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Have you ever wondered, while playing Fallout, how a nuclear conflict of such scale could have affected the other side? Well the developers at the very aptly named AtomTeam clearly did, and after a successful Kickstarter campaign followed by an Early Access phase, they have produced ATOM RPG - an isometric role-playing game that takes place in the Soviet Wasteland.
ATOM RPG is subtitled as “A Post-apocalyptic Indie Game,” and that's exactly what you'll be getting if you decide to purchase it. It looks and plays a great deal like the early entries in the Fallout series, and seeing how that series is now a first-person shooter and on some occasions an online survival game, getting a proper new isometric “Fallout” is not something to be overlooked.
With ATOM RPG getting its final content update back in May of 2019, I decided to see for myself whether it was a worthy spiritual successor or a low-grade clone.
While most spiritual successors wear their inspirations on their sleeves, ATOM RPG completely drapes itself in them without a slightest bit of shame. Immediately during character creation you'll know you're playing Fallout. Seven attributes, a bunch of skills that go up to around 200, and up to two unique traits that provide both a bonus and a penalty. Some things got changed, others rearranged and all the traits are new, but it's all fairly close.
The similarities end when we get to perks. In ATOM RPG that whole system was drastically overhauled and instead of getting level and attribute-gated perks every few levels, you have an ability tree. The tree branches in eight different directions and each of its paths represents some particular theme, like automatic weapons, martial arts, or exploration and survival. The more abilities you get, the more points (you get 2 per level) the next one will cost you. This creates a situation where you're able to front-load your character with useful abilities, but later on you don't get a lot of them.
This system has its advantages, but it doesn't really work that well because it forces you into rigid builds. You're using rifles but the ability that makes it so you don't need high Strength to use heavy weapons is in the automatic weapon tree? Tough. You want to use heavy armor without penalties? You have to start going down the armor path early on. This way of doing things limits your character-building options and as a result doesn't feel at all satisfying.
And in general, ATOM RPG sits in this weird spot where some of its features feel like direct copies of what Fallout had but with minor alterations, while others change things for seemingly no reason and those changes pretty much never improve the overall experience. An example of the latter is the aforementioned ability tree. As for the former, you have the inventory screen - it's the same as Fallout's only now you have two rows of items.
Still, while the game follows its predecessors a bit too closely, and the new stuff it introduces doesn't exactly push the genre's boundaries, all of it is at the very least competent, and at the end of the day, you won't hear me complaining about a chance to play more Fallout.
The game's story follows a member of ATOM, a secret military organization that has a lot in common with Fallout's Brotherhood of Steel, on a quest to find a missing general. This quest will take you all across the game's multiple overworld maps and their locations that include dilapidated pre-war bunkers, an assortment of settlements doing their best to survive the aftermath of a nuclear war, and plenty of various points of interest in-between.
What sets ATOM RPG apart from Fallout here, is the fact that this time around we'll be exploring a post-apocalyptic wasteland that started off as USSR and not USA. The game positively oozes a certain unmistakable Soviet charm and most of the time feels quite authentic. Locations, characters, decorations, weapons, and even quests all feel right at home in this drab and grey communism-laden atomic wasteland.
The game's NPCs deserve a separate mention. Pretty much every character you meet on your journey has a unique portrait and something to say. Right off the bat you may not notice this because the game's dialogues are structured in a way that makes it seem like you get exactly the same dialogue options every time, but each NPC reacts to your questions in a unique way. Sometimes this can lead you to a new quest, more often than not it's just there to add some flavor to the setting. But if you're in a mood for some immersive reading, you'll find no shortage of text, as the game is not limited by voice acting of any kind.
The game's dialogues and quests offer plenty of opportunities to pass skill and attribute checks and engage in some of those coveted choices and consequences. Some of your actions might change the game's world, while others are more minor and easy to miss. As an example, during one of the quests you can help a struggling author to get published and if you do, you'll soon start noticing the game's merchants selling his books.
Plenty of quests have multiple solutions and the game isn't afraid of letting you fail spectacularly. For my playthrough I decided to go with a carefree approach to see what chaos I could cause that way, and for the most part, the game was able to keep up.
And while that's pretty impressive, unfortunately, almost right from the start the game starts to undermine itself by trying to be funny and assaulting you with endless references. Video games, movies, public figures, famous quotes - it's all there. The references are everywhere, they're extremely obvious and feel completely out of place. Now, don't get me wrong, an occasional reference or an out of sight easter egg are perfectly fine, but ATOM RPG overdoes this to such a ridiculous degree that it becomes very difficult to take the game seriously, especially since a good chunk of the references have absolutely nothing to do with the game's Soviet setting.
Which is a shame, because the actual writing, some minor translation issues aside, can be quite engaging. But then you'll be reading some dusty old diary in a bunker somewhere, getting your fill of lore, then suddenly out of nowhere the game will throw a very obvious line from Planet of the Apes at you. And immediately that somber post-apocalyptic illusion is broken and any sort of immersion you may have been feeling is gone. The references aren't exactly clever, subtle or funny either. They mostly just go, “See? This is a thing you know. Now laugh,” and never extend beyond that.
What's worse is that if you stop and think about the game's setting for more than a second, it doesn't make a lot of sense. See, in ATOM RPG's universe, the bombs dropped in 1986 and the game is set in the early 2000s. As a result, most of the people you meet in the game have lived through the apocalypse. But they don't act like you'd expect the Soviet people from 1986 to act. Most of the times, they don't act like a more rough and grizzled version of those people either. In fact, the game's NPCs tend to have two modes - falling back on Communist ideals and treating them almost as a mystical religion, and saying things in a very casual modern-day way.
It should be pretty obvious why the second option is bad, though I think the translation may be somewhat at fault there. But the first one, while great on paper, doesn't really make sense because not enough time had passed for these sort of ideas to spread and become commonplace.
Which is unfortunate, because those moments are where the game is at its absolute best. At one point you get an opportunity to exorcise a demon by the power of Communism and it's exactly as ridiculously funny as it sounds. Another quest has you storming a junkyard to save a statue of Lenin from being destroyed because a bunch of people believe Lenin to be a psychic deity who uses these statues as conduits for his power.
Fallout combined a Mad Max setting with patriotic retro-futurism. That was the high concept there. ATOM RPG doesn't have anything of the sort. It lacks a sense of direction and fills that void with a bunch of elements that don't fit very well together. Mystical Communism could have been that thing, but in the current state it's severely underdeveloped and has to compete with aimless references and numerous story elements lifted straight from Fallout. As a result, it feels like the developers gave up their shot at creating a universe with any sort of memorable identity for a bunch of cheap jokes. And that's a shame.
If you can get over the annoying references and the shaky foundation, the game's overall atmosphere is actually kind of great. The props and items all make perfect sense for the time period and setting, and it's obvious that a lot of care went into crafting the game's world. Some overarching story elements are fairly neat, like the drug ring quests sprinkled throughout the game. Just get through all the fluff and filler, and you'll find plenty of great stuff.
The game's companions are pretty outstanding as well. There's not a lot of them, but they all have unique personalities and their lines are usually a joy to read. Apart from my main character, my party consisted of a spy turned bartender who liked to pretend he was Cuban, a completely deranged but nonetheless legendary writer, and a larger than life marine who somehow managed to get his brains eaten by a mysterious parasite, but if you think that slowed him down, you know nothing about the hardy Soviet marines.
The Red Army
A nuclear wasteland, Soviet or otherwise, is not exactly a friendly place, so expect to be solving a lot of your disagreements through combat. Just like in Fallout, in ATOM RPG you get two weapon slots, regular, aimed and burst firing modes, a number of action points based on your attributes, and initiative-based turns.
In combat you control your main character and can suggest a general course of action to your companions. Your enemies possess a basic AI and either charge you and start attacking as soon as their weapons allow them, or try to run away and break line of sight if they don't like their odds.
It would have been nice if the project's scope and budget allowed for a more complex combat system. More Fallout Tactics, less Fallout. Carefully crafted tactical encounters, level design that allows for for various creative approaches and line of sight tricks, different combat stances, silent takedowns - that sort of thing. Before becoming a shooter, the Fallout series went into this direction, and I don't see a good reason for ATOM RPG not to at least try and improve the original formula. At least there are no “cover shields” here, and that's a big plus in my book.
On the level design side of things, what stood out to me was the fact that every map was completely flat. Every building was limited to a single floor. Not sure why that's a thing but all the blocked off staircases felt a bit unnatural to me.
When it comes to difficulty, early on you may think that the game is pretty hard, but that's mostly because you're new and don't have any decent gear. Get a few levels, find a functional gun, and you'll discover that ATOM RPG can be quite easy if you know what you're doing. In fact, if you keep putting points into weapon skills, by the time you graduate from kicking rats, your chance to hit will already be around 99% and it will stay that way for the rest of the game.
On the plus side, the early parts of the game are fairly stingy with ammo, so if you're planning on playing a sniper-type character, you may find yourself counting bullets and constantly being on the lookout for more. I found that to be extremely enjoyable. All the other resources are a bit too plentiful, however. The game has separate meters for radiation, toxicity and hunger, but before long you'll find yourself swimming in antidotes, radiation resistance pills and food. And since you can use food to heal, staying healthy shouldn't be a problem either. Going back to my point of thematic inconsistency, finding what should be rare and valuable resources wherever you go doesn't really make sense in a game about surviving in a nuclear wasteland.
Oftentimes the only thing reminding you about the supposed scarcity of resources are all the rusty weapons you find along the way, but in a roundabout way, these early weapons do more harm to the game than good. See, during the opening sections you'll mostly be seeing the same several guns over and over again, and then when you make a bit of progress, you'll be seeing the same guns but this time in decent condition. Which can make you feel like the game's weapon variety is lacking when in fact this is not the case. Explore enough and you'll discover plenty of cool and unique weapons like experimental gun prototypes, silenced rifles, and even one grisly chainsaw. On top of that, the game features a crafting system that allows you to put together a lot of unique guns, not to mention various bombs, armors and utility items.
I also didn't really like that only the main hub city had a dedicated arms dealer. As a result, most of your guns you either find in predetermined locations while exploring, loot after combat, or get a lucky spawn when trading with a passing caravan. And trust me, you'll be doing plenty of that. ATOM RPG has a barter system similar to Fallout, but the best stores essentially deal in currency only, which makes random caravan encounters the best place to unload your loot. The game even has an ability that makes those encounters more frequent.
But don't worry, you'll get plenty of opportunities to stumble onto caravans thanks to what I consider ATOM RPG's biggest issue - overworld travel. The speed at which you move between locations on the overworld map is absolutely miserable and due to the game's quest design, you'll be doing a lot of back and forth between its settlements. And while at some point you can find a car, the game splits its world between four different maps. The kicker is - you can only drive on the starting one. You add frequent random encounters into the mix, and you get yourself a recipe for frustration.
By the time I got to the game, it was in a good place performance-wise. It ran well, saved almost instantly, its larger areas were quick to load despite the Unity engine, and it didn't crash or freeze on me once.
The visuals aren't particularly impressive, but they get the job done and fit the game's drab Soviet aesthetic extremely well. I just wish we could tilt the camera a bit more. The audio effects are serviceable, but the soundtrack is extremely understated and one could even call it forgettable.
The save system is pretty good and features the trinity of manual saves, autosaves, and quick saves. The latter can be used in combat if that's your thing.
Overall, ATOM RPG has its fair share of faults and questionable design decisions, and just by reading the review you may assume I didn't like it. That's not the case. Sure, some areas could have been done better, some features stick too close to Fallout while others change things for seemingly no good reason, but at the end of the day, even with those faults, ATOM RPG in my opinion is the best Fallout game since Fallout 2.
So if you're looking for a Fallout-style game that you didn't play through 20 times already, let me assure you that ATOM RPG comes closest to recapturing that old magic. And if the developers behind the game learn from their mistakes and work on getting better at their craft, their next offering may end up quite spectacular.