PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch
January 27, 2023
ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree was originally released by developer Wildboy Studios back in 2019 as an apple arcade exclusive. It is an interesting merge of a rhythm game and an adventure game, with a linear story and puzzles to solve throughout and a distinctive art style that captures the mood of the game perfectly.
ATONE follows protagonist Estra, a human guardian and warrior of Midgard, a world long abandoned by its gods and left to its own devices. If you haven’t guessed already, ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree takes heavy inspiration and lore from Norse mythology and uses it to create a gripping story with some familiar characters.
Estra’s father was killed when she was a child, and as the last of her family line, it is now her duty to put the end to an affliction known as Blue Vein that is taking hold of people in villages nearby and forcing them to kill. Accompanied by a frog companion named Yri, Estra sets off on her long journey across the land.
The game is fairly linear, leading you from area to area with waypoints, but this is not to its detriment. There are occasional sidequests that can be found and completed in the world, mostly comprising of helping someone complete a puzzle or answering a riddle. These will often grant you ability increases or special items, but more importantly, they can also give you further insight into the lives of some less prominent characters.
All of the characters and locations found on the journey are interesting and varied, it’s so easy to get attached to even some of the minor characters. The characters around you are venturing on a journey very similar to yours, so you will bump into them as you continue. Personally, I found frequently bumping into friendly bard and merchant, Dallr, very comforting, especially after some of the more emotional moments in the game.
ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is emotional. It has a beautiful ambient score and gorgeous art that does an amazing job of complementing the story and writing. This was the main driving force for me, wanting to see more of this story and to learn where it goes next. Estra is a great, strong female protagonist and she carries the whole game.
ATONE also has multiple-choice options throughout that change which ending you get, they are generally binary choices between sparing or killing various enemies, and I believe the endings are also affected by what items you find during the game. I have only achieved one ending so far, and when I did, the game showed me a chart of more possible endings and the steps I took to reach mine.
Unfortunately, the place the game falls short is with the gameplay proper. All of the battles in ATONE take place in a small rhythm game, and while they are always accompanied by great music and animation, the gameplay just doesn’t have enough feedback. When getting a note correct, there is no sound or vibration to confirm that you are accurate to the beat, and this makes it difficult to know if you are doing it right. When hitting enough correct notes in a row, the notes do turn yellow, but that just isn’t enough.
Playing on hard is also very difficult with the control scheme provided, controlling four rows at a time felt unwieldy, especially with the lack of feedback. This was when I learned that the game was originally an apple arcade exclusive and everything made sense. The way the rhythm game is designed is clearly optimised for touch screens and would play much better on one. There is a rhythm game I really like called VOES that uses a very similar control scheme and was also originally a mobile game, the difference is that it offers both touch and button controls on the switch.
VOES also limits the number of rows from six to two when playing with buttons, and this is what ATONE’s normal difficulty does as well. I think the game would play much better if a touchscreen option was available for Nintendo Switch, using the control scheme the game was originally built around. It’s disappointing because the music is great and I can tell that the rhythm game is well-built, it just isn’t implemented perfectly on this console.
- Gorgeous art style
- Great score
- Engaging story
- Rhythm game clearly designed for touch controls
- Puzzles aren't varied enough
ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is a game with lots of love put into it. The story is emotional, the art is beautiful and original, and the soundtrack is outstanding. It’s just unfortunate that the rhythm game portion doesn’t work quite right on Nintendo Switch. I think it would only take a few small changes for it to be greatly improved, and I hope the team at Wildboy Studios may have the time to implement these in future. The game is already good, but it could be even better.