Developed by Mundfish, Atomic Heart is an action RPG set in a dystopian alternate post-WWII world where the Soviet Union is at the center of a technological revolution. With polymers changing how people live and robotic advancements pushing life forward in the 1950s, the USSR is a place of wealth and ease. The pinnacle of science, which is captured on posters and exhibits throughout the game for you to read, Dmitry Sechenov has created a substance known as “Polymer” which bridges biology and robotics all to feed the “Kollectiv,” a neural network planned to launch through a new implant that directly connects to humans’ brains.
But when sabotage turns the robots into murderous machines, turning on every human in their view, the “Kollectiv” is in danger. In an attempt to cover up the incident and move forward with other development plans, the player is dispatched as Major P-3. A soldier with next to no memories, you fight your way through the robots (and for some reason, mutant zombies) to uncover the truth while also being a pawn in the system itself. You must follow Sechenov’s plan and restore the network and do it while uncovering well-hidden secrets along the way.
Starting with the good, Atomic Heart’s crafting, skills, and weapon systems may be something we’ve seen before, but it’s well-explained and executed. As Major P-3, you have CHAR-les, a glove, and a polymer implant that you can upgrade to use different elemental powers. Ranging from freezing enemies, shocking them, and creating barriers to spraying enemies in a coating to light them on fire, there is a lot to explore in terms of your own combat preferences. Add in the fact that you can only have two equipped at any given time, these glove skills take some thought. You’re figuring out what glove skill works best with which weapon against which enemy and doing it all while polymer has to be earned to unlock each new skill upgrade. With five branches and 94 skills there, this is the most robust element in combat.
The restriction to two equipped skills does a lot of work in trying to keep combat fresh, even when repetition sets in. Add in the cartridge system that allows you to equip weapons with elemental damage and learning how to use them in tandem is a skill you learn to hone as you play. Additionally, the crafting system allows you to not rely on drops of first aid, ammo, or cartridges. That said, each part used can impact your plans to make a new weapon or upgrade an existing one. While crafting as many first aid kits as possible seems like a good idea, with limited inventory space, you have to learn to prioritize. That said, I didn’t use much outside ammo, cartridges, and first aid, even though the game comes equipped with buffs and other regen items for stamina or energy.
I found myself more frustrated by how much the game encouraged you to explore labs with varying heights and platforms, only for you to get stuck when you attempted to. While this was annoying when there weren’t any enemies (the seed lab level was a test of patience), it was frustrating when it happened in combat. In fact, multiple times I would back up into rubble only to get stuck and pummeled by enemies resulting in deaths.
If the game worked on continuous checkpoints and autosaves, this wouldn’t have been as much of an issue. Still, because saving the game, outside of some cutscene transitions, is tied to using a terminal, this sometimes results in valuable time lost. Add a few game crashes, and well, the joy of combat became a chore in the last third of the game. Additionally, once you understand enemy types, the challenge in defeating them doesn’t come from variation and learning something new, it comes from just surviving hordes.
However, it’s worth noting that while the combat becomes stale over time, once the enemies stop pushing your limits there is still plenty to praise in terms of level and puzzle design. While it was easy to learn new elements to solve puzzles the way each skill learned is layered into new problems to solve keeps you engaged. With enough variation in combination, no puzzle felt too much like a rehash of the last. Instead, I looked forward to each new one, especially when platforming was involved.
While the camera made it difficult to maneuver when jumping to the side or behind in wall-scaling, every other platforming element often required creativity in solving that I appreciated. This was especially true in Polygons, hidden test rooms that operate as hidden dungeons to clear and earn upgrades. The designs of these dungeons were varied and ultimately led to some of my favorite gameplay. Mundfish knows how to do puzzles, and if you love that, I can easily say Atomic Heart is well worth your time.
Atomic Heart is a pretty game with well-thought-out level designs, creature designs, and visual concepts that help immerse the player. But it’s Mick Gordon’s score and the choice of old Russian songs that truly make it reach a level of immersion in spots perfectly, even if the aesthetic doesn’t really stand out from others in the genre of retrofuturism. When the game uses Gordon’s score to the fullest, tension mounts, and action becomes more than entertaining. This is particularly true for boss battles that happen throughout the game. Music and sound design do a lot of work in keeping you engaged when combat lulls and excitement wanes.
When it comes to the story itself, the twisting narrative seems to focus on shock over substance with heavy-handed foreshadowing thrown in. I am a fan of zigging when the audience expects you to zag, but in Atomic Heart, there are so many turns that it’s hard to actually trace major themes. For the sake of keeping the player on their toes, Mundfish sacrifices thematic consistency and in some cases coherency as well. There isn’t much in messaging or morals despite how the beauty of charged concepts and language used throughout the game. With the comrade constantly reminding you that you’re in Russia, snarking about capitalists, and the choice to strewn the walls with glory to Soviet science in a time when Russia is currently waging a war against Ukraine, there is an emptiness in the dialogue and narrative development. A good twist lands well because the writers have invested time in making you care about the direction in which the larger story’s message or protagonist is going, and Atomic Heart is missing that.
But after letting the game stand on its own in terms of gameplay experience, it’s hard not to take the step to give credit to the clear influences at play in Atomic Heart’s gameplay and design. While I try not to compare video games to ones that came before in reviews, Atomic Heart can’t escape the specters of Bioshock and Fallout. While Atomic Heart excels in its puzzle variations, both in terms of lock picking and world elements, there are too many elements that were just executed better in other games. You could say that it’s a Callisto Protocol problem, a game that is fine on its own but, when stacked against its influences, pales in comparison.
For every unique element, like the uncanny and sometimes campy robot designs, there are pieces that clearly imitate something else. When you die, the screen shows an animated character that is extremely similar to Fallout’s Vault Boy in both designs and what he does for the player in terms of appearing on the death screen and animating weapon upgrades. As you explore the world and all the carnage in it, retrofuturism also feels like a path trodden before but with a Soviet coating layered on top. Add in painfully small subtitles that appear over characters talking in the background that are completely illegible and can’t be resized, and the magic of this dystopian post-WII alternate timeline wears off after a few hours.
Atomic Heart is a fine game and an easy one to sink time into at around 35 hours of gameplay if you embrace the exploration. That said it feels like something is missing. Maybe it’s the twisting narrative that never really succeeds in its surprises (which I can’t get into because of spoilers). Or maybe it’s a choice to blend zombie plant experiments with killer robots and never really give the player a true understanding of the combination outside they needed enemy variation. With the environmental glitches and an empty narrative balanced by a fantastic score, stellar puzzles, and an interesting skill system, Atomic Heart lands in the middle for me. Not bad, not great, just fine.
Atomic Heart is available on Playstation4, Playstation5, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC on February 21, 2023.
With the environmental glitches, an odd narrative, and too much imitation of two iconic games, Atomic Heart lands in the middle for me. Not bad, not great, just fine.