January 27, 2023.
Good lord, Atone is one curious anomaly of a game. Originally surfacing for the Apple Arcade a few years ago, it features a hitherto unseen blend of role-playing tropes, puzzles, and musical rhythm action – all bound together with a deeply emotional plot torn from Norse mythology. Despite things based on Scandinavian lore being a common source of gaming inspiration, this one certainly has one hell of an original concept.
You take the role of heroine Estra, a fierce Midgardian warrior who carries the unfortunate burden of being the last living part of her familial lineage. She is a superb character, brought to life not only by the absolutely beautiful 2D aesthetics but by a cracking story that is far and away the biggest draw Atone brings to the table.
A bawdy opening scene with some alcohol related banter swiftly takes a dark turn as we are shown the fate that befell Estra’s dad – slain after the village is wiped out by an insidious curse known as the Blue Vein turns its denizens upon themselves. Clutching a necklace imbued with mystical power once belonging to her old man, Estra sets out on a quest to scour Midgard and reach the Elder Tree so that the curse can be lifted.
The game moves along in a linear fashion with glowing signifiers showing you the next point of interaction on your quest. The action is generally viewed from a top down perspective, but there are some great animated cutscenes and well rendered puzzles. These vary in difficulty, with some simply matching or sequencing runic symbols, and others requiring a bit of deeper thinking and even the use of the hint button which eventually looms into view. Such cheating comes at the cost of items or cash, so there is a definite reward for using your brain.
Things deviate quite radically during combat. You see, rather than swords and sorcery, or turn based mechanics, Estra battles the denizens of Midgard using what can best be described as a rhythm action minigame. Imagine something of Harmonix construction, such as Amplitude. Or even that other musical oddity Vib Ribbon. The quite wonderful original music is piped in, and you have to use your button timing skills to match the shiny indicators as they pour downwards on the screen. As this takes place, a stylised battle scene plays out in the background. Now I will say, this all looks and sounds amazing. But in execution it is flawed on a few counts.
Firstly, thanks to the way the plot branches or the choices you make in the game, these sections are entirely avoidable. So, if you wish you can play Atone solely in Story mode, solving puzzles, and taking advantage of the multiple endings that ultimately give it replay value.
There are two difficulty modes should you fancy testing yourself in battle. One of them restricts things to two buttons and two musical tracks.
The hardest setting has four buttons and four tracks, and gets hectic, very quickly. As there is no feedback or vibration, it becomes difficult to time things. Would this work better with a touchscreen option as it was originally intended? The whole system feels incongruous and at odds with the story, despite the relatively solid execution. If you click with it, and want to do your musical thing some more, you can replay all of your battles post-completion, should you wish.
Issues with the combat aside, there is much to enjoy in what Untold Tales has served up, here. I was immediately engrossed by the story, and by the sumptuous visuals with a fine juxtaposition of darkness and glowing light, runic motifs, and an artful blockiness that even reminded me a small bit of Breath of the Wild. There are some decisions to be made as you play that deliver upon the promise of multiple endings, and some genuinely entertaining puzzles to enjoy. Even the slightly clunky combat is almost saved by the excellence of the musical tracks and the ultimate satisfaction you can get by burying an axe in your opponent in a quirky muso style. Worth a look, for sure.
Looks and sounds lovely
Weird combat that not all will enjoy
Issues with the combat aside, there is much to enjoy in what Untold Tales have served up with Atone.