There is a good game here, but it’s buried beneath the sand!
Gosh, it’s really hard not to like what Atlas Fallen is trying to achieve. The game is like the plucky underdog who is punching way above his weight that you want to support to pull off the surprise victory. It’s just a shame then that, when all is said and done, Atlas Fallen falls on its own sword under the weight of its own ambition and design flaws.
The initial moments of the prologue had me gripped and in awe of the unique settings, combat mechanics, and interesting scenario. Suddenly, all of that is ripped away from you (in a perfectly reasonable narrative sense) to start as the lowest of the low as a random “unnamed” in a slave train in the middle of a desert. Whilst trying to perform a task for the tyrant of this camp, you stumble across a lost artifact, which turns out to be a gauntlet. This gauntlet can speak to you and starts to bestow powers upon you to help you perform tasks and grants you the ability to shape sands into weapons. This is a similar setup as the flawed game Forspoken, but thankfully, the voices from this gauntlet and you as the main character are nowhere near as annoying. No, this time you and the talking enchanted forearm attachment are just dull as dishwater!
The gauntlet and the god within show you how to upgrade the gauntlet for bigger and better abilities, as well as show you his avatar, a Navi-like form to converse more with at locations you can raise from the sands called Anvils. Think of these Anvils as save points in this open world. With nothing to lose and wanting to free your friends from the slave train, you set off to increase the powers of the gauntlet. However, by doing so, you start to draw the attention of the wicked Witch Queen God overlooking the land.
Visually, and from an artwork perspective, the game hooks you in from the very first moments. Striking new settings with great detail, especially the realistic rendering of the brickwork of the old crumbling castles, buried beneath the encroaching sands wow the player from the get-go. Can you really explore everywhere the eye can see? The game is most certainly a looker when it comes to the vistas.
It’s just a shame there wasn’t much, if any, variety to them. Conversations and details up close highlight that if you look too closely, things can start to look a little rough and undefined. Character models and cutscenes particularly look average at best, which does draw you back out of the experience.
The worst aspect of the game would be the incredibly boring story, narrative, and woeful voice acting. It’s hard to know if the voice actors sounded bored because they had very little in the way of an interesting script to read, or that they sounded bored because they just weren’t very well directed. Either way, there is a very noticeable lack of enthusiasm in any of the spoken dialogue to interest the player in what they’re doing or why they need to do it. Everything about the delivery of the story feels very B-movie. At least the characters weren’t foul-mouthed and annoying (looking at you again, Forspoken), so there is that at least.
As you set off on your journey, you are soon introduced to what the game is hoping will be the most exciting part of the entire experience: the combat. Combat can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game and most certainly has its exciting moments.
You start with a whip and hammer-type weapons that can be easily assigned to the two attack buttons of your choice. The whip is good for ranged and crowd-control battles but doesn’t carry much in the way of damage. The hammer is used for shorter, up close and personal moments and deals heavy, more deliberate blows. As you progress, more weapons become available, and it was fun experimenting with what is your preference.
The other aspect of combat is the Momentum Gauge. This gauge is one of the aspects quite crucial to the RPG side of the game. During combat, the more you hit enemies, the more the blue gauge fills up along the bottom. What happens then is any buffs you put in this gauge can be activated and the more powerful your hits can become. This comes at a cost, however, as you are then open to more damage yourself. It’s a risk-reward system. This actually works well and at times can turn the fight in your favor, but ultimately, I felt it was flawed as it only gears the player toward one type of style of play, that of being very aggressive. The gauge is generous in that it doesn’t cool down for a long time, so players don’t have to throw themselves into the fight and mash like crazy, but getting hit, even from a weaker minion, cancels the gauge and will take away a lot of health.
This then leads to my next issue in that the combat was only really fun and exciting and worked as I think it was intended with the big one-on-one boss fights. It’s strange, but when you look at videos of trailers of the game, most of the time the combat highlights these one-on-one battles. They don’t show the times there are minions to fight, as well as bosses at the same time. These minions really hindered the gameplay as they can jump at you from off the screen to hit, unbalance, and interrupt your wind-up. There are tiny way markers to show where the threats are coming from off-screen that even change color so you can prepare to parry or dodge. But these markers are so small that it’s easy to miss them amongst the flurry of effects, body parts, and other visuals blocking your view so as to not see them.
Seeing how the game encourages you to play aggressively, it’s far too easy to get embroiled in the middle of a fight not really knowing where your targets are, which then leads you to the parry mechanic. Parry at the right time and it will slow the large enemies or indeed freeze small ones. Once they are in this state, it’s easier to then get some hits in.
Some enemy types are harder to parry than others, for example, flying enemies. It was with these that I had the most trouble. You can string combos together and zip from one target to the next all in the air, but there then came yet another issue.
I played the game on normal difficulty and came across a fight (intended or not) that proved too difficult that I turned the difficulty down to easy. The only reason this fight was difficult was because the boss was a tremendous health sponge rather than difficult to hit. This feeling of everything being a bit spongey (even some minions) persisted the further I got until I clicked that this game is also a co-op experience. It really feels that the balancing of the combat difficulty is geared towards a co-op experience rather than a single-player one. I have a lot of experience with hack-and-slash games and have recently platinumed God of War: Ragnarok, which is no mean feat. Despite all my experience as a solo gamer, I have to be honest that I have been struggling with Atlas Fallen. Gearing the game’s combat to two players is not necessarily a bad thing as for two this will feel just right, but for one, the scales are tipped too far in the game’s favor.
When it does all come together in a fight, and you have built the Momentum Gauge all the way up to unleash a power “shatter” move in a very cinematic, God of War-esque way, the gauntlet then unleashed a powerful move that delivered huge and satisfying damage to any and all in its way. This was the addicting highlight of combat, and despite the issues the mechanics have, getting to this stage of any fight was, for the most part, worth the agony of getting there.
The game also has some very interesting RPG mechanics. The gauntlet, as mentioned, can be upgraded to have buffs to use when the Momentum Gauge is being filled. These buffs range from such things as extra shatter damage, a health kick, or new moves.
At first, there becomes a dizzying array of options to plug in, but it soon becomes apparent why that is, and that is because you can then unlock one of a few presets. This means you could have a preset loadout simply for damage, health, or a mix of your choice. This choice is one of the few excellent and well-thought areas the game does have, but it doesn’t end there with the customization.
Essence stones, collectibles, and items such as flora and fauna, can all be used to upgrade your loadouts even further still. It could be argued that this part of the game is one of the most important. Get your loadout right for your playstyle and fights do become a little easier, so it’s important to spend time figuring out what you want.
The last aspect of gameplay is traversal and platforming. I’m not going to lie, the most self-indulgent part of the game I enjoyed the most was sand surfing. Anyone who has played the PlayStation game Journey will remember the iconic scene of surfing down through dunes and structures to the background of some epic music. This is the basic way of moving around in Atlas Fallen, and it was glorious. Surfing around for the fun of it was great, but it did mean you could miss nearby items and collectibles very easily.
The platforming of the game was a little inconsistent in that the puzzles to reach areas to find things were actually good fun. But getting stuck on tiny parts of the scenery no bigger than a rock the size of a shoe that could interrupt your speed needed for a long jump or sand surfing moment became annoying.
Finally, the audio and presentation of the game were excellent. I got distinct Horizon Zero Dawn/Forbidden West vibes in the style of the text and menu systems. The sheer scale of the game’s vistas drawing the player to explore the distant lands, again, made me think I was playing as Aloy and not one of the “unnamed” slaves in Atlas Fallen. The audio was also very good, especially the hefty whack, thump, and crumbing scatter of small rocks when landing hits or raising masonry from the ground.
So close yet so far. I felt at complete odds with Atlas Fallen the more I played it. Every mechanic, design choice, or system felt the wrong side of the way I would have preferred. I would have liked to have taken my time in combat, but I couldn’t. I wanted to get stuck into the story, but with the boring narrative and sub-par voice acting, the more I played, the more I wanted to stop.
The combat system does work and is arguably the best part of the game if you are playing in co-op, but it’s not so great in a solo experience. It is a beautiful game that has a lot of ugly moments. It has a lot of things you would want but then plenty you don’t need. It is at times satisfyingly fun but then in the next moment frustrating.
If the game sorted all these self-inflicted balancing issues, its inconsistencies, its narrative, all things that could have so easily been done from the start, then we would have been talking about a must-play, fantastic new IP. As it is though, instead of a surprise 2023 hit, we’ve got a game that is going to be forgotten about as an unpolished, frustrating, and slightly boring “what could have been” experience. Close but no cigar!
Developer: Deck 13
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Platforms: PS5/Xbox X/S Steam
Release Date: 9th August 2023