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ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree Review

Venture forth to Midgard

These days it feels like every second new game released, indie or otherwise, revolves around Norse mythology. Viking warriors doing what they think their gods want them to, said gods ignoring their own rules to do what they want, Tom Hiddelston running amok with the TVA…okay, maybe not that last one, but the point is there are many ways you can retell a common story and still feel fresh. ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is one such game featuring the now familiar setting of Midgard, but at its core beats a very different game that juggles a number of different ideas yet doesn’t fumble along the way.

Midgard has slipped into darkness, a mysterious illness corrupting the land and poisoning the Elder Tree. Having watched her father die to protect it, Estra now takes up arms to uncover the truth not only about the Elder Tree, but of her family legacy and what it might mean for the rest of Midgard.

ATONE plays with a couple of different ideas, combining a traditional adventure with interesting puzzles to solve, a branching narrative path and a rhythm game in place of customary button-mashing combat. Though it may seem like too many ideas thrown in a pot, the team at Wildboy Studios have allowed it to simmer nicely, pulled together with emotional and nicely animated cut-scenes that reminded me of Another World and Flashback in their production.

Midgard is kinda nice this time of year

Every puzzle is different from the last, from selecting tiles in the correct sequence to matching symbols to a specific pattern. It may sound easy, and some of the earlier ones are a little obvious, but there are some real brain-teasers later in the game that ordinarily would leave you stumped if not for the intelligent (and times sneaky) way the game includes little hints to guide you to the correct answer. Most of the time I found myself pausing for a few brief seconds before it would dawn on me, either through exploring the environment around the puzzle itself or somewhere within the world outside. You will have to be careful with a handful of them, as failing may lock you out for a bonus chest or something extra special, but for the most part I found them deceptively clever.

On the flip-side, each combat sequence has you playing a good old game of Guitar Hero, and while that not be as challenging compared to the aforementioned puzzles, it will certainly test your timing. Just like every other rhythm game, you must press the required buttons in time with the prompts as they slide down the screen. On a Switch, the default input is the usual face buttons and the left stick, but I quickly switch from the stick to the d-pad buttons instead and found them far better to time each press to. There are a decent number of these events, mostly tied to important events in Estra’s journey, with the action playing out in the background reacting to how well you may (or may not) be doing.

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There’s some useful inventory items that will help you out, such as bread to regain health, and they will absolutely come in handy if you struggle to find your rhythm. However, a more useful option is the ability to skip them entirely if you so desire which the dev team included as an accessibility option. So if you want to focus more on the story and in turn listen to the impressive score without the stress of tapping buttons to the tune, you can absolutely do that (or you can crank up the difficulty if you feel so inclined, but that was a little too much for me).

Boss battles as a rhythm game works so well

Once you hit the end credits, which sadly won’t take too long, you’ll be greeted with a result screen that identifies the path you followed. Every decision you make could have a positive or negative outcome along Estra’s path to the Elder Tree, and if you do want to complete every possible scenario it will take a few playthroughs to do so, meaning what originally was a short experience evolves into something a little meatier. I would have loved more, however, especially along the narrative front where the enjoyable, natural sound of the voice cast have been kept to cut-scenes only, which is a shame. There are a few hidden collectibles and side stories you can discover off the beaten path too, but what I wouldn’t give to have a bigger overall journey to take. I’m not talking a bolder tale like God of War, just a little extra time to really get to know the cast of characters. It really does fly by so fast.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed my time with ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree, even though I desperately wanted more meat on its bones. It’s wonderfully presented, with every mechanic cleverly produced to avoid the frustrations and pitfalls that can often hinder such ideas. Combined with some impressive visuals and a pleasing audio score, ATONE is an emotional journey with a splash of originality that I can happily recommend and, if you’re as big of a Norse mythology lover as I am, there’s plenty of lore here to appreciate.

Reviewed on Switch // Review code supplied by publisher

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ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree Review
Hooked on the rhythm
ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree sets out to do a lot in a short space of time and manages to pull it off impressively, even though I wanted to spend even more time within its take on Midgard compared to what it holds.
The Good
Excellent visuals, a bit of an old school feel
Clever collection of puzzles and brain-benders
Rhythm sections will test you in just the right way, with some wonderful music tracks
Emotional story with plenty of heart
The Bad
Branching story paths are welcome, but it’s still a rather short experience
The left thumb stick isn’t the best way to play the rhythm sections
The voice cast deserved the chance to fully voice their roles outside of cut-scenes
8.5
Get Around It
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  • Wildboy Studios
  • Untold Tales
  • Switch / PC
  • January 27, 2023

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree Review
Hooked on the rhythm
ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree sets out to do a lot in a short space of time and manages to pull it off impressively, even though I wanted to spend even more time within its take on Midgard compared to what it holds.
The Good
Excellent visuals, a bit of an old school feel
Clever collection of puzzles and brain-benders
Rhythm sections will test you in just the right way, with some wonderful music tracks
Emotional story with plenty of heart
The Bad
Branching story paths are welcome, but it’s still a rather short experience
The left thumb stick isn’t the best way to play the rhythm sections
The voice cast deserved the chance to fully voice their roles outside of cut-scenes
8.5
Get Around It
Written By Mark Isaacson

Known on the internet as Kartanym, Mark has been in and out of the gaming scene since what feels like forever, growing up on Nintendo and evolving through the advent of PC first person shooters, PlayStation and virtual reality. He'll try anything at least once and considers himself the one true king of Tetris by politely ignoring the world records.

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