German AA superstars Deck13 is no stranger to the world of third-person action RPGs, with the excellent title The Surge (and its equally excellent sequel) earning it some well-deserved clout in this fairly crowded genre. The Deck13 team also worked on the flawed but fun Lords of the Fallen, and are now trying to outdo themselves with another victim of metaphorical gravity, Atlas Fallen. Fluid movement and some thoughtful mechanics means Deck13 has largely shouldered the burden of expectation with this latest foray, but some general lack of polish is perhaps a sign it had to shrug a few times as the ambition of the project grew a little heavy.
Atlas Fallen takes place in a sandy world ruled by a tyrannical god named Thelos. Despite the fact he runs a bit of a dreary, depressing society and demands a constant flow of a resource called Essence from the hapless mortals in his shadow, Thelos is feared and revered the world over as a sort of benevolent dictator. Even though he’s largely manifested as an omnipresent evil-looking rock thing hanging above the world, and is also responsible for murderous sand demons that roam the land called Wraiths, there are priests dedicated to his worship who dominate the political landscape. A vocal minority called the Knights of Bastengar aren’t as keen on the virtue of endless suffering as some of their compatriots are, but their brief coup attempt against Thelos gets violently cut short, forcing a retreat back to the underground to lick their wounds. You take on the role of an Unnamed, a (nameless) slave in the service of the devout disciples of Thelos, who by happenstance stumbles upon a mysterious gauntlet that channels the power of an amnesiac spirit. Far from a mere stylish fashion accessory, this gauntlet allows you to take the fight to the Wraiths, and is the key to unravelling the theocratic state and liberating the oppressed masses.
While your rise from worthless slave to god-like hero is an enjoyable one, and the premise and story beats are interesting enough, the world and characters of Atlas feel a little like traipsing around a virtual diorama, rather than anything of true substance. If what you’ve come for is a deep emotional connection to the noble plight of the victims of an oppressive religious regime, you’re unlikely to find it here. It’s not a huge deal in the large scheme of things, and the narrative is absolutely functional in what it needs to achieve, but don’t expect that dark foreboding mystery and sense of danger that permeated some of Deck13’s other works.
“I don’t like sand, it’s coarse…it gets everywhere.” – Darth Vader
…despite the flagrant disregard for the laws of gravity, it just feels good to leap massive chasms and fly about the battlefield like some sand-powered angel of death.
Something that Deck13 has always excelled at and an aspect that absolutely carries this experience like the titular Atlas himself is an attention to crafting unique interweaving mechanics. My enjoyment of Atlas Fallen largely revolved around the joy of learning and exploiting the ways in which the action and RPG systems meshed together, and the variety it offered to the moment-to-moment gameplay made it continuously engaging. The aforementioned gauntlet gives you access to three sand-based weapons, a hammer, whipsword and a big old fist. There’s the standard gamut of stats like speed and range that each offers and a smattering of combos, but what’s far more interesting is the ability of these weapons to charge up a resource called Momentum.
Hacking and slashing away at Wraiths will slowly build up your Momentum (represented as a bar under your health), and as it rises you’ll slowly unlock passive perks and active special abilities. Not pressing the attack, or falling victim to certain enemy attacks will drain your Momentum, and your success in combat lies in your ability to preserve this precious resource. The perks activated as you gain Momentum are determined by your equipped Essence stones (more on these in a minute), and you eventually unlock more slots for them (up to a total of nine) by spending the central currency of Essence. In another fun twist, the higher your momentum, the more damage you will both deal and receive. This makes it a huge gamble to unlock and maintain your most powerful abilities and attack strength at the highest Momentum tier (and perks at that end of the spectrum are very powerful indeed), as enemies will hit like a truck at this point. If you’re feeling nervous, you can drain all of your Momentum in a single shatter attack that is again more powerful depending on the Momentum tier you’ve achieved when you finally decide to pull the trigger.
If I can’t see the enemy, they can’t see me
Essence stones are obtained by a multitude of means, from completing quests to opening random chests to exploiting enemy drops, and they have an incredible variety that encourages experimentation. Each Essence stone can be upgraded to dramatically increase their effectiveness, and the fact the perks are unlocked on a continuum (defined by your Momentum gauge) means you can also shuffle their order around to get the most out of them. I found a good balance of Momentum boosters, healing rechargers and powerful offensive abilities made me an absolute force to be reckoned with, but your own groove is there to be carved out.
One thing the developers clearly wanted to infuse into the combat was a sense of fluidity, inspired no doubt by the flowing sands that permeate much of the landscape. When on a sandy surface, your sprint becomes a fairly zippy sandslide that feels pretty cool, and this can be used to get yourself out of trouble or just get you from point A to point B in style. You’ll also unlock a double jump and air dash early doors that vastly increase the sense of freedom while exploring and expanding your combat options. These latter manoeuvres have a bizarre floatiness to them that seem to exist to antagonise the ghost of Sir Isaac Newton, but despite the flagrant disregard for the laws of gravity, it just feels good to leap massive chasms and fly about the battlefield like some sand-powered angel of death. It reminded me of titles like Prototype and Infamous in some ways, and many will know this to be a good thing.
The fluid movement is important, as in between combat you’ll spend a lot of time exploring several largish open maps while completing quests, increasing the power of your gauntlet and uncovering the secrets of the desert. No matter what route you choose to your main objective, there’s always some chest to raise from the beneath the sand, some valuable trinket to swiftly pick up and sell, some random lifeless quest giver with a ludicrous fetch quest to complete, some elite enemy promising a unique essence stone if bested. Deck13 has done a very commendable job of filling the open world with a multitude of activities that are quick, easy and fun to complete, and even the lowliest tonally-disconnected side quest is sure to net you some precious essence for upgrades and perhaps an Essence stone or two.
With this iron gimp mask and gauntlet I will be unstoppable
Much like the The Surge and Lord of the Fallen, Atlas Fallen tips its sandy fedora to the Soulslike phenomena, although in honesty it feels like it is more loosely Souls-adjacent than a true embodiment of the harsh brutality of that particular genre
Shifting the focus back to combat, if it’s one thing that spoils the kinetic fluidity it’s the game’s parry mechanic, called Sandskin. A bit like the harden mechanic (permission to chuckle granted) of Mortal Shell, many enemy attacks can be deflected by timely use of Sandskin (with the opportune moment to deploy it indicated by a red glow on the enemy’s attack), and in some cases this will freeze them and allow a little bit of free punishment. The problem with this mechanic is that its timing feels unnatural and doesn’t flow particularly well with the often frenetic action occurring on screen. I found myself preferring aerial dodging and strikes in more hectic fights, as Sandskin roots you to the spot and opens you up for a world of pain if you get it wrong.
Much like the The Surge and Lord of the Fallen, Atlas Fallen tips its sandy fedora to the Soulslike phenomena, although in honesty it feels like it is more loosely Souls-adjacent than a true embodiment of the harsh brutality of that particular genre. This is not a slight on the game, and playing on Hard it certainly wasn’t a pushover, but it does have a certain level of accessibility to it that might please the wider audience who are put off by certain titles that tend to proclaim YOU DIED at regular intervals. This is with the exception of a decent handful of encounters that pit you against large Wraiths that continually spawn a host of smaller flying Wraiths. It’s all surmountable, but there were a few instances where I felt like the hardest part of a battle wasn’t the giant sand crab trying to head butt me, but the 8000 annoying wasp-like creatures it spawned at regular intervals diverting my attention and shooting momentum-draining beams at me. You can tackle the game cooperatively with a friend online, which may make some of these sequences a little more palatable, but I wasn’t able to test this feature out given the limited pre-release player numbers.
This feels like a lawsuit waiting to happen
Technically, the game doesn’t feel nearly as polished as some of Deck13’s other work, and the AA-ness is at times felt a little too keenly. While environment design is varied and intricate, there’s an odd shimmeriness to the textures that blurs detail and makes things a little murky. Texture pop-in on environmental details and character models is frequent, and character dialogue can feel a little stilted, especially when it’s issued from lips that move weirdly on non-descript faces with thousand-yard stares. NPCS repeat the same dialogue on loops endlessly, and cutscenes have a jerkiness to them that ensures they fall well short of whatever gravitas they are trying to inject into the unfolding drama. Spelling mistakes in the subtitles are also an oddity, and a little more time in the oven may have been required to smooth out these kinks. The day one patch may magically address all these issues, but just be aware what you’re signing up for. I will say though that technical prowess is not something I put a huge amount of emphasis on when playing a title that clearly has a fraction of the budget of some of the big players, unless it actively gets in the way of actually enjoying the product. If the metric most important to you is whether a game is actually fun to control and experience, then Atlas Fallen certainly holds something for you.
Deck13’s biggest strength is its clear vision in delivering unique combat mechanics, and weaving them into solid RPG systems. Atlas Fallen is another example of a studio that knows how to make a game that’s smart enough to inspire you to learn its intricacies, but not so obtuse that it locks you out of enjoying it. The incorporation of sliding and aerial manoeuvres gives an infectious sense of freedom and ignites the will to explore the various biomes’ nooks and crannies, and a constant string of tangible gains is your reward. It may not be the most polished open-world experience you’ll find, even in the AA space, but it is one that at its heart is compelling enough to let you forgive the bulk of its foibles.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Focus Entertainment
- PS5 / Xbox Series X|S / PC
- August 10, 2023