Whatever you want to call it — Scandinavian/Norse/Viking — the treasure trove of mythology, gods and visual motifs from Northern European culture has certainly found its way into just about every genre of video games. The old legends come with a pre-made set of distinctive heroes, cool-sounding heavy metal names and a runic alphabet that looks ancient and alien at the same time. So it isn’t a surprise or stretch to find a game that tosses together a salad of Viking, horror and sci-fi ideas. Apsulov: End of Gods is described by the developers as a first-person “narrative survival horror” game, but it has little to do with the mechanics of recent survival games that depend on crafting and resource collection.
Games that eschew combat in favor of exploration put pressure on mood, atmosphere, story and level design to carry the experience. Further, a horror game also depends on the player identifying with the main character in order to raise the stakes of survival. Absulov begins — if you’re playing the “overused story trope drinking game” now’s your chance — with an amnesiac woman waking up in a massive facility that is one part dystopian cyberpunk factory and two parts Viking temple. Moments later you have escaped the starting area and are making your way through the first of many air ducts, obeying the instructions of an unseen voice. Take a second drink, and a third.
Through the game’s four to six hour running time you will climb through a lot of small spaces and explore numerous hallways and rooms, now and then highlighted by glowing runes or bits of interactive machinery and environmental/mechanical puzzles. For a long time, the story is pretty incomprehensible and it isn’t helped by the game’s writing or the voice acting of variable quality. The sound design — or at least, soundscape — is omnipresent and there is rarely a quiet moment not filled by cajoling voice-overs, the echo of unseen somethings or wailing guitar-techno riffs.
Apsulov is not a walking simulator, because it has action and combat. This isn’t a game with a deep inventory system, skill upgrades or an arsenal of weapons but a few tools that change or add functions over the course of the game. There is player death and very widely spaced save points, resulting in potentially lengthy slogs over previously explored territory, at the very least. Combat isn’t very good and certainly not fun and the enemies — including the game’s final big bad boss — feel unnecessary. Most combat can be avoided and there is no real strategy involved when it does happen.
Horror games — especially those lacking in imagination — traffic in darkness and shadows, and Absulov is often muddy and dark, all the better to hide frequent jump scares. But darkness also obscures less than detailed textures or repetitive area design. It isn’t all bad news, though, and now and then the player is treated to an effective Viking-influenced model, an interesting area or moment of colorful lighting.
As a design doc, a game that combines horror, sci-fi and Norse mythology sounds intriguing but in actually, Apsulov just seems uncertain of its identity. With too much clunky action for a narrative driven walking simulator, and not enough combat to excel as an action game, it’s a lot of bits and pieces that don’t quite connect. The game has some ideas floating around but they’re too often drowned in a sea of over-used cliches, tired gaming tropes and creative cul de sacs that lead nowhere in particular.