Review: Apsulov: End of Gods
Review copy provided by developer
If you spend any time in the indie horror pits, you’re going to find yourself in more haunted houses and asylums than you can count. Creativity is often in short supply when crafting frightful experiences, so those efforts to break out of the same spooky molds should be celebrated. But that’s not the only reason Apsulov: End of Gods deserves high praise, I assure you. On top of having a wholly unique and well-realized setting, this one also tackles some of the toughest challenges of the first-person horror genre, including interaction and engaging exploration. It does so much so well that I’d easily call this one of the top horror experiences of the year.
You awaken, as so many horror protagonists do, atop a bloodied operating table. But this is no normal surgical theater, not with the knot of robotic arms and ring of ominous stone heads looming above you. You’re trapped in some sort of high-tech facility steeped heavily in Norse mythology, and the connections between the two are about to become painfully clear. Something terrible happened in this place and you’re at the center of it, both literally and figuratively. If you survive long enough to meet the major players behind this tragedy, you’re bound to learn plenty about the true shape of the world, and how much power you happen to have over it.
I’m being careful to avoid story specifics here because there are some truly great revelations to be had as you uncover what all went down at this facility. The backdrop of Norse mythology is a rare one in the horror genre, but it opens up the world to some absolutely fascinating cosmology and some downright terrifying creatures. Adding a layer of science fiction on top of that makes Apsulov one of the most unique horror games you’ll ever play, as all those elements of myth get categorized and grounded in your world as very real, very terrible presences. There’s a great deal of storytelling here, both direct through logs and environmental through labs and setpieces, and it fleshes out the world in ways few games ever manage.
The story itself is one hell of a ride, taking some surprising directions as you wind towards the final conflict. You’re hardly alone in the facility, and the figures you meet are hardly what I’d call trustworthy. They’ll also reveal some tantalizing glimpses of the stakes you’re dealing with, which is a welcome expansion of scope on top of the wild and terrifying places you’ll visit in your journey. The techno-mysticism also ends up translating into actual game mechanics, as you’ll get a particularly badass tool to use in dealing with the facility and its dark denizens. I consider this one of Apsulov’s biggest strengths, that it’s not content to keep you in the shadows, skulking around foes and hunting for keys. There is some of that, sure, but with the way they’re designed here you have far more options than just a linear path past enemy A to keycard B.
It’s these designs that help Apsulov keep the player engaged more than most indie horror titles, and help it stick with them long after the game is over. Keys, for example, can be found out of order with a little exploration to offer you access to new areas sooner. Some locked doors can also be opened without keys if you have the right resources, if you’re less inclined to go pecking around. Most importantly, there are upgrades and collectibles to find off the beaten path that give you a very compelling reason not to just bee-line from objective to objective. And if that’s not enough, one of your tools is specifically designed to help you locate points of interest and plan your approaches through difficult areas.
Thinking back, though, I’m not sure I’d really call any of the areas difficult. I played on the middle difficulty level, which had a fair number of creepy and threatening creatures wandering about for me to deal with. But the stealth in the game is very effective, and that tool I mentioned aids greatly with visibility and tracking enemies. It’s almost too effective, because the developers decided to add plenty of low or no-light areas to compensate for it. Again, you have what you need to get through it, but completely pitch-black areas probably should be used more sparingly than this. There are also a few areas near the end where the foes get dense enough, and your interactions with them frequent enough, to become a little grating. Not long areas, but they are there.
What makes up for all of this, though, is the absolutely incredible atmosphere. Just as they did in their previous game, Unforgiving, these developers have mastered the art of making the player feel vulnerable. Right from the very start, you will never know if you are completely safe in a room, hall, or vent. There will always be strange sounds in the background, flitting shadows, and ominous footsteps to stress about. And the moment you think you’ve found a safe spot, the game is liable to correct you. Even the scripted moments come when you least expect them, and carry all the menace of the emergent threats you’ll encounter. There’s only one spot late in the game where I felt the encounter design missed a trick, but other than that brief disappointment, I was on edge the entire way through.
Completing Apsulov should take you right around 6 hours, and every moment is sure to be spent exploring, marveling, or panicking. This is a fantastic second effort from a studio who already made a solid impression with their first game, and the lessons learned here have produced one of the finest folk horror games around. Just the creativity on display, merging Norse myth with far-flung technology is worth the price of admission, to say nothing of the expert atmosphere and gratifying game mechanics. It’s not often I get to gush this much about a horror game, but Apsulov: End of Gods checks about every box on my list for a top-tier experience.