PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
August 10, 2023
Atlas Fallen is the latest to enter into a crowded space of “open-world action games with a twist”, coming from developer Deck13 Interactive who you might be familiar with from their sci-fi Souls-like foray, The Surge. Trading hardcore slicing of robots and post-apocalyptic cities for a gigantic fantasy desert setting with legendary creatures and ancient dangers, Atlas Fallen boasts a cooperative adventure where you can glide through sand dunes, take down massive beasts with clever combat and uncover a deep narrative. While it has some bright ideas and is competent in most of its game design, some repetition in its mission structure and annoyingly monotonous fights combine with a ho-hum story that results in an experience that doesn’t manage to live up to its potential.
If you didn’t have your fill when it comes to talking pieces of gear on your arm in open-world settings this year, I’ve got some good news for you. Forspoken walked so that Atlas Fallen could run, but the dialogue isn’t quite as cringe as what our friends Frey and Cuff delivered back in January. This time, Nyall is the spirit that’s found his way into your powerful magic gauntlet, with eye-roll-worthy input that he spits out as you explore the desert landscapes, alerting you to nearby points of interest. The writing in Atlas Fallen is boring at best and delivered with very hit-or-miss voice acting that prevented me from becoming too interested in its familiar but harmless story. It’s your standard fantasy affair, with your nameless protagonist rising up to liberate mankind from the oppression of corrupted Gods, including one Eye of Sauron ripoff called Thalos (no, not Thanos, THALOS), that sits ominously in the sky, watching you surf the sands.
“I couldn’t help but feel cool when the two of us were sand-surfing around the place…”
The story as it stands is delivered via cave-painting-ish cut-scenes and conversations with characters in the world where information is dumped on you without much fanfare. Conversations feel static, as you stare at non-moving NPCs talking at you. Occasionally, a choice in response is offered to you, but it doesn’t feel like it really makes a difference no matter which one you pick. Branching story paths with impactful decisions, this ain’t. The overly-talky cast make for some disappointing breaks in what I much preferred doing, which was exploring the vast open world by sliding through the sand, so it was disappointing to stumble across fetch quests that simply required you to talk to multiple people spread across a town, for example, to distract from the fun parts.
While some of the quests and characters are milquetoast at best, the team at Deck13 has done a brilliant job with the visual aesthetic of Atlas Fallen. Large cities have collapsed amongst the desert setting, their remains barely held together, but full of villagers doing their best to make ends meet. One particular mining area has great scale and verticality once inside, with workers keeping the town ticking. Looking out over a gorgeous sunset that reflects off the sandhills is quite pretty, and peering into the distance at a land full of potential secrets is quite appetising. While the colour palate may be a little repetitive by the nature of its desert setting, they’ve still done their best with it, and the art direction mostly works wonders.
Once you do leave the hub towns which, to their credit, feel relatively lived-in, Atlas Fallen kicks things up a notch. Your main means of traversal are through gliding speedily through the sand, which feels slick and satisfying throughout. Sand particles fly up at the camera as you dart from area to area, smashing up monsters and uncovering hidden treasures in the world around you. There’s a nice flow to proceedings that, at a base level, didn’t get tiring over the course of the 12-ish hour adventure. Better still, playing the entire campaign seamlessly via co-op is a nice touch; I couldn’t help but feel cool when the two of us were sand-surfing around the place, seeing what we could find in between the main story missions. Fast travel is available from anvils that serve as the upgrade stations and checkpoints scattered around the area, but the fast pace of sand sliding means objectives never seem too far away anyway.
Combat in Atlas Fallen is another strong suit, at least initially. You’ll only come across a couple of different weapons during your playtime, but the concept of Momentum is introduced early, changing how you adapt and play. As you fill up your Momentum meter by nailing attacks, your weapons will actively get stronger and visually look bigger as you pummel enemies into the sand. The higher your Momentum meter, the more passive and active abilities (called Essence Stones) you’ll have access to, based on a three-tier skill system. This means the higher your combo, the more access to powerful attacks and perks you’ll get, like shooting mini tornadoes, slamming into the earth causing a tremor, or even a healing AOE to keep you in the game for longer. The trade-off here is that the higher your Momentum bar, the more damage you’ll take when enemies manage to land a hit on you. It’s a nice risk-versus-reward mechanic, that makes you feel like a real badass when you’re firing on all cylinders, even though you know in the back of your mind that getting hit could ruin it all.
An ultimate can be triggered, too, causing you to freeze foes in place, fly up into the sky and slam down onto them with a devastating shatter attack, useful for taking out mid-size Wraiths (monsters) completely and doing some real damage to boss Wraiths. Larger enemies have multiple different points of their body that can be attacked, and you’ll need to take each part out one at a time to topple them. This means that largely you’ll just be targeting one part at a time, but it does feel good to chip away at them piece by piece, with some of their body parts (like limbs and tails) moving around a bit more, making them more difficult to hit.
The problem with Atlas Fallen’s combat is that the enemy variety stops about halfway through, with major Wraiths recycled over and over to the point of frustration. It’s fun using your parry to dodge a giant crab slamming his pincers down on top of you the first couple of times, but by about the tenth time I came across this crummy crustacean, I was about ready to take my anger out on the shellfish at my local seafood boil instead. Usually, these boss creatures have major attacks that are unavoidable, too, with very little warning as to when they’re going to strike with them, which resulted in some frustrating deaths. It’s a shame because some more varied mechanics in these boss fights would have improved things immensely, but with only one notable exception, encounters just didn’t feel unique or exciting as I kept coming across them over and over.
Enemies aren’t the only repetitive components of Atlas Fallen. At several points during the campaign, your progress is halted until you collect three shards that are scattered across the map, in order to upgrade your core abilities. Those abilities are a dash that evolves to a double and triple, allowing you to fly across longer distances, and your raise ability, initially helping you to unearth chests buried in the sand, but eventually allowing you to lift giant gates and destroy unpassable doorways. After progressing to a certain point in the narrative only to be told to stop and go find three things before you can go any further, and this happening multiple times, I couldn’t help but feel like the game was unnecessarily padding. The upgrades are meant to keep you from accessing certain areas before you’re supposed to, but I found the roadblocks frustrating, and other parts of the map are blocked off by invisible walls, making it frustrating to scale large cliffs that look accessible, but really aren’t.
The upgrades themselves actually do improve your traversal and add to the number of secrets that you can find, so at least they prove useful once you have them. Being able to dash three times in a row is especially helpful for the various platforming challenges you’ll come across, some just to navigate from one area to the next, and others as optional challenges to get loot. Atlas Fallen does re-use these platforming segments a bit too often as well, but they’re at least not too punishing if you stuff them up. There are apparently 151 different Essence stones in the game, so there’s plenty to be found or forged with resources should you want to really maximise the potential of your nameless character during your adventure.
The game’s not without its bugs and glitches, which compounds some of the frustrations. At one point, a weird shadow glitch had the lighting pulsing on screen, forcing me to restart the game. At another, during a boss encounter, I revived my co-op partner and then went down a couple of seconds later, which reset the entire battle for some reason. As I was the “host” in my cooperative sessions, it seemed like the enemy’s health would reset if I was taken down, even though my friend was still in the fight, which was annoying, to say the least. There’s a lack of polish in the production quality at times, which is strange when compared with their previous work. At least beyond that, cooperative play worked pretty seamlessly throughout, and I played the whole campaign with a pal by my side, with progress shared between us both. As expected, exploring this gorgeous world is enhanced greatly by having a mate along for the ride, and I was glad for the co-op implementation to be so solid.
- Combat, at its core, is a lot of of fun
- Sliding through the sand feels great
- World has some decent detail and is fun to explore
- Enemies get repetitive and frustrating
- Narrative feels mostly uninteresting and generic
- Mission structure isn't very exciting
There are some fundamentally great things about Atlas Fallen, like its gorgeous desert landscapes and its super-satisfying sand sliding, plus combat that has a tonne of options and flows well. But its open world of interesting enemies suffers from a rinse-and-repeat approach, where what was exciting in hour two becomes boring and repetitive by hour eight. It’s not that it’s poorly made, but its mission structure and by-the-numbers narrative delivered in a boring way make for an adventure that is more generic than unique. Atlas Fallen is much like a mirage in its sandy desert setting; enticing at first, but a bit disappointing once you look closer and realise it’s not what you’d hoped.