Atlantis Evolution Review

Curtis Hewitt is a young photojournalist, traveling across the Atlantic, when a severe storm causes the ship he is traveling on to sink. Curtis escapes via a small boat, which is then sucked into a vortex in the ocean. He awakens to find himself in a strange land -- which he soon discovers is the fabled Atlantis. But it is a strange Atlantis, unlike any previously-known descriptions of the Utopian land. This Atlantis is one where the people are virtual zombies, completely dominated by angry, insensitive, demoralizing gods. Curtis must explore this new land, learn its people and customs, and hopefully become the savior for whom they have been waiting -- the God of Life who can liberate them from their oppression.

Atlantis Evolution is distributed on 4 CD-ROMs, and the only installation option is to copy all files from all CDs to the user's hard drive. While this results in a game that is playable without the discs, it also requires 4GB of hard disk space to install. Most other system requirements are fairly modest (see sidebar).

The game begins with a fairly lengthy video that depicts the storm, the ship sinking, and Curtis' escape and eventual transport to the new world of Atlantis. My initial response was quite positive, as the video was done quite well, and the graphics and gameplay that begin the game are of high quality. But the main problem with Atlantis Evolution -- and one which continued to plague the game throughout -- was the apparent inability of the game to determine its genre. Ostensibly an adventure game, much of Atlantis Evolution could just as equally be classed as an arcade game, or even a shooter.

One of the criteria most common to adventure games is the ability to explore -- usually freely and at will. Several features of Atlantis Evolution curtailed this exploration dramatically. From early in the game, I (playing as Curtis) constantly found myself in situations that limited my ability to move. The moment I arrived in Atlantis, I was targeted as a "deviant" -- i.e., someone who displeases the gods, and doesn't belong in Atlantis -- and targeted for extermination. As a result, everywhere I turned, I ran into Guardians -- the "Atlantean military", armed with futuristic stun guns -- who shoot first and ask questions later. I could take no more than three or four steps before being killed. This gives very little time to explore, as any misstep could result in instant death.

And you will die in this game. And die, and die, and die, and die. At first, I wasn't overly bothered by this, since any death results in the game restarting just before the misstep, providing the user a "do over". However, after the 20th or 30th time trying to explore the same area and being foiled continuously by these constant attacks, "frustrated" doesn't begin to describe my reaction. Atlantis Evolution takes killing the player to a new -- and exasperating -- level.

What's even worse is that, while Curtis is pursued constantly throughout most of the game (and usually shot on sight -- accompanied by a phrase that I eventually got to hate with a passion: "Halt, deviant!"), he is never able to obtain any kind of weapon to use in retaliation. So in that regard, the game is a shooter without a weapon -- where the object is to avoid the dozens of "shooters" by running away.

Especially at first, there are very few clues as to where Curtis is to go, or what he is to do. For the first half of the game, he wanders where he can -- mostly directed by the "herding" that results from the Guardians who continue to kill him. ("Oops, I can't go that way. Let's try this way. Rats, dead again! Let's try this other path.")

And that word -- "herding" -- basically describes the majority of the game. As Curtis moves through the game, paths behind him often become inaccessible. The player may try to get Curtis to retrace his steps, only to hear Curtis say "I'm not going back there!" With dozens of Guardians determining where he cannot go, and paths continually closing behind him, the game becomes extremely linear. I constantly had the feeling that the developers simply didn't want to take the time to handle multiple options, but found it easier to just push Curtis in one direction, and keep the game linear. This changes what could have been a very pro-active game into a predominantly reactive one.

I should also distinguish between the development of the story/game flow, and the artwork required in transforming the basic storyboards into 3D landscapes. One of the first things a player will notice when playing AE are the bright, well-rendered graphics. Atlantis is mostly a sunny, high-color/high-contrast environment, with vegetation that ranges from the familiar to the very odd. Whimsical designs of the flora and fauna keep the game visually attractive.

AE uses a proprietary game engine, based on a familiar fixed-scenes-with-transitions mode. Scenes consist of beautifully pre-rendered backgrounds, frequent layered animations (e.g., birds flying, snakes slithering, bugs crawling, water rippling), and 360-degree panning (although I was frequently dismayed by the inabilitly to pan vertically as far as I would have liked). Simple cursor icons indicate directions of movement, objects that can be interacted with, etc. Movement between scenes is point-and-click, with fairly quick scene transitions. Most of the scenes are incredibly detailed. Clearly a lot of time was put into the visual design of AE.

As Curtis progresses on his journey through Atlantis, he encounters many other characters with whom he can interact. Once again, kudos go to the animators for the attention to detail in creating each of the characters. It is very easy to identify with the various characters, quickly creating a mental profile on each. Most are fairly stereotypic (i.e., clearly evil or helpless or aggressive or pathetic or whatever), but that makes it simpler to pick out the "good guys" and the "bad guys". Often, dialogue with the characters takes place in cut-scenes (again, excellently rendered). There is also the opportunity for much interactive, player-directed dialogue, as well, although much of the dialogue is repetetive. Subtitles can be turned on, but when I did so, longer sentences didn't always wrap properly and instead went off the screen.

Another repetetive theme throughout AE is the fallback on simple arcade games. At many points in his exploration, Curtis encounters machines which are "keys" to progressing further. Each of these machines turns out to be a simple video arcade game that Curtis must play, to move ahead. The player will find him/herself playing Frogger, Pong, Breakout and other familiar arcade games, all slightly modified to (supposedly) fit into the Atlantean theme. But in short, it's a bust. The games are an interruption to whatever minor story line AE is trying to generate, and provide yet another timed, trigger-fingered aspect to what is purportedly an adventure game. This only added to my befuddlement as to the game's genre. (Nor is it ever explained why the Atlantean gods chose cheap, out-of-date arcade games as the "key" to their highly-advanced secrets.)

There are many inventory puzzles in AE -- mostly bringing the right objects to the right place, to use for the right purposes. There are also a few (far too few for my tastes) logic puzzles. Many times, listening carefully to conversations with other characters will provide the hints needed for Curtis to progress. But much of the game is fairly non-intuitive, requiring a lot of trial and error and fruitless searching.

Another frustrating aspect of the game relates to this searching. Many times, Curtis must traverse a long path, through scene after scene of lush vegetation (or rooms of a building), looking at carefully detailed objects, etc. -- none of which are interactive, or play any part in the game (other than to extend the playtime in a contrived manner). When first passing through these scenes, one's natural response is to spend time investigating all aspects of everything in detail. (And I found this necessary, since one or two items required serious pixel-hunting to locate and retrieve them. They were not obvious at a casual glance.) But after the searching has been done, those scenes do nothing more than make long trips even longer. The lack of any kind of zoom mode, or warping to previously-visited locations, becomes painfully apparent.

There is also a lot of contrived difficulty in the game. Things that would normally be simple to accomplish have unnecessary obstacles placed in the way (e.g., by limiting timed sequences, or being killed over and over, or having to traverse extensive distances or talk with characters repeatedly), making the game appear more difficult. AE is actually a fairly simple game (and should be playable in 12-15 hours, except for the machinations introduced for apparently no other reason than to slow game progress). The only "stumpers" in the game are the "What do I do now?" questions that could have been reduced with a bit more intuitive game design.

I was also bothered by the multitude of story inconsistencies. In addition to the already-mentioned question of why a highly-advanced civilization would be using 1990's arcade games to access critically important information, there's the very existence of Atlantis itself. In AE, the city of Atlantis is not under water -- it is beneath the sea. Curtis travels through a hole in the earth's crust (via the vortex at sea), to a land inside of present-day Earth -- but a land lush with vegetation and color, land and sea, and (particularly mystifying) a bright sun that shines during the "day" and departs at "night" (something that is never explained). Nor is there any explanation as to why -- if the connection between the outer surface and Atlantis is through a hole in the crust, beneath the ocean -- the ocean doesn't just flow into Atlantis, like a bathtub emptying down the drain.

The Guardians, too, are inconsistent. When Curtis is supposed to be evading them (for the sake of gameplay), they appear from everywhere. They pop up without warning, killing Curtis with their stun guns. They seem to be around every corner. But when the game deems that it is an appropriate time for Curtis to "sneak by" one of the Guardians, he can literally walk up behind one of them and stand out in the open, less then 3 feet away, without being detected.

A word should also be said about the game's ESRB rating. The rating is "T" (for "Teen"), and additional comments mention that one of the reasons (aside from the repeated killing) is "partial nudity". While none of the scenes in AE would deserve more than a PG-13 rating as a movie, some players may be offended by a couple of the situations (and scenes) in the game.

Overall, while this review does focus on some of the aggravating aspects of Atlantis Evolution, the game was still enjoyable to play, for the most part. I'd say that it takes a certain mindset -- ignore the mixing of adventuring, shooting, arcading and puzzling. Don't take the game too seriously; don't look for all the holes in the story. Focus on the characters, the animations, the graphics, the cut-scenes, the overall atmosphere, and the one or two puzzles that actually require some logical thinking, and you'll come up with an entertaining diverson.

-- Frank Nicodem