ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree - Switch Review
There are many reasons why Norse mythology is beloved worldwide and has influenced some of the best games of all time: within the Nine Worlds, there is the potential for endless tales and engaging mysteries. ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is a particularly ambitious game inspired by Norse Mythology that mixes visuals, music, and story in a very striking way, burning itself into the player’s memory with flair.
In ATONE, we follow the young Estra on an adventure through a godless world, wielding an inherited battleaxe in order to unveil a mystery and save the land from a dangerous presence that took everything from her. It is a memorable tale - but it was drawn from one of the richest sources it could ask for, and it could have gone much further than it has.
The Good - Colour and Sound
ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is visually striking and opens to a very good first impression right off the bat. The stylised art and the use of colour for the scenarios and the characters themselves is lovely, with the lack of contours giving space for a brilliant use of colour contrast. When something is important in the game, it absolutely lets the player know with a visual cue or ten, and moments of tension or drama have top-quality visual designs, the likes of which really stick to the player’s mind.
What the game really sets out to do though is immerse the player in its rich story. Everywhere that can be explored has something to offer the curious player: lore and background tidbits, information about the world and its goods, and crumbs of information about the main character’s life that are a joy to put together. The atmosphere of the game is incredible, and every little aspect was carefully crafted to be distinctive and clear in its Nordic influences. Runes, weapons, symbols, buildings and more all give life to the world and do more than a good job at drawing the player in the story.
The combat also plays up the immersion aspect: ATONE mixes combat with rhythm-game elements in extremely dramatic scenes, filled with stare-downs, action angles and impact shots, all while the player has to match their actions to the blood-pumping battle themes that the game has to offer. It’s impressive to look at and play, and the combat, despite not being the largest part of the game, makes for some of the most memorable moments of the entire experience.
- Delightful visuals and music
- Immersive story and worldbuilding
- Dramatic and memorable combat encounters
The Bad - Should you really be here?
ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is a game that gives an extreme amount of care to its world and storytelling, but it is somewhere along that path that it feels like it suffers certain failings on other aspects. A good video game has many moving parts, with storytelling being only one of those.
ATONE is classified as a “Story-driven puzzle game”, but the puzzles themselves are not much to write home about. Largely simple and unremarkable, there are plenty of puzzles that feel like padding at worst and set dressing at best until way too late in the game. Past a certain point, there are some that have story-related reasons to exist, but the puzzles in their vast majority don’t truly contribute much to the experience or the story until plenty of hours in. And that would be fine, but they are also not engaging in a gameplay sense, oftentimes being worth maybe a couple of minutes of head-scratching before a quick solution is found. For a game where half of its description is “puzzle game”, the ones in ATONE feel pointless.
The most impactful gameplay portions are the combat encounters, but these come with a big issue. The rhythm game elements require a lot of concentration: the focus needed to properly beat the combat means that it is very hard to split your attention between the gorgeous, impressive visuals and the necessary commands. It is possible to make these moments easier and harder - but the easier toggle simply makes it so that the combat encounters cannot end in defeat and takes out the challenge entirely. It feels like the balance between gameplay and story in these pivotal moments will always be skewed to one side - that of the story. Gameplay feels like set dressing for the story.
And finally, ATONE is very referential. There is nothing wrong with paying lip service to influences and media that the developer enjoys, but in a game that is so atmospheric and banks so much on constructing such an immersive world and telling a great story, on-the-nose references are extremely distracting. Seeing the Black Swordsman standing in the corner while talking to other characters about a hard decision that was just made, or finding a cracked smartphone on the ruins of an ancient Norse burial ground, are fast ways to shake any immersion out of the scene.
- Pointless, boring puzzles
- Hard to appreciate combat visuals due to gameplay
- Gameplay is not given enough attention
- Excessive references break immersion
Final Score: 6/10
There isn’t a world where I say that ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is a bad game, but I did get a distinct impression that it didn’t want to be a game. ATONE feels like a project that wanted to be a visual novel rather than a puzzle game, and that made it much harder to play than it should have been.
A lot of care is given to characterisation, visuals and music to craft an immersive, interesting experience, but that care does not seem to extend itself to much of the gameplay segments. And gameplay is the thing that sets video games apart from other media. It is still enjoyable and of course, it still does more than enough to be a puzzle game, but it feels like only half of it was approached with ambition.
Thank you for checking out our ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree Switch review, thank you to Untold Tales (via Wire Tap Media) for providing the review code and thank you to our Patreon Backers for their ongoing support:
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