I’m an old skool gamer at heart. My love of gaming started at a young age and I still find a great deal of enjoyment playing retro inspired games. The twin stick shooter days started way back in the days of Robotron and we’ve seen the genre evolve over the decades, culminating in the adoption of mechanics from others. More recently, there seems to be an obsession with procedural generation and Rogue-like progression. Atomic Heist is the next game hoping to find success with this simple premise but does it hold up?
The player takes control of a little space ship and must simply get the core to the end of the ten levels without dying. You must kill everything in the level, find upgrades and if you die, you need to start again. It leans heavily on mechanics perfected in games like The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon but doesn’t quite hit the same lofty heights.
Unlike other Rogue-like games, upgrades are fixed once fully unlocked. This allows you to modify your load out and hopefully have a better run next time. This doesn’t stop the game being unnecessarily difficult and heavily unbalanced in the early stages and it’s quite easy to see how some people would be put off. I love difficult games, but managing ammo, health, a radiation meter as well as bullet sponge enemies and an environment that is always exploding can be rather frustrating. Not only that, but the most powerful weapons are likely to kill you as often as they kill enemies. It’s an attempt at balance so the player doesn’t just grab a rocket launcher and lay waste to everything in sight, but there’s already so much stuff trying to kill you it can feel a bit OTT at times.
Procedurally generated maps mean you can never get a lay of the land either. Small twisting corridors hide enemies from the player and they’re also littered with explosive boxes to stunt your progress. It’s all a bit generic which is a problem we find with this kind of level design. It’s also quite unimaginative and bland. Don’t get me wrong, it’s clean and easy to read but it’s not always fun to play.
Enemies take on the form of mechanical bugs. There’s a decent variety but as you progress most are just simple reskins. Some fire salvos of rockets and laser beams and some are designed to push you into corners where they can ram you to death. It’s been built to be uncomfortable and forces you to learn enemy types as well as manage target priority. Every few levels it throws in a boss which is usually just the same enemies with a larger health pool. Most of the time you’ll reach these things and find you’re short on ammo, health or both. It’s at this point it becomes less about survival and more about cheesing the mechanics. Either that or you have to hope for a great deal of luck.
And this is where it all falls apart. Like other Rogue-like games, luck plays a major part in your success of failure. As the player you’re relying on the systems giving you an easy ride – easier enemy placement, lots of power ups and simple level generation. Far too often I’ve found myself dropping into a level to be immediately faced with an enemy who can one-shot kill me, or I’m surrounded by explosive boxes where the first shot sets off a chain reaction that obliterates everything. Sure there’s an upgrade system the make things a little easier but again, the balance seems wildly off.
Upgrades are unlocked by picking up various weapons throughout each level. If the player kills enough enemies with said weapon, it become available to select at the start and can be upgrade with various pickups. These effect projectiles speed and damage but others can be collected to slow enemies and reduce damage. Or if you’re mental, you can make a hard game even harder.
I can see why the difficulty is set where it is, any easier and you could blast through it in half an hour. If you did you probably wouldn’t be back as there is no real incentive to play again except to get through faster. When I started it was an exercise in patience as progress was slow. Once I learned how the game ticked, the only stumbling blocks were the bullet sponge bosses. It’s has that “just one more go” approachability so there’s something positive in there. Personally I didn’t feel the draw to pick it up once I’d switched it off.
Some gamers will love it, the majority will hate it. It’s challenging but very frustrating. It wears it’s colours with pride and doesn’t pretend to be anything game changing but it’s also not very fun. Bland levels, and uninspired enemy design can’t be saved by the simple to pick up, difficult to master gameplay so I find it hard to recommend.