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Atom RPG (PC) artwork

Atom RPG (PC) review

"In Soviet Russia, the Fanbase Keeps the Legacy Alive"

If there is one thing I have learned about the post-apocalypse sub-genre it is that you can trust the Eastern Europeans know their stuff, and there is not a more avid fanbase out there. The STALKER video-game series is loosely based off the real-life Chernobyl Disaster as well as the 1971 novel, Roadside Picnic, and the 1979 film aptly named STALKER. These games still are updated with new mods, and the sheer number of mods from Eastern Europe eclipses whatever we’ll see in the West. The Metro series, created by Dmitry Glukhovsky, is both a well-respected international book series as well as a video-game series based on the life below the surface after the apocalypse in Moscow. Finally, with regards to the Fallout franchise, there continues to be new fan-made expansions such as Fallout: Nevada or the development of Fallout: Sonora. Needless to say, and there are dozens of other examples you could mention from various media, if the world comes to nuclear annihilation there is one half of the world better prepared to deal with the reality of the situation.

Now generalizations are not facts nor are they meant to act as evidence; it would be more correct to state they are trends viewed from an outsider’s perspective, sometimes more rooted in truth than mere coincidence. Off the top of my head, I can think of various Eastern European authors with no relation to this genre such as Anton Chekhov (The Lady with the Dog), Sergei Dovlatov (The Suitcase) or Andrzej Sapkowski (The Witcher book series.) The sheer prevalence of these mods and fan-made works might also be rationalized by the scarcity and the cost of new games, so, as a result, these players have greater attachment to their games than Western audiences. However, given the vast number of post-apocalypse mods since the 1990s--especially for staples like Fallout--there is perhaps greater cultural significance to this genre because of the aftereffects of Chernobyl and the collapse of the USSR. Similar to the weird obsession Western audiences have to zombie media and the emphasis on consuming them like mindless hordes--oh, look, a late-Memorial Day sale on cheaply produced consumer goods to fuel my capitalistic desires; what was I talking about again? Oh, right, ATOM RPG.

Pseudo-philosophical discussions of art aside, ATOM RPG is more than a mere homage to the Fallout games it clearly took inspiration from; the game itself is as much a satirical celebration of the post-apocalypse fandom as a loosely-inspired parallel to the real anguish during the Cold War. Does this statement mean ATOM RPG is political? No, unless having fun and cracking jokes about past events are damnable offenses, comrade; there are political overtones such as hyperbolic statements of communism like in Fallout, but there are no overt messages. The game, as much as the message itself, is a Wasteland of our past with no clear meaning but “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats” (line 22.) What you can be certain of is that you’ll always come away with a smile if you can see past the game at its worst to relish another moment when it outshines its inspirations.

It Don’t Mean A Thing, Comrade, If It Ain’t Got Stalin’

If you have any background knowledge of classic RPGs, then the video’s opening as well as the usage of reverse-psychology should immediately inform you ATOM RPG is a spiritual successor to the Classic Fallout titles. The real question to ask is, “Which Fallout or Wasteland game, if any, does ATOM best imitate, and what sets this game from its predecessors or its current competition?”

From the SPECIAL or CLASSIC character sheets and the Wasteland 2 UI aesthetic, the differences should be immediately apparent that ATOM did not simply rehash these older games without learning from some of their mistakes. Like Fallout 1 and 2, ATOM is a single-party-member (with “suggestions” for teammates) CRPG with all the problems inherited from before. As someone who didn’t like playing the original Fallouts for this one reason, my two problems with this system remain the same: You don’t have total control during combat, which adds too much luck to my liking, and the lack of cover-mechanics makes the “strategy” feel more like exploiting the AI’s sight-lines.

This first limitation has been somewhat addressed with the Quality of Life update, providing you various commands during combat to corral your teammates from getting killed. However, the gameplay is nowhere near as streamlined as Wasteland 2, which, as a result, discourages players to make non-optimal characters and to enjoy their character flaws as a group. As a result, if you didn’t like how Fallout 1 and 2 played, then I don’t see how ATOM will change your mind as the game also ramps up the combat difficulty.

In the game’s defense, however, ATOM does address stat-related problems from Fallout. Now I won’t go into all the major changes as I will save that information for the complimentary video on my “So, Comrade, You Want to Survive?” guide. There are two major changes that I will mention because it would be ignorant to suggest ATOM copy-and-pasted the same mechanics.

For starters, weapons have higher skill-requirements as well as an attribute-requirement, which prevents players creating one character who can use anything. In the old Fallouts, you could dump six points into strength and use almost any weapon until you received Power Armor, which gave you another three strength points. These skills are also more evenly distributed between five categories of weapons, three of which are firearm-related skills. Second, every attribute point has value rather than every even value, which is another exploit only die-hard Fallout fans would know, and attributes extend to level eleven. For example, every point into Dexterity (the ATOM equivalent of Agility in Fallout) gives you one point to your natural armor (or Dodge rating) whereas every two points give you an additional action-point (AP.) If all that information sounds too complex, or if you have never played a traditional Fallout, then all you need to understand is you have to be smarter about how you create your character in ATOM.

Now these deviations have all been about gameplay alterations, but what truly sets ATOM apart from any Fallout or Wasteland title is its tone. Fallout 1 was largely serious with only an occasional self-aware wink; Fallout 2 was littered with references and a more lax narrative; and Wasteland 2 also had many references or fourth-wall moments that took the player out of the world. The tone of ATOM, however, is in a league of its own as it strikes a balance between philosophical satire--sometimes alluding to Fallout or STALKER lore like the tale of the Mojave Courier--and magical realism that sometimes accepts its own insanity.

As an example, one of the first characters you meet in the tutorial town, Otradnoye, is a man wearing a tinfoil hat who claims you are the spawn of some demon, so you exercise the bourgeoisie demons out of him and send them into a nearby pig. You might look at this bizarre Baldur’s Gate and Animal Farm reference as distracting, but the game takes an agnostic view of the result, leaving you to wonder if the man was really crazy or if you are losing your sanity. Like a game of Russian Roulette, you never know what to expect next.

Most side-quests and NPCs strike this balance between realism and satire while never going too far to take you out of the immersion. Tim Cain, lead designer of the original Fallout titles, once had a rule, “If the player didn’t get [the joke or the cultural reference], [he or she] shouldn’t even know the cultural reference is being made.” ATOM mostly lives up to that rule, although the constant comrade remarks and the fact that everyone speaks so boisterously does juxtapose with the apocalypse in the background, which may be the joke itself or my American cynicism wondering why the Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Latvians are always so upbeat. (There are also plenty of in-jokes only Eastern European audiences would get, but there were a few faces and names I could identify.) This game also avoids feeling too dated in its humor since the game takes place in an alternate future of 2005, which doesn’t separate it too far from the late-1980s atmosphere it wants to evoke.

Another aspect that helps to cement its absurdist realism is that the main-quest and most of the HUBs are all about exploring the Wasteland and solving the day-to-day dilemmas for profit, information or happenstance, and you often have five to six means to resolve those situations. These quests, even the main quest-line, are entirely non-linear, which does make your wandering feel more unpredictable as you can stumble across unique random encounters or new side-quests as incentives to keep exploring. Even when you have beaten the game, many NPC personalities will change if you play as the opposite sex--and if you play as a female character with the Sex Appeal trait, you are pretty much on easy mode--and it’s this level of richness to the world that makes it all the more enticing to unravel.

Combined with this down-to-earth quest design, there are no exotic weapons like energy guns nor many sci-fi elements like Power Armor, which really bummed me out because the game hints that these things could exist--just look at how beautiful is this Soviet Power Armor model. (That sight alone would make the enemy turn Red out of envy.) There are several Steam forum posts to suggest that these features could be added in future updates as ATOM TEAM has provided several free additions since its full-release, and these more exotic elements wouldn’t stand out if they maintained that level of authenticity with the rest of the game. Regardless, the more I describe ATOM’s world, the more I feel like I am taking away from letting you experience its wonders for yourself--and I haven’t even begun to mention a quarter of the most bizarre moments you will find.

Although, and I say this statement not because I am offended, some of the writing may turn some people away from how brazen it can be, and I wouldn’t suggest this game for most minors (hence why this video has an age restriction.) From the Jewish bookseller who first says, “Oi vey!”, to the side-quest where a male-prostitute named Mr. Nasty asks you to make a porno with a bunch of mutants, ATOM doesn’t hold anything back when it wants to be curt. (In case you’re wondering about the side-quest, Mr. Nasty believes the more degenerate a society becomes the greater its technological advancement.) Some dialogue choices honestly made me laugh from how mean-spirited your responses can be, and I wouldn’t want the game any other way--just know what you’re getting into before you jump right in and complain about the writing, which is almost all text-based with very few voice-overs. Speaking of which, the writing itself, while it may show some translations flaws the further you play, can have moments where the more serious exchanges can be as evocative as the best lore of New Vegas.

Somehow, and I cannot tell you why in any great detail, this surrealist post-apocalypse manages to come together in a way that, as Todd Howard would say, “It just works.” In short, if Fallout 4 made you crave for punishment because the developers went too soft on the player’s actions, then ATOM RPG will flog you, verbally and mechanically, when you make a mistake and you will find yourself enjoying it.

Some Grief; Some Joy: Memories Are Made of This

Most of this review has managed to avoid spoilers outside of one or two side-quests, but this section will mainly discuss elements that cannot be discussed without some spoiling some aspects of the gameplay and the story. You can skip this section if you desire, but you may want to stick around until major spoilers are brought up such as talking about the ending or the companions.

Although there isn’t much to say about the gameplay other than it is in the vein of classic Fallout titles, explaining why ATOM is more difficult than its predecessors would help newcomers. While the old Fallouts let you explore the game non-linearly, and there are plenty of people who can go from the start to the final area, the game was designed with a linear progression. If you have ever looked up a walkthrough, you can identify the core progression of weapons and gear from the intended path. ATOM doesn’t really have this kind of system, although you can obtain certain weapons as quest-rewards; most weapons, gear and other forms of loot are completely randomized to suit its non-linear structure.

This aspect wouldn’t normally be a problem, if handled correctly, but the randomized pool of loot is based on your character level, not the game’s progression, which can create unintended difficulty spikes. Admittedly, this problem only reared its ugly head at the very last area where the enemies dealt too much damage for my character to handle, even when doped up on painkillers and battle-stimulants. If you play the game without the Child Prodigy (or Gifted) trait, then I don’t think you will reach the point where the game demands you to reach the end-game threshold of Level 15.

In addition to this core progression change, there is a heavier emphasis in ATOM to use aimed shots rather than standard shots. Fallout always had these options, but outside of aiming at the head or the eyes for critical hits or aiming at the arms and the legs to cripple an enemy--or just shooting someone in the groin for flavor text--you never had to use them. If you want to avoid taking too much damage, however, you will want to prioritize aimed shots for most encounters, and sometimes shooting at the gaps in the enemies’ armor deals more damage than if you have a good shot at their head (if it’s protected.) Armor penetration ammo can mitigate some of these problems, but if you could see the armor ratings for your aimed shots then I think more people would use them liberally as intended. This gameplay decision also encourages players having at least eight to ten Action Points like the old Fallouts so you can make multiple attacks per turn as most weapons use anywhere from three to six points. By no means is this a deal-breaker, but it is a subtle change that will catch most people off-guard.

Finally, there is the problem of recruiting characters and their starting levels. There is Fidel who starts around level six, Hexogen who starts around level ten, Alexander, who I never recruited as I did not prioritize the player’s home base, and not-Dogmeat at level five (I’m not even going to try to pronounce his name.) Most of these companions will either be at your level or beyond your own when you encounter them, but not-Dogmeat is an exception. You find the dog while wandering the Wastes with a certain Survival skill level, and no matter what point of the game you find him he will always be at level five. This can create more problems because finding dog-armor is almost impossible, but he does have a unique ability-tree where you can buff his resistances to damage as well as an incredibly high Dodge rating. My recommendation for getting party members, if you plan on taking them, is to get them ASAP so you can keep them close to your own level.

Speaking of companions, and this is the part of the section where we enter spoiler territory, most of them feel pointless to the overall narrative. There aren’t any side-quests associated to them other than moments where you learn a little more about each character from interacting with other NPCs. Their banter, however, is incredibly entertaining, especially when your “amigo” Fidel chastises ol’ grandpa Hexogen, and I do feel like I missed out not having Alexander. The real problem is how stagnant they come across because you cannot influence any character’s fate, except if they die somewhere during your game (and these characters die a lot because you cannot order them to use healing items mid-combat.) This aspect of the storyline, more so than the problems with the main quest, is the weakest part of the narrative if you compare these characters to the likes of other CRPGs.

Now during the Early Access period, my greatest concern with the storyline was how could an adventure as bizarre as ATOM ever create as meaningful of a resolution as the journey. The short answer is that they didn’t, but the longer answer shouldn’t dissuade you from finishing the game.

Part of the problem is that there are many side quests with no relation to the HUBs, so their omission to the ending is understandable. Even the few quests that do determine how each settlement turns out can often have various ways to resolve their dilemmas, peacefully, through violence or by other nefarious methods. The main quest-line, however, is neutered from providing as much depth as the other quests because these quests are structured as a mystery where the revelation is what you’re working towards. Now these quests do provide you moments where you do have agency, but other than immediate consequences they have too few aftereffects reflected through the ending slideshow--and the ending’s ambiguity feels like one adventure that ended too soon from where it should have ended.

The expression, “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” is a phrase all too common for games because, what we cannot admire about their execution, we can appreciate the experience. As most gamers and most game-developers would attest, we play games, not finish them.

ATOM RPG currently has an average Metacritic critical rating of 70, and if you were able to switch timelines where Fallout came after ATOM, then most critics today would likely rate Fallout similarly. I mention this hypothetical scenario not to imply that ATOM is as good or as bad as Fallout nor to diminish other critics’ perspectives; my point is if you can learn to forgive the many, many mistakes Fallout has made then you can also learn to accept ATOM. You might find that comparison unfair given that ATOM is a game twenty years after Fallout, but you also have to remember it was a game made for those same players twenty years ago. To those fans and for the many people who can appreciate games in spite of their flaws, ATOM could be the start to a new nuclear love.


Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (June 07, 2020)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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