These days it feels like every second new game released, indie or otherwise, revolves around Norse mythology. Viking warriors doing what they think their gods want them to, said gods ignoring their own rules to do what they want, Tom Hiddelston running amok with the TVA…okay, maybe not that last one, but the point is there are many ways you can retell a common story and still feel fresh. ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is one such game featuring the now familiar setting of Midgard, but at its core beats a very different game that juggles a number of different ideas yet doesn’t fumble along the way.
Midgard has slipped into darkness, a mysterious illness corrupting the land and poisoning the Elder Tree. Having watched her father die to protect it, Estra now takes up arms to uncover the truth not only about the Elder Tree, but of her family legacy and what it might mean for the rest of Midgard.
ATONE plays with a couple of different ideas, combining a traditional adventure with interesting puzzles to solve, a branching narrative path and a rhythm game in place of customary button-mashing combat. Though it may seem like too many ideas thrown in a pot, the team at Wildboy Studios have allowed it to simmer nicely, pulled together with emotional and nicely animated cut-scenes that reminded me of Another World and Flashback in their production.
Midgard is kinda nice this time of year
Every puzzle is different from the last, from selecting tiles in the correct sequence to matching symbols to a specific pattern. It may sound easy, and some of the earlier ones are a little obvious, but there are some real brain-teasers later in the game that ordinarily would leave you stumped if not for the intelligent (and times sneaky) way the game includes little hints to guide you to the correct answer. Most of the time I found myself pausing for a few brief seconds before it would dawn on me, either through exploring the environment around the puzzle itself or somewhere within the world outside. You will have to be careful with a handful of them, as failing may lock you out for a bonus chest or something extra special, but for the most part I found them deceptively clever.
On the flip-side, each combat sequence has you playing a good old game of Guitar Hero, and while that not be as challenging compared to the aforementioned puzzles, it will certainly test your timing. Just like every other rhythm game, you must press the required buttons in time with the prompts as they slide down the screen.
There’s some useful inventory items that will help you out, such as bread to regain health, and they will absolutely come in handy if you struggle to find your rhythm. However, a more useful option is the ability to skip them entirely if you so desire which the dev team included as an accessibility option. So if you want to focus more on the story and in turn listen to the impressive score without the stress of tapping buttons to the tune, you can absolutely do that (or you can crank up the difficulty if you feel so inclined, but that was a little too much for me).
Boss battles as a rhythm game works so well
Once you hit the end credits, which sadly won’t take too long, you’ll be greeted with a result screen that identifies the path you followed. Every decision you make could have a positive or negative outcome along Estra’s path to the Elder Tree, and if you do want to complete every possible scenario it will take a few playthroughs to do so, meaning what originally was a short experience evolves into something a little meatier. I would have loved more, however, especially along the narrative front where the enjoyable, natural sound of the voice cast have been kept to cut-scenes only, which is a shame. There are a few hidden collectibles and side stories you can discover off the beaten path too, but what I wouldn’t give to have a bigger overall journey to take. I’m not talking a bolder tale like God of War, just a little extra time to really get to know the cast of characters. It really does fly by so fast.
I really enjoyed my time with ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree, even though I desperately wanted more meat on its bones. It’s wonderfully presented, with every mechanic cleverly produced to avoid the frustrations and pitfalls that can often hinder such ideas. Combined with some impressive visuals and a pleasing audio score, ATONE is an emotional journey with a splash of originality that I can happily recommend and, if you’re as big of a Norse mythology lover as I am, there’s plenty of lore here to appreciate.