designers wove mythological themes into the encounters in the game. After playing a few of the earlier sections I thought I had a good idea of the form the rest of the game would take, but was pleasantly surprised to find there’s much more variation than I anticipated. Even minor players in myth, like nymphs and satyrs, appear in appropriate situations, and quotes from Homer and Euripides are scattered around to provide context.

As Nikandreos treks through these realms of myth, he’s never far from a fight. Alientrap Games demonstrated their skill at designing 2D platformer combat with Capsized, but Apotheon’s combat feels very different. In Capsized, the combination of a jetpack and grappling hook for the astronaut protagonist provided excellent mobility, making it easy to fly around packs of enemies and unleash weaponry from the right vantage point. In Apotheon, Nikandreos is not nearly as mobile, and fights against packs of enemies quickly become frantic. There are a lot of subtleties to the combat, but these are not always explained well, making my early attempts at fighting more like desperate flailing in the approximate direction of my opponent. This wasn’t helped by the fact that early in the game Nikandreos is untrained and has subpar weapons, so he attacks very slowly and does little damage. Fights feel like they should be considered and strategic, with Nikandreos carefully positioning himself relative to his opponent and choosing the appropriate weapon for the confrontation, but in practice I rarely had time for such forethought and simply swung wildly.

Later I learned a little more control. Partway through the game I learned that I could pause the game to switch weapons, which is a huge boon given the sheer number of them in the game. Weapons are based on actual ancient Greek armaments, including the doru, xiphos, sarissa, kopis, and others along with the expected javelins and tridents, a slew of different arrows, and a bunch of explosives and traps. All of these are disposable and will eventually break, and most can be thrown in a pinch. I rarely had enough time to scroll through my huge aresenal for the appropriate implement, and often fought sub-optimally until I discovered I could pause to make my selection. I was also able to get training for Nikandreos and improve his equipment, giving him an edge. With a good shield and a favored weapon, Nikandreos was able to hold his own without too much trouble. Even then, however, I never quite learned how to direct specific types of attacks (e.g. thrusts versus swings), although by the end I suspected how it works. If these details were more clearly presented to players, it would help them appreciate the nuances of the battles.

Even so, I found that the frenzied combat fit the game. Nikandreos prepared as best he could, but actual fighting gets fierce and frantic, and he can’t maintain calm control for long. Even skilled strikes may miss — or fail to do as much harm as they could — in the heat of battle. This felt appropriate. The opponents are also pleasingly varied: fast and agile fighters, heavily armored soldiers, flying enemies, and even a particularly harrowing encounter with invisible foes. For the latter, I realized afterwards that a different approach would have been much more successful; further evidence that the large arsenal in the game provides the means to handle any situation with different tactics.

Overall, I enjoyed Apotheon a lot. It’s lengthy, the vase painting style remains beautiful and visually interesting throughout, and the whole tale is steeped in Greek mythology. It has a few weaknesses, including an awkward gating of the story halfway through that didn’t make much sense, and I wondered why the voice cast primarily had some form of British accent rather than, you know, Greek accents. But it’s worth persevering to see just how many interesting encounters unfold before the excellent ending. Apotheon is much more than it first appears, and I’m glad I tagged along for Nikandreos’ adventure. You will be too.

Apotheon is available for Windows, OS X, Linux, and Playstation 4. I got it from GOG but it’s available elsewhere as well.

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