Apotheon: First Look

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At first glance, the graphics on Apotheon – Alientrap Games’ new action-platformer – look awfully simple. The game is gorgeous, but how complicated could putting together its stick figure–like characters and limited color palette really be?

According to Jesse McGibney, the game’s artist and co-designer, the end result might look straightforward, but getting there took a lot of work. On paper, Apotheon sounds a lot like God of War: it’s the story of a Greek soldier who escapes Hades and hunts down the gods of Olympus. But unlike Sony’s macho gore-fest, don’t expect horrifyingly rendered monsters or hulking behemoths bulging with photorealistic muscles. To capture Apotheon’s ancient setting, McGibney drew on the black-figure art style found on ancient Greek pottery, and the result is stunning. With jagged lines and black silhouettes, Apotheon evokes more than it actually depicts. There’s never been a game that looks quite like it.

There’s a reason for that. McGibney says that adapting a specific art style to modern gameplay takes a lot of work, and there’s a delicate balancing act that happens when mimicking the source material while making concessions for gameplay. For example, most black-figure art only contains two colors, black and red. This makes sense historically, but it results in a pretty boring-looking game. In order to mix things up, McGibney gave each type of object its own color scheme: Apotheon‘s main character is green, while his enemies are red, money is yellow, and so on. The game’s overall palette is still limited, but the additional colors give the visuals a vibrancy the original pottery lacks.

Environments presented another challenge. Black-figure pottery rarely contains backgrounds or non-human figures, and McGibney had to create environmental objects from scratch. As a result, he spent a long time studying antiquities, and identified common patterns and geographic shapes that he could borrow while building trees, furniture, and buildings. The result is an aesthetic that suggests antiquities, but would never be mistaken for one of them. The world of Apotheon is simply too full of detail.

Of course, there are benefits to patterning a game after classic art, too, and in this case, the black-figure art made character animation a lot easier. Characters in ancient Greek pottery are drawn almost exclusively in profile (McGibney often jokes, “No one had really figured out that whole perspective thing yet”), and Apotheon’s animations reflect that. Characters run, fight, and jump sideways. The characters were created with an open-source skeletal animation system that constructs figures like paper dolls, and they move with a stiffness that seems perfectly suited to their ceramic roots.

Apotheon is Alientrap’s second game. The studio was founded by McGibney and Apotheon‘s lead programmer, Lee Vermuelen, when the two teamed to create a version of Capsized, a 2D run-and-gun game, for their final undergraduate project. After college, the duo continued working on Capsized, eventually releasing a final version in 2009. Like Capsized, most of the work on Apotheon has been done by this two-person team. McGibney makes all of the art, while Vermuelen handles the bulk of the programming.

Apotheon‘s visual style might be the game’s most striking feature, but the gameplay is no slouch either. The bloody, visceral combat demands players pay close attention to their timing and positioning; no button-mashing here. Apotheon also places a large emphasis on exploration and gear upgrades, à la Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Different locations contain different activities: in the forest, players can hunt wildlife, while in town they can haggle with merchants and loot residents’ homes.

Like the graphics, Apotheon‘s boss battles draw directly from ancient Greece’s rich traditions. Dionysus, the god of wine, challenges players to a drinking contest, while Athena presents “riddles” in the form of platforming challenges filled with traps. A fight with Artemis (briefly glimpsed in the game’s trailer) transforms Apotheon’s hero into a deer, who must escape from the bow-wielding goddess of the hunt.

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