Thursday, 21 March 2019 03:56

ATOM RPG: Post-apocalyptic indie game Review

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In Soviet Russia, Nuclear Winter Survives You

ATOM RPG, developed and published by AtomTeam, is a CRPG deliberately aping the style of the classic Fallout RPGs. ATOM RPG diverges in setting in a few key ways, such as being set in Russia in an alternate history where the Cold War turned hot, leading to the nuclear apocalypse. You’ll find yourself working for the clandestine group ATOM, a leftover of the Soviet government dedicated to reclaiming the glory and comfort of pre-war civilization. One of ATOM’s generals has recently gone missing and you’ve been tapped to go out into the wastelands to find him and his team and bring them back.

Harsh Like a Russian Winter

ATOM RPG is brutal. The game opens with you being mugged by a group of passing bandits. Unless you’ve built your character in very specific ways and RNGsus is with you, you will inevitably fail this fight, losing your starting gear. This sets the tone for the rest of the game. Counting the post-tutorial mugging, I was mugged one other time during my playthrough and had the option of being mugged an additional time during a side quest. Unlike the classic games that inspired it, ATOM RPG has a very specific build type that it has designed most of its encounters around. Personally, I prefer a smooth-talking, intellectual type in this sort of game, favoring lighter weapons and precision shooting. ATOM RPG has a few things to say about that sort of character.

You have to fight your way through most encounters, namely against the many beasts of the wastes. This means you can’t neglect your combat skills too much or risk dying on a chance random encounter on the overworld map. However, ATOM expects you to go all in on a build, so level-appropriate challenges require a high investment of skill points. Even when pouring pretty much every other level’s worth of skill points into social and technological skills, I still found myself unable to talk my way through most challenges where that was an option.

The Numbers Don't Lie

ATOM RPG works off of an adaptation of a BRPS (Basic Role-Playing System). After allocating points to your core stats, you're given a handful of points to put into your skills. These skills then dictate how you interact with the world. These can range from granular, like Gambling, to broad, like Speechcraft. Most of the time your skill will determine what number the random number generator will have to produce in order for you to pass the test. Other times, it seems that you only require a certain number in a specific skill in order to pass. The problem lies in the fact that the game doesn't tell you which kind of check it is. This can lead to frustrating situations where you're sitting by a locked container, repeatedly failing the lock-picking check, only to find that it was a low-level lock. Conversely, you could be stuck in a pit trying to throw a rope across the chasm, failing at each attempt, hoping that your meager Throwing skill could eventually get you a success.

In many instances, the only option is to roam the wastes further until you grind out enough experience to make whatever challenge that has you stuck passable. This makes the majority of side quests non-optional, which kind of defeats the point of them being side quests. This wouldn't be as much of a problem if ATOM RPG were better at signposting where these quests were. Ironically, this is exacerbated by one of the strengths of ATOM RPG: Most of the NPCs have their own portraits, dialogue, and names. While this does a lot for immersion and shows that a lot of care went into this game, it makes it difficult to determine who may have a question for you and who does not.

Let Me Tell You a Story…

Across two characters, I put in almost forty hours in ATOM RPG. Were I not playing it for review, I probably would've dropped it the second time my character was robbed of all their items. To add some context, I had just fought my way through a relatively difficult dungeon for my level and had just acquired a firearm that was worth something. That said, I probably would have still come back to the game eventually. That's because ATOM RPG paints a rather interesting world. While it's true that I'm a sucker for the post-apocalyptic setting, seeing a Fallout-styled world through a Russian lens was quite interesting. Much like how Fallout satirized the grand excesses of post-World War II America, ATOM RPG takes the same perspective on post-World War II Russia. There is just a certain charm to paying fifteen rubles to see a man masquerading as the corpse of Lenin — you just don't get that in other games.

Sadly, even this does not remain unmarred. The English localization is fairly awful. Most commonly, the word "you" is capitalized for no apparent reason every time it makes an appearance. This is to say nothing of the various grammatical errors in stilted phrasing apparent throughout the dialogue. While these translation gaffes lend themselves to a very stereotypical Russian accent most of time, it certainly kills the tension when you're trying to talk down bandits from robbing you. The story overall is strongest in its smaller narratives. This makes those all-too-necessary side quests more of a treat when you come across them. While most of them devolve into the same "go here, kill this, retrieve that" archetype, the context in which you will be doing these things can be rather varied. Be it hunting down a group of anti-intellectual Raiders so a bookseller can finally get his shipments in, or staging, and then subsequently rigging, the first democratic elections in Otradnoye, there is a lot to do in the Russian wasteland.

Sights and Sounds

Graphically and auditorily, ATOM RPG is competent. The Russian wastes look suitably bleak while the dilapidated towns are different enough to each have their own feel. These areas are occasionally punctuated by industrial, Cold War interiors and the occasional forest. My only complaint is that that's a lot of green and brown regardless of where you are. Even your character's outfits, all three of them, all fall within the spectrum. The UI, heavily cribbed from Fallout, is clear if a bit hard to navigate by mouse alone (and the dearth of keyboard shortcuts will make you navigate by mouse most of the time). The soundtrack kicks in at all the appropriate places, fluctuating between intense battle music to softer, often-creepy ambiance while exploring. Of particular note is the "end turn" sound effect. I'm fairly certain it's the same sound effect that the later Fallout titles used while selecting a target in VATS.


The Verdict: Flawed

ATOM RPG is a competent-enough CRPG if you're starved for role-playing content. Given that we are in something of a CRPG Renaissance lately, I find it hard to recommend, due to the lack of build variety and obtuse puzzle design. Add the rough translation on top of that, and it becomes very hard to recommend. If you're looking for a strong shot of nostalgia, you might consider giving ATOM RPG a try.

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John Gerritzen

John Gerritzen is a programmer by education, author by hobby, and game critic by occupation. While he usually favors RPGs, he will play anything that engages him narratively or mechanically. When he's not playing games for fun or profit, he's usually reading or watching anime.