The idea of an indie recreation of one your favorite AAA games may sound enticing, but be warned, the end product may not impress.
Apotheon (2015) is a 2D action platformer by developer Alientrap. In its narrative, it steals from the stories of God of War 1, 2 and 3. It is the story of a mortal, his faith in the gods lost, now on a quest of revenge and bloodshed. After the protagonist’s village is desolated by raiders, he is sent by Zeus’ wife Hera, to invade Olympus and slaughter his deities. However in presentation the game is inherently indie. Apotheon is 2D instead of 3D, combat is simple (strike with your weapon, block with your shield), animations are minimalistic, and the art style resembles an ancient Greek mural, as opposed to the the more realistic visuals of God of War.
At its core Apotheon is the unofficial indie version of God of War. Yet (in my opinion) God of War is fantastic and Apotheon well… isn’t.
Apotheon Struggles Because of its Complexity
Apotheon loses a lot of what makes God of War special, in the process of recreating it in 2D. The bloody spectacle of executing enemies, the gargantuan size of foes and the varied mythical weapons, all of which helped make a name for the series, are nowhere to be found. Apotheon tries to compensate for these losses by adding in large amounts of complexity. There are various weapons to discover and utilize, crafting ingredients to scavenge and multiple objectives to prioritize… and that’s just the first 20 minutes.
Apotheon doesn’t want to just be a simple platformer or hack n’ slash game. It also wants to be an RPG, metroidvania with thoughtful combat. Complexity might sound like a good thing, but it often isn’t. As the ever helpful series Extra Credits breaks down, you actually want as much depth as possible, with as little complexity. They might sound similar but depth and complexity are very different things. Depth is the idea of offering a limited amount of systems with a multitude of uses. So a game with a lot of depth, helps the player understand a couple of systems, but then gives them the opportunity to make countless meaningful choices. Just think about all the effects and uses of fire in Breath of the Wild.
Complexity on the other hand, is just adding in more and more systems. So an overly complex game bombards you with so many things to do and learn, that as a player you feel overwhelmed. That’s what happened to me in Apotheon. Within the tutorial level, I had to learn about combat systems, crafting systems and resource management. The tutorials were fleeting and because there was so much to digest, I found the game hard to enjoy. Pushing R1 allows me to use my throwing weapon, but now my melee weapon has changed as an effect, and the effectiveness of this weapon is significantly worse in close range combat. I try to change my weapon back, but the user interface is so small and cluttered, it’s hard to scroll through all my weapons and find the one I was using before. It also doesn’t help that the game doesn’t pause while I’m trying to work this out. As I progress I continuously receive prompts to pick up new weapons, but when I walk over them all I get is a name. There aren’t any stats or indications whether the item is better or worse than the one I currently have. It’s only mid boss fight when my shield breaks that I realize weapons have a limited durability, so maybe I should have picked up that other shield earlier. The confusing nature of Apotheon’s systems, right out the gate, is a core contrast to God of War’s. It is simple to jump into God of War, enjoy the spectacle, and then slowly have more complex combos and abilities added over time.
In its attempt to add depth Apotheon assaults the player with a complex amount of systems, which often add very little to the experience, yet fail to inform the player of crucial information. Perhaps the game grows in depth as it progresses and truly engages the player with something unique, but I’ve already put down the controller.
This isn’t to say Apotheon couldn’t have been a great indie adaptation of God of War. The opportunity does exist. Jotun is a great indie adaptation of Shadow of the Colossus and I actually preferred Killing Floor 2 more than the AAA Call of Duty zombie’s mode that inspired it. Perhaps you disagree. Some players enjoy an expansive listing of systems to master right out the gate, just look at the success of Monster Hunter: World. Yet simplicity and accessibility are at the core of what God of War is, and at the core of many of the worlds best games.
The key to creating an interesting game of any kind, is simplicity. Go is a board game that originated in China over 2500 years ago and is still played to this day. The premise of Go is simple. Each player places a black or white stone onto the board. The stones can’t be moved and don’t possess any unique qualities. The game is played by each player trying to surround their opponent’s pieces with their own, fighting to secure a 50% or more dominance on the board. The rules are simple, but there are literally countless possibilities of how a player might tackle each individual game, so that no game is ever the same. No doubt this has led to Go’s continued relevance thousands of years after inception and appeal to high level mathematicians, computer programmers and chess prodigies.
This idea of depth built from simplicity has amounted in a growing interest in emergent gameplay within the games industry. Canvas Network articulately breaks down how emergent gameplay arises,
“Generally, you get emergence by having lots of small, simple, interconnected systems. If the player is able to figure out these systems and use them to form complicated chains of events intentionally, that is one way to have a higher degree of player intention.”
High levels of emergent gameplay can be found in the likes of Breath of the Wild, Prey and Metal Gear Solid 5. Emergence is something both intrinsically exciting for the game developer and the player. As a programmer implementing emergent gameplay means less lines of code, but still plenty of options for the player. For the player, look to Injustice 2 as an example. As a novice you might find that fighting games are hard to master, so you slam on all the buttons randomly and frantically. You might have only learned how to perform basic moves, but somehow through this method you’ve pulled off a far more complex combo by accident. Skilled players layer combos on top of one another, to create a far more advanced attack that the designers hadn’t even considered. Emergent gameplay rewards player experimentation and ingenuity.
The point of all this is to say that God of War could be translated into a great 2D indie game, but Apotheon isn’t it. God of War at its core succeeds because it is easy to reach moments of grand spectacle, it isn’t just about killing Greek gods. By making their game too complex, to make up for a lack of unique systems, Alientrap failed to make something even remotely engaging. If you’re following my weekly game development series and are hoping to recreate one of your favorite games, be aware of what we’ve discussed. More is less, and one mechanic, implemented correctly, can lead to an infinite amount of options.