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 Outdated activities in an original context.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.Continued on the next page...