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Athenian Rhapsody Review

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If Undertale is clever and brooding, then Athenian Rhapsody is its fun-loving, easily distracted but still clever sibling. We thought we would get the comparison out of the way early, as it is impossible not to talk about Athenian Rhapsody without invoking the U-game. They are blood brothers. Perhaps we’re reaching the point where an Undertale-a-like is a genre now, rather than a simple comparison.

Athenian Rhapsody would be a hard game to describe without that comparison. Take the story, for example. I’m sat here struggling to recall what it is even about. There’s no real connective tissue here: this is mostly an Odyssian romp through a surreal world, with people (and we use the term ‘people’ loosely) grabbing you by the coat and demanding that you get involved in their madnesses. You’re not a personality yourself, but you’re bouncing between the giant, wild personalities of Athenian Rhapsody like a pinball. Alice in Wonderland is the obvious comparison.

Athenian Rhapsody review 1
Athenian Rhapsody – full of madness

It began to get, in all honesty, a little tiring. That’s a taste thing, and we are not sure everyone will have the same response. We desperately wanted an anchor: a white rabbit as a consistent character to pull us through, or an objective that spanned the entire game. We were never short of things to do or people to see, but some sense in the nonsense wouldn’t have gone amiss.

That said, the nonsense can be really rather special. It’s got some fabulous tricks to hand. Athenian Rhapsody is hugely subversive, for one, playing with your genre expectations whenever it can. You might expect combat but it pivots to a quiz, spelling bee or Track & Field button-basher. And the characters are 99% flaws. They all put on a big show but barely hide their insecurities, and it’s fun to watch them bubbling out. 

The world, too, is a parade of colour and left-turns. We got picked up by a UFO-full of dancing cats, only to sabotage and crash it. No one mentions it, not even the main character. It reminded us of the sudden UFO in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the comparison is a suitable one. There’s something very Python and Spike Milligan about the surreal world that’s been created here.

Anyone who has played Undertale will know what you do in this world. You move your character around the pixelated setting, chatting to people (or being chatted at) who will – on occasion – decide that they want to fight you. Except the combat takes two different paths, and it’s your choice which you take. You can fight and perhaps kill your opponent, or you can ‘Make Friends’ with them. Fighting them leads to a golf-swing power bar, where a strong hit deals more damage. And making friends requires you to choose from dialogue options with the frenemy: the more appropriate the choice, the more progress you make on their friend bar.

Athenian Rhapsody tumbles into the same pitfall that Undertale did. Making friends feels like it is the ‘correct’ option. The game side-eyes and criticises you whenever you kill an enemy, and it often feels like there really is one option, not two. The game’s Rhapsody system (more on that later) tries to reassure that they are both viable paths, but the dialogue and story mostly says “nah mate”.

Athenian Rhapsody review 2
Fight? Or make friends?

Whichever option you choose, the result is the same: a combat minigame on a big black square. And if the creativity was off the charts in the game-world, then it’s ludicrous here. Barely any attack is the same, and it moves from game genre to game genre like it was scanning the shelves of Blockbuster. The black square might become a platformer, a game of Space Invaders, or a very Undertale-like game of avoidance, as you dodge all manner of beaks, bullets and bombs. When that black square turns up, there is no guessing what it will contain.

90% of the time, this is undoubtedly a positive. Nico Papalia, the mind behind Athenian Rhapsody, is clearly a sick puppy. Confusing and bewildering the player is clearly his goal, and there’s a real, free-wheeling joy in discovering what inventive combat is coming next. And it all works well: there aren’t many control issues present. Like a game of WarioWare, you have a couple of seconds to work out what’s required from you, and then jump through its demented hoop.

The remaining 10% comes from the confluence with difficulty. Athenian Rhapsody is a hugely unforgiving game. You can be hit multiple times from the same mistake, and suddenly you have half health. Heal, and you will lose most of your progress towards the ‘Make Friends’ objective (was this really necessary?). Die, and you are returned to the last save point, but that save point could be many minutes away, with various cutscenes and unskippable dialogue along the way. We cursed Athenian Rhapsody more than we would have liked.

There is a ‘Chill Mode’ that goes a long way to solving these problems. There’s a small invulnerability period after being hit, meaning that getting thumped is less devastating. But it doesn’t address the save issues, and we couldn’t help thinking that – like the route of violence – Athenian Rhapsody considers you a failure for picking it. Still, it’s there and we’re happy that it is.

Athenian Rhapsody review 3
Or maybe something totally different

If this review has seemed like a rollercoaster of ups and downs, then we end on a big high. The ‘Rhapsody’ of the title isn’t necessarily a Queen reference. It refers to a kind of Gamercard for your playthrough. Here, you store all the choices you chose, the friends you made along the way, and the violence/pacifism dichotomy. It’s a physical representation of your run, and you can share it with others through a fancy friend system, and use it to unlock different routes and experiences on a second playthrough. It’s a brilliant innovation in a game that could be accused of playing it safe with its Undertale comparisons. Eventually it means that, once Athenian Rhapsody is complete, you feel a more substantial urge to play it again.

I’ll admit to being conflicted by Athenian Rhapsody. In the difficulty, the relentless absurdity, and the slightly too great a love for Undertale, it occasionally grated. I’d have to pause for a day or two to let some anger subside and give it another go. In those moments, I’d probably knock a half mark off the score, maybe more.

But that would be ignoring the highs, and Athenian Rhapsody has so very many of them. You can imagine Nico Papalia behind the next bizarre setting, character or event, smiling and waiting for your reaction. Athenian Rhapsody is a twisted game that loves having fun at your expense, but – most of the time – you’re having fun with it.

SUMMARY

Pros:
  • Hilariously written
  • Rhapsody system is fab
  • Combat uses every trick that it can
Cons:
  • Hews slightly too close to Undertale
  • Difficulty can feel unfair
  • Needed more of a narrative North Star
Info:
  • Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, Top Hat Studios
  • Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One, PC, PS4, PS5, Switch
  • Release date and price - 14 May 2024 | £12.49
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<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>Hilariously written</li> <li>Rhapsody system is fab</li> <li>Combat uses every trick that it can</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>Hews slightly too close to Undertale<li> <li>Difficulty can feel unfair</li> <li>Needed more of a narrative North Star</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, Top Hat Studios</li> <li>Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One, PC, PS4, PS5, Switch <li>Release date and price - 14 May 2024 | £12.49</li> </ul>Athenian Rhapsody Review
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