Nothing will fool the city’s security guards quite like dressing as a common worker. Not even the fact you are openly wearing a much-fabled gauntlet that wields the power of the gods, a mythical relic that most of Atlas Fallen’s NPCs comment on with some fervour. It’s a conspicuous accessory that’s mighty enough to give Thanos an inferiority complex, but your oppressors won’t spot it as long as you’ve changed into the brown and grey rags you started the game with.
It’s a funny oversight that is symptomatic of Deck13’s open-world action RPG. This is a game with an intriguing story and a fresh take on world traversal and combat. It’s also a game that often doesn’t respect the players’ time, especially in the latter half of the campaign, which flips an initially fun sweep across desert canyons into a slog through thick sludge.
Atlas Fallen starts promisingly. Without spoiling too much, an attack on your caravan leads to your minimally customised character answering the gauntlet’s yearning to be found in the sand. Doing so unleashes the spirit of ancient god Nyaal, who used to rule alongside partner Thelos, before being imprisoned when war waged and the latter spotted their chance to grasp power for themselves.
Thelos’ rule turned the world to ruin. Buildings crumbled and desolation swept across the planes thanks to their constant quest to mine precious essence stones. Thelos’ wraiths stomp across the valleys and roam the sky as enslaved humans chip away at the barren landscape under the sovereignty of a Queen who shows little desire to protect her people. Your gauntlet, combined with Atlas’ wasteland, are the game’s two most important components.
The character creator is basic, but gets the job done.
Harnessing the glove’s power allows you to glide along the sand at rapid pace, turning the thousands of metres of nothingness into easily traversable slopes to cut through. You’ll unlock the ability to double jump and dash three times, enabling you to close gaps at a decent lick for the most part. While moving around each hub is fun in the beginning, it becomes increasingly frustrating the more it’s forced into mission design as a core method of progress.
This is most apparent when collecting shards to upgrade the gauntlet’s powers, a reappearing task in the main storyline. Each new ability requires three shards, most of which are plonked at opposite ends of the game’s various strongholds, cities and miles of dust. Unearthing these stones is repetitive and boring, a snapshot of arguably the game’s greatest problem; despite handing you creative tools, actually using them is often a sterile experience.
One great example is the need to light up multiple totems within a time limit to reveal a shard. These totems are far apart, may be separated by hulking enemies and often reside at the top of difficult to climb towers. Even in the easier early stages, the tests of speed and precision are not journeys you want to do more than once. They get steadily worse as the game progresses and routes become more complex. Imagine lighting four totems and one misstep sees you fail to get the fifth. Not only have you got to start again, but you now have to travel all the way back for the privilege.
Part of the issue descends from it being difficult to tell exactly what can and can’t be easily climbed on. Your array of movement options open up great verticality and opportunities to explore, but they also highlight a certain jankiness around a lot of rocks and hard to reach places.
Quite often it’ll be obvious where the end goal resides, but it’s taxing to work out which ledges you can grab and which your character will fail to grasp. Again, finding hidden nooks and obscured chests between missions is satisfying, but when you must get to a specific spot and the route there doesn’t seem completely fair, that enjoyment wanes.
Some locations look great if you stop and take it all in.
To Deck13’s credit, they encourage players to explore their options and test things out. Time spent sliding and leaping across Atlas is broken up by combat encounters that allow you to utilise a selection of powers derived from essence stones. These steadily become available as you build your momentum gauge during each fight, with increasingly powerful abilities at your disposal the more successive hits and parries you execute.
Momentum gives your attacks greater damage, but also makes you susceptible to being hit harder. It’s a trade-off that I never really felt too much, with the best way forward nearly always amounting to being incredibly aggressive in order to initiate the active and passive abilities on offer.
These vary greatly and completely alter the way in which you should approach combat. Aggressive players will enjoy summoning giant hammers to stop their foes’ attack, or conjuring up tornadoes that hit them multiple times, slowing their steps in the process. Defensive players will feel safe with invincibility orbs that negate one hit, or quicker replenishes of health.
There’s many combinations to play around with, both in solo and co-op, the latter of which I was unable to test ahead of release. While satisfying to stumble upon an arsenal that works for your playstyle – I was particularly fond of launching a giant orb while passively softening enemies up with intermittent prods of fire – the game’s insane difficulty spikes mean there are definitely routes to success that are more effective than others.
Around midway through the game there is a boss that will stop players from ever loading the game up again if it isn’t addressed (the developers have suggested a patch will sort it). Even on easy, the cacophony of attacks on your position at all times makes it a struggle. An impenetrable crab-like boss swings its claws, while tornadoes sweep towards you, and armoured enemies sit back, launching projectiles that can’t be seen in the swirl of sand.
Meanwhile, flying enemies that were definitely robbed from a certain Returnal biome fire beams and dive bomb before exploding. Add in another bull-like foe that is ready to charge and a camera that can’t keep up. It becomes a mess. Nearly every boss follows the same pattern, too: a giant thing that can’t be hit until you’ve taken out the smaller things. Over and over again. One took me nearly 20 waves of smashing small things on easy difficulty. While the devs can sort the unfairness somewhat, the reality is it’s not going to make these encounters more fun.
The Sunken Place…not a fun section…
The combat isn’t without its moments of inspiration, though. There’s a good sense of power when it clicks and you create a combination that works well in tandem. Parrying is satisfying because it crystallises the enemy, bringing them to a halt and giving you a free shot at building that momentum metre until you can unleash an even bigger shatter attack. It can be difficult to know if your fiercest moves actually land sometimes, but the action is exciting when its hectic nature is kept fair.
It’s perhaps a theme of this review that Atlas Fallen frustrates and works in equal measure. Nearly every feature or design choice feels obviously inspired by greater games. You’ll glide like Journey, sometimes even SSX, and the heft of your weapons will scythe through enemies with the bulk of Darksiders. The parry system is lifted from Mortal Shell’s skin hardening, with an element of Bloodborne’s aggression thrown in on the counter. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a game I enjoyed more than most, came into my mind on multiple occasions.
Atlas Fallen doesn’t have the 2012 release’s character, but there’s definitely something slightly charming about a game that dives fully into the kind of fantasy dialogue you’d hear in a LARP session.
For every endearing moment there’s a point of contention, though. The campaign completely loses itself near the end, with alienating moments of exposition that make you feel like you’ve been collecting daisies while huge world events take place without you, despite it initially feeling like you were doing the groundwork for a major set piece. All those miles traversed, rocks fallen off, painful climbs made and you’re rewarded with, ‘Oh that thing you were looking forward to? It’s done mate.’
Atlas Fallen is perhaps best summed up by one of the later powers you add to the gauntlet. You are given the ability to raise ancient structures, the capacity to uncover a lost world, its towering buildings and long forgotten relics. You spend the next few minutes pulling empty boxes and planks of wood out of the sand. Want to raise all of the history from the mythical siege of the gods that lies beneath your feet? We’re going to go metal detecting for pennies down the local field instead.
ATLAS FALLEN VERDICT
Such letdowns underpin a game that I initially really liked and quickly grew weary of. There’s fun to be had, and co-op may open up the enjoyment even more. But heed the warning; most of Atlas Fallen’s positives are tapered by the sense it hates its players and isn’t willing to give back on the effort put in.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Moving through the world at pace, when there’s no pressure on, is really satisfying.
Movement along the sand is great
Story is initially intriguing
Combat is fun when it comes together
Lots of poor mission design
Climbing is hit and miss
Combat can be overwhelming and way too difficult
The game never truly delivers on the powers it gives you
About Nick Akerman
Nick is a freelance gaming and football writer for the likes of Bleacher Report, Eurogamer, and Manchester United, covering games such as FIFA and Call of Duty.