From developer Wildboy Studios and publisher Untold Tales comes a comedy romp through the halls of the Norse gods. Rather unexpectedly, Atone: Heart of the Elder Tree is a point and click adventure with a script worthy of LucasArts at the height of their powers. Only kidding, it’s a generally unrelenting bleak odyssey in which Estra, daughter of Thyon, seeks to unravel the mystery behind his death and how the gods themselves proved anything but infallible.
The titular elder tree is Ygdrassil, the central sacred tree of Norse mythology and it’s down to you to navigate the land of Isa, some by way of puzzles and others with battles using a similar interface to the likes of the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series. The default setting is a somewhat rudimentary two bars controlled by down on the d-pad and , though if you like pain or play the arena mode, you’re looking at four bars which is rather more to tackle. You could play in purely story mode but that precludes getting any of the battle trophies. The battles themselves are fun anyway, so why deprive yourself of that.
Generally you’ll unlock gates and extend bridges with puzzles, with the battles extending to confrontations with antagonists, some of whom will be familiar, others not. The default setting means you’ll generally breeze past the battles without much issue unless you’re particularly hamfisted like we are on occasion. The music is light electronica yet somehow fits the tone really well. None of it is massively memorable, however it never feels out of place as the likes of more well known licensed tracks might.
Your success in matching the prompts is directly translated into whether you do damage to an opponent or whether they run you through, though this only really becomes a possibility if you play on hard difficulty. This is all fully animated and on occasion amusing into the bargain, especially when you fight animals rather than humanoids.
As you progress through the story you’ll get wiser to areas off the beaten track where extra treasures await. During one trek through a labyrinthine cave system, you’re positively encouraged to do so. That’s in no small part to it being obvious there’s more to find other than just blindly following the pre-marked trail.
Graphically, you’re looking at a stylised almost handrawn look. This gives Atone something of an otherworldly feeling rather than being more realistic looking. At least it didn’t go with the cyberpunk angle like Silicon Knights ill-fated Too Human on the 360. As a consequence of sorts, Atone never struck us as particularly good-looking game. But that doesn’t matter as we had a lot of fun doing so.
After a little while you gain a familiar of sorts, a mischievous animal spirit called Yri who has a fine line in wisecracks. Compared to the stone faced Estra, their interactions are a little like Rocket and Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, only Estra isn’t a huge lunk. As well as Estra, your froggy companion is often dismissive of other creatures you encounter throughout your journey. It’s a welcome injection of levity in what would otherwise be a po-faced affair.
The puzzles range from occasionally obvious to the downright obtuse. We found ourselves baffled on several occasions and we’re not afraid to admit we may have quit out and restarted from the most recent autosave too. Even when the hint system was used, we still found ourselves entirely baffled as to quite what to do.
It didn’t help when our trial and error approach garnered the correct answer, yet we still didn’t quite understand what we actually did to solve the puzzles either. It felt a little like another puzzle based adventure we previously reviewed, Call of the Sea, in that regard. That said, when we genuinely worked out what to do, it was immensely satisfying when we did so.
The storyline has multiple branching options, the ultimate aim being to avoid Ragnarok coming to pass, though in our playthrough we resolutely failed. Not to mention our pal Yri was killed into the bargain too. We missed his quips and putdowns. Also, we missed at least one puzzle due to the storyline advancing and the autosave doing its own thing.
We’d have liked the opportunity to at least keep track for completion’s sake, the fact we went past a point of no return seems incredibly arbitrary. We fear an entire playthrough will be necessary to pop the trophy for all puzzles complete, though the fact that unlocks of battles for the arena mode carry over from subsequent saves has us hopeful that we’ll be OK.
In conclusion, Atone: Heart of the Elder Tree is an excellent hybrid of puzzle game and rhythm action that we didn’t see coming at all. It was a little slow to get going admittedly, but once we got into the rhythm of puzzles intertwined with battles we had a great time. We fear this might fly under the radar of many but it shouldn’t.
+ Puzzles are generally great
+ Rhythm action battles are well scored
+ Branching storyline has genuine consequences
- Autosave can be abused readily
- Perhaps a bit slow to begin with
- We fear that many will overlook this gem