Everything old is new again in Atlantis Evolution. Or maybe everything new is old again. Call it a case of déjà new. It feels like we've been here before, but nothing's quite the same.
However you describe it, "old meets new" is the recurring theme weaving throughout the game. An ancient legend in a modern world. A standard theme with a unique premise. A tired formula with a novel focus. Predictable design with unique ambition. Familiar mistakes with a creative style. Outdated activities in an original context. This peculiar collision of history and creation should come as no surprise, I suppose. It is meant to be an "evolution," after all, conceived by a new development team (Atlantis Interactive Entertainment) born of an old one (Cryo) that took us to Atlantis three times before. The only question is, does it work? I'd give you the short answer, but it would be more helpful to dive in and plunge a little deeper.
In a wonderfully dramatic opening, the rusty old ship Lemuria is suddenly assailed by a ferocious storm that sends young photographer Curtis Hewitt scurrying below deck. After a short but engaging playable section to draw you into the crisis, you'll discover the ship can't be saved, leaving Curtis to escape in a rowboat just in time to see the Lemuria sink to its watery grave. But before he can even breathe a sigh of relief, he's swept up in a whirlpool, and loses consciousness as he gives himself up for dead... only to awaken on calm seas under a sunny sky in the scenic New Atlantis.
Curtis soon realizes his safety is short-lived, however. Behind its obvious natural beauty, this fabled land beneath the Earth's surface is anything but a paradise. The natives have been cast out and outlawed as rebels, and the Atlantean citizens brainwashed and controlled by a tyrannical family of gods. Upon arriving, Curtis is labeled a "deviant" to be reconditioned, and becomes a hunted man. Like any good adventure game hero, of course, his challenge is not only to elude capture and find a way home, but also to liberate the people of New Atlantis from their oppression.
It's right here that the old and new culture clashes start to become apparent. Atlantis Evolution is very much a story-centered, character-driven game, but is presented in the traditional first-person, node movement, point & click format. There's no rule that says these are exclusive, mind you, but there are so many third-person cutscenes triggered throughout the game that it's clear the designers really wanted to tell a visually-rich cinematic tale, but were constrained by the format they utilized. Rather than complement each other, the two styles often seem to conflict with a non-immersive stop-go/fast-slow narrative pacing.
Perhaps if the game's engine was more advanced, the discrepancy wouldn't be so noticeable. Unfortunately, AE feels like a painful step backwards technologically. Calling the populated areas "sparse" would be an understatement, and there are no transition effects between nodes. There are some nice environmental animations, but they are limited and sporadic, so in one scene you'll see butterflies fluttering about, and in the next encounter a pond whose ripples don't actually ripple. The most disappointing feature of all, though, is the blurriness of the backgrounds. This simulated depth perception has been a staple of adventures for years, but where once it may have been a necessary sacrifice, there's really no justification for doing it poorly now. While progressive games like Myst IV handle it with new and improved techniques, other games like Aura and The Egyptian Prophecy have successfully moved to crisply focused perspectives. I hoped we'd turned that corner forever, but Atlantis Evolution stubbornly resorts to the older style, which made me desperately want to book an eye exam for Curtis.
Fortunately, what's visible through the squinting is a very pretty world. The many cutscenes are exceptionally well crafted, and AE's art design is delightfully imaginative, richly detailed, and vibrantly coloured. This game is a fantasy adventure, and never loses sight of that. Character models are all subtly stylized with exaggerated, striking features, and as you guide Curtis through crystalline caves and various tropical landscapes, there's no shortage of creative flora and fauna competing for your attention.
While you're standing around gawking at the giant spore-plants, two-headed vultures, and upturned purple umbrella trees, however, you'll frequently find yourself on the wrong end of an Atlantean ray gun. When I said Curtis was hunted, I meant actively hunted. Oh yes, Atlantis Evolution has plenty of death scenes at your expense. The good news is that the game doesn't drop you into a "game over" reload (which is a relief, since the menus consist of nothing but unlabeled "Atlantean" symbols), but rather deposits you back at the beginning of the sequence in which you died. The bad news is that this happens A LOT, often while doing activities you don't enjoy in the first place, so starting over is anything but a consolation.
Before moving on, now's a good time to have a little recap of the gameplay elements most commonly despised by adventurers:
- timed segments
- mazes (double raspberry for timed mazes)
- stealth sequences
- arcade mini-games
- pixel hunts
- slider puzzles
Now let's review the list of those gameplay elements not found in Atlantis Evolution:
- slider puzzles
The second list is awfully short, isn't it? Sadly, the inescapable truth is that AE not only includes so many activities that gamers are known to dislike, but it beats us over the head with them. You'll race Curtis through a twisty maze with guards on your heels, only to find that you needed to collect items you didn't know existed. Back out you go--this time on a scavenger pixel hunt through a twisty maze with guards on your heels. Survive that ordeal (after many inevitable failures) and then another death-defying, timed environmental challenge, and you'll land right at the beginning of a LARGER maze. This one isn't timed; just far more confusing, and also hiding tiny objects you couldn't possibly know you'd need until you reach the end.
Sure, these mazes aren't impossible--they're simply no fun. Then again, they're probably less aggravating then the stealth sequence where you'll need to sneak Curtis past patrolling guards. Wait, whoops... did I say "sequence"? I meant the plural "sequences"! Once again, your reward for making it through one episode of clumsy, trial-end-error, node-based sneaking will be another one, but this time even harder. By this stage, I was sure I had discovered the meaning of "anti-fun". I was wrong. That distinction was still to come.
Scattered throughout AE are terminals that activate primitive mini-games. From Defender to Frogger to Pong (remember those?), apparently the pinnacle of Atlantean evolution is similar to our own arcade games of the 1980's. The only thing missing is Pac-Man, I believe. Unfortunately, the Atlanteans mustn't have grasped the need for responsive controls, as several games suffer dreadfully in that regard, making them much harder than they need to be. To be fair, some of these mini-games are mildly fun, and some are actually puzzle-based, such as the Sokoban and Hanoi Tower terminals. Still, regardless of the quality or difficulty, their inclusion is entirely random and arbitrary, serving as gameplay filler rather than relevant narrative devices.
After surviving each of the above endurance tests, (well into the game, I'm afraid) Atlantis Evolution finally settles into more comfortable adventure gameplay, like exploration, clue gathering, item collecting, and manipulating the environment. Although the order of required actions remains fairly linear, the pace is much more relaxed, and the areas open up and allow for more freedom of movement. You're not quite done with the pixel hunts, however, and you'll also encounter an untriggered hotspot guaranteed to trip you up unfairly, but for the most part, you'll be relishing the improved direction of the game, and wondering why the heck it took so long to get there.
As Curtis is finally allowed to do more than run for his life and avoid getting lost, the plot and character development become far more prominent, as well. I won't spoil Curtis' role in the unfolding drama, but suffice to say that his arrival in New Atlantis might not be a coincidence. Slowly but surely, you begin to unravel the bizarre and tragic history of Atlantis, and piece together what must be done to right many centuries of wrongs. Although this sounds sincere, make no mistake--the story of AE is completely hokey, but we'll assume that's by design. It's a blend of sci-fi and surreal fantasy that is so outrageously over-the-top, with so many unbelievable logic gaps, it couldn't possibly be serious. (Could it?… Naaah.)
The cast of characters in the game also contributes to the campy tone, and the hackneyed dialogue really drives the point home. The Atlantean villagers (no great "civilization" in AE) are essentially cult members; unhelpful and frightened and darn near lobotomized as they "tread the path of humility and shame." The human-like "gods" of Atlantis prove to be a sniveling, whiny, infighting family of brats. Though their personalities are irritating, they are strangely appropriate to the atmosphere of the game. Curtis, himself, serving as both main character and occasional narrator, comes across as glib and remarkably unaffected by the circumstances, as if he himself doesn't believe the story going on around him. Personally, I didn't blame him, but as the lead, you think he'd be a little more emotionally invested in matters of life and death.
All this would be tolerable with a B-movie charm, but the poor voice acting and weak lip-synching shatter the fragile illusion. Curtis gets one of the better vocal performances, but even his character wavers unevenly. Far too many of the secondary characters range from mediocre to downright awful; either stiff and wooden or overly theatrical. The notable exception here is Miranda, a native who is introduced early but vastly underused (and I'm not just saying that because she's scantily-clad). Whatever suspension of disbelief the game tenuously clings to at the best of times is jeopardized pretty much every time the non-playable characters open their mouths. At least subtitles are an option, so if you're a fast reader, you can minimize the verbal damage.
Thankfully, where AE falls short in the voice department, it comes back with a vengeance in the rest of its audio presentation. Ambient effects are prevalent and well done, and some of the music is truly noteworthy, whether through classic orchestral arrangements or atmospheric ethnic scores.
Ah, if only sweet melodies and inspired artistry were enough to make a game great. But no, they're only enough to tempt and entice; a style in search of substance. Yet with an imaginative twist to the mythology of the lost continent and a strong focus on cinematic storytelling, there was reason to believe that Atlantis Evolution might be able to deliver on its ambitions. Regrettably, it turns out that the vortex swallowing Curtis in the early going is (unintentionally) symbolic of the game's promise sinking into the depths. With an emphasis on frustrating gameplay elements and archaic mini-games, a script that strains all credibility, and outdated technology that undermines the artists' own visual flair, the result is a title with an identity crisis between the old days of Cryo (with a dash of Atari) and new beginnings for Atlantis Interactive Entertainment. As this is the first of a projected series of Atlantis games, I sincerely hope the developers pay particular attention to what does and doesn't work in this game, as it's such a shame to see great potential wasted by poor design.
In case it isn't painfully obvious by now, I really can't recommend this game to anyone on its own merits. Fans of the earlier Cryo games may be interested, though even they'll need to realize that it most closely resembles the erratic Lost Tales rather than the improved sequels. Those that simply can't get enough of the sunken city in any form may also find it worth the 10-15 hours it takes to complete. For all others, Atlantis Evolution is best left alone, because it's drowning in problems.