The AA space remains an interesting section of the wider video game industry. Not exactly AAA, but beyond the technical capabilities of indie studios, the AA space sits squarely in the middle. Before, AA was known for taking more creative risks but with a lot of jank when it came to the technical side. Fortunately, the AA space is quickly carving its own audience.
Some gamers are too burned out from AAA games and persistent microtransactions but want something more than what some indie games are offering. Atlas Fallen, a zonal open-world action RPG game based in a unique fantasy world of warring gods has taken me by surprise. Although the game still has some rough edges, Atlas Fallen continues Deck13’s impressive pedigree of games.
A Clash of Titans
The story of Atlas Fallen is a familiar one, albeit with a unique take. Two gods rule the world. First, you have Thelos, an omnipotent god that is all-powerful. The other god is Nyaal, the erratic god of chaos.
Both gods ruled over their human subjects. But over time, humans began innovating and becoming more creative in their endeavors. This threatened Thelos who wanted to keep humans under his thumb. Thelos created divisions in humanity, where the lowest class, the unnamed, would mine essence (a divine material) for Thelos as tribute, among other uses. Thelos also created the priest and nobility class to make sure the unnamed continued to mine essence uninterrupted. Thus, creating class segregation.
However, Nyaal had taken to humans and admired their innovative and curious nature and wanted to help them escape Thelos’ rule. He devised a gauntlet to help humanity rebel against their oppression. However, Thelos was enraged and imprisoned Nyaal, but the latter was able to send his gauntlet where humans can find it to help him escape and rebel against Thelos’ tyranny. Players assume the role of an unnamed who stumbles upon the gauntlet and awakens Nyaal’s spirit. This sets in motion Nyaal and the unnamed gauntlet bearer’s war against Thelos.
Great, but Undercooked Themes
The story is reminiscent of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. It’s an interesting premise that unfortunately, the game does not build upon. We get hints of class struggle and see a visual representation of this in different parts of the game’s world. The city’s higher areas are opulent and beautiful. While the lower quadrants are squabbly and deteriorating.
Some side quests provide insight into Atlas Fallen’s interesting world dynamics, but it only occurs at a surface level. And with the flat voice-over delivery – more on that below – it doesn’t do the interesting premise justice. There are even dialogue choices for you to select, but in the end, it doesn’t matter what option you choose. Though some side quests may provide different sides for you to align with, it doesn’t change anything in the grand scheme of things. It feels like a wasted opportunity, especially in today’s highly gentrified political environment.
Despite this, the story beats maintained my interest throughout my playthrough. I just felt the developers did an amazing job setting up the world, but missed an opportunity to build upon those narrative elements and themes. By game’s end, I was left feeling that the story was a shallow husk of its true potential.
Open Zones and Metroidvania Mechanics
Atlas Fallen takes a similar play from The Outer Worlds in its game design philosophy. Instead of one gargantuan open world, the game is broken up into multiple different zones, which is also how its previous effort Lords of the Fallen played out. Each zone has a unique aesthetic. From underground sunken cities to spiraling high fantasy metropolises à la Minas Tirith, Atlas Fallen has a plethora of biomes and environments for players to enjoy.
The game also evokes a strong sense of verticality. Players will regularly jump and dash to higher grounds and towers as they play the game. It definitely keeps things fresh from the typical vertical exploration that many open-world games offer.
The game also takes cues from the ever-popular Metroidvania design as well. When you upgrade your gauntlet and acquire new abilities or strengthen current abilities, it will subtly open up areas on the map that were previously inaccessible. Though you will have to keep a mental note of where these newly accessible areas pop up, as the map won’t do that for you. The double jump immediately adds more to the exploration. While the third air dash upgrade makes traversing long gaps a piece of cake. Every gauntlet upgrade was exciting and it was always interesting to see how new abilities would interact with the world.
A Map Game Through and Through
Of course, because Atlas Fallen features a zoned open-world design, that means there’s plenty to do. There are side quests, errands, collectibles, and things to destroy to tick off your checklist. The main quest line guides you with gauntlet upgrades. Even when you collect gauntlet upgrades, the game will task you with collecting shards to complete the upgrade process. This felt like it was padding out content.
Anvils are where you can manually save your game and upgrade your armor and gauntlet. They are also the points where you can fast-travel, similar to signposts in The Witcher 3. This is a smart system because it means that players won’t only rely on fast travel as their primary means of transportation. Traveling on foot remains a viable option, which also facilitates that sense of exploration.
Despite having an open-world design, the game does not bombard you with icons. Instead, only key areas of interest (such as Thelos statues, Watch Towers, and Anvils) will appear on the map screen. Once you activate side quests and errands, they will appear on your map. Though make no mistake, Atlas Fallen is a map game, albeit chopped up into different zones.
Satisfying Combat in Atlas Fallen
It should come as no surprise that Atlas Fallen’s creme de la creme is its combat. The game’s developers Deck13 Interactive were the same team behind the fantastic futuristic Souls-like title, The Surge. Though if you’re put off that Atlas Fallen might feature rage-inducing difficulty, rest assured, it is primarily the combat mechanics that Deck13 Interactive brings to the table. With a strong emphasis on combos, skills, and build experimentation.
As the gauntlet bearer, your character can equip two weapons. Choices are limited between the Dune Cleaver (an Axe), Sandwhip (a transforming weapon with some range), and a melee-focused knucklebuster. You can choose which weapon you would prefer to be your primary and secondary weapon which does alter your playing style. I stuck with the Dune Cleaver as my primary weapon and the Sand Whip as my secondary as l like the range they provided.
The gauntlet bearer can also dodge and parry incoming attacks. The parrying system is known as sandskin, and if it connects exactly with an attack, it will crystalize enemies for a moment, opening them up for a free hit. However, if the enemy emits a blue aura, that means that is an unparryable attack, and a dodge is better suited to avoid damage. The controls were tight and responsive giving the combat impact. It was easy to change targeting between enemies, and pulling of skills with the press of LT/L2 and the press of a button worked well.
Similar to the old-school God of War games from the PS2 and PS3 eras, Atlas Fallen is all about combos. Running combos without getting hit will fill your tiered momentum bar. The more you fill it opens up higher tiered passive and active skills that you can unleash on wraiths. The system works very well as it rewards precise and controlled combat while providing a challenge to avoid getting hit as it resets the momentum bar. That distinct risk/reward system makes combat highly satisfying and engaging. It also negates button mashing as you always have to be aware of your momentum bar while trying to dodge or parry incoming attacks.
Players will unlock the air dash early on in the game. When fighting airborne wraiths, you will essentially stay up in the air as long as you continue to attack or dash to maintain height. This brought me back to the old school PS2 era games like early Devil May Cry and Dante’s Inferno, where maintaining combos was of the utmost importance, irrespective if you were on the ground or in the air.
Enemy Variety is the Spice of Life
Atlas Fallen uses wraiths, servants of Thelos created from essence, as enemies. Small wraiths are the typical ads that you find in most modern video games. While the larger wraiths come in the form of different animals such as crabs, scorpions, snakes, lion-esque creatures, and so on.
The larger creatures have different body parts for you to target and destroy. Fortunately, a diagram of each large wraith appears during each fight, revealing each body part’s health. Destroying a certain body part can also enrage the larger wraith who becomes more aggressive and deals out more damage.
The game also features boss battles that are quite epic and can prove to be challenging if you didn’t get your build right. My favorite boss was a take on the crab enemy known as the Shellbasher. I loathed this enemy type at the beginning of my playthrough as it was really challenging. But, by the time I faced a boss from this enemy type, my skill level and build grew tremendously and I was able to snuff out the crab boss without too much issue.
So Many Build Options
Make no mistake, Atlas Fallen takes its build systems very seriously and offers plenty of combinations for players. Players can adjust their build in a number of ways. Primarily, through equipping essence stones (skills and passive buffs/debuffs) on their gauntlet and through armor.
Essence stones come in 5 different varieties: damage, defense, healing, trickery, and momentum building. Players can mix and match different essence stones to fine-tune their build. The build variety is impressive and makes up for the lack of a deep stable of weapon options. The versatility of each weapon allows it to function in heavy damage or a high dexterity form. It is an interesting choice and takes what many people saw as a fundamental problem in a game like Sekiro and makes it into an opportunity to give players customization options without having to worry about a million loot options.
The Core in the Armor
In addition, armor also plays an important role in your builds and power level. Every time you upgrade your armor, your power level and stats go up and you receive a perk point. Perks are passive abilities such as generating more essence dust (currency for upgrading essence stones), getting more tribute (gold), and so on. Some perks can also be upgraded multiple times while others are simply unlocked.
Each armor can be upgraded a maximum of 3 times. In addition, most armor provides additional bonuses once you fully upgrade them. For instance, one of the armor sets will increase your shatter damage (your ultimate attack). Some armors will also grant additional bonuses if you equip a certain number of essence stones types. For example, equipping 2 defense essence stones grants +7 to Defense, etc… I highly enjoyed how Deck13 laid out their build system, as it was simple to focus on what you wanted out of your build without being overwhelming.
Atlas Fallen also features drop-in and out co-op. In fact, there are certain essence stones that add to the co-op experience. For example, some essence stones increase your and your allies’ momentum build-up. While other essence stones create healing AoEs that your partners can use.
Unfortunately, there is no match-making in co-op mode. Instead, players have to invite each other to start co-op games. This could be a major issue as some players may be put off by these extra steps. Sadly, this meant that I could not review the co-op segment during the review period.
Atlas Fallen Graphics
When it comes to the graphics department, Atlas Fallen is a beauty for AA developers, but it’s clear that it borrows heavily from other titles. The character models remind me of Darksiders or Gears of War type of character models. Where characters have broad shoulders and upper bodies. It’s almost a cartoon-like depiction. Characters have detailed textured and some of the armor designs look fantastic. The Preacher’s Guard armor set in particular looks out of this world. Additionally, the game provides some amazing vistas and environmental design.
Despite a lot of sand all over each zone, each environment has some personality to it. The Knights’ headquarters was burley and militaristic. While Castrum VII was on the verge of collapse and dilapidation. The varied environments helped break up the monotony of the ever-present sand and gave Atlas Fallen a distinctive look and aesthetic.
During the review period, we tested the Xbox Series X version of the game. Luckily, Atlas Fallen provides both quality mode and performance mode options. Quality mode prioritizes 4K resolution at 30 FPS, while performance targets 60 FPS at a lower resolution output. I usually prefer performance mode as I appreciate higher frames for movement-based games such as Atlas Fallen. Though I did test out quality mode, and I felt the 30 FPS did a disservice to the game’s fast movement and combat.
Surprisingly, Atlas Fallen offered a plethora of graphics options players can tune in to its settings. It was almost a PC-like level of control. Players can adjust motion blur, chromatic aberration, depth of field, and more. I usually turn off these effects, as I prefer a cleaner image quality without these distortion effects. The results were great and reflected well in the game.
For the most part, Atlas Fallen performed admirably. The game’s framerate was pretty solid and I did not notice any significant frame drops. The game soft-crashed on me about five times. Fortunately, the game has a robust manual and auto-save system so progress was always maintained.
Texture pop-in was common, especially in chests that you find out in the open world. Some character textures would also pop in as well. But those instances were few and far apart.
Distant foilage would noticeably also pop in when you were sand skirting. And in one of the zones, I noticed that light would flicker and random black screens would momentarily appear in certain parts of the zone. Besides these few issues, I was surprised by the technical performance of Atlas Fallen. With many modern games suffering a myriad of performance issues, it was nice to experience a game that was on point and maintained a constant frame rate.
UI and Quality of Life Blues
There are some quality-of-life issues worth noting in Atlas Fallen. First, when you open your map, it does not center around your player. So, you will always have to search for your blue icon on the map to find out where you are.
Second, many of the points of interest icons are white, and with a lot of beige sand on the map, it can be difficult to see these particular icons. Maybe I am getting older, but it was an ever-present nuisance during my playthrough.
Next, when using Anvils to fast-travel, it won’t show objective markers won’t appear in the fast-travel map, which was annoying because you would have to memorize where exactly you needed to go if you were going to use fast-travel. In addition, dialogue choices will stay on screen well past their welcome, and it was pretty awkward.
Atlas Fallen Audio Design
Let’s not beat around the bush, but the voice-over work in Atlas Fallen is flat. Don’t expect riveting performances, because for the most part, line delivery is adequate at best, and monotone a majority of the time. Worst of all, the mixing explicitly reminded me that the voice-overs were recorded in a studio. It did not sound naturally mixed in but instead sounded too sterile.
The sound effects were on point. Slashes, and weapon pounds all had a resonating impact and it added to the visceral nature of the game’s combat. Nothing sounded out of place and the developers did a great job of mixing the sound design in combat scenarios.
The soundtrack consisted of medieval tracks that would fit into any Renaissance fair you’ve been to in your life. The tunes did their job to hit home that this is a fantasy game, but none of the tracks particularly stood out to me.
Final Thoughts on Atlas Fallen
Despite its technical and QoL shortcomings, Atlas Fallen has me excited. The game is a testament to how far AA development has come in recent years. The game does take tired open-world tropes but adds that extra creative and unique layer that AA developers are known for. Atlas Fallen delivers a fascinating, albeit undercooked, world with solid combat and build mechanics. Undoubtedly, Atlas Fallen is another feather in Deck13’s cap.
Note – An Xbox Series X|S key was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review