Atlas Fallen Hands On Impressions – PAX East Preview

If you’re as obsessed with the FromSoft formula as I am, you’ve probably already played a Deck13 title — they’re the studio behind soulslikes Lords of the Fallen and The Surge 1 and 2. With Atlas Fallen, however, they’re branching out into a more complex, yet also more approachable, action RPG. The game’s publisher, Focus Entertainment, were at PAX East this year showing off a number of titles, and they were kind enough to let me check out Atlas Fallen. I sat down with design director Jérémy Hartvick, and played for about an hour while we chatted about Deck13’s most ambitious game yet.

Atlas Fallen is a fantasy action RPG that takes place on a world covered in sand — sand that plays an important role in traversal and combat. Your character wields a magic gauntlet that can form weapons out of the sand that covers the planet, and sprinting while on sand lets you Sand Glide. While gliding, your character slides effortlessly across the dunes, and transitions easily into jumps, dodges, and attacks while doing so. It’s clear a lot of effort went into making the controls smooth and precise, and sliding across the sand and leaping into a group of enemies felt awesome.

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Atlas Fallen’s running and jumping was just plain satisfying

Jérémy spoke at length about how important momentum was to the game’s combat. As you fight, you build up a momentum meter; filling the meter to certain points will unlock powerful passive and active abilities and increase your damage — but also increase the damage you receive. As you fill your momentum meter, you become a glass cannon, but when it’s full you can choose to empty your meter with a powerful Shattering attack. You have to keep fighting or your momentum meter will start to deplete, encouraging players to stay on the offensive.

This is further served by the way the game’s parry works: pressing the parry button will cover your character in a temporary protective shell, stunning any enemy attacks that it blocks. This allows you to be exceedingly aggressive, encouraging you to keep attacking to maintain momentum. Of course, if you do prefer a more defensive playstyle, there are over one hundred passive and active abilities you can find and equip, ensuring that no matter your preferences you’ll be able to create an effective build.

The combat also has an interesting element of verticality to it, with numerous flying foes and tall creatures necessitating that you get airborne to deal with them. Your character can leap into the air with ease, and it’s possible to stay in the air for extended periods of time if you keep landing attacks. This isn’t just a tool for attacking large and flying enemies, however: larger, more dangerous foes have body parts that can be specifically targeted — successfully destroying these body parts will allow you to collect unique crafting materials, but also enrages the enemies and makes them more dangerous.

jumping above monster atlas fallen screenshot hands on impressions pax east 2023
Getting ready to serve a knuckle sandwich

With both the momentum meter and the option to target body parts, there’s a clear design decision to offer the player optional risk/reward choices. This agency extends to the difficulty levels as well: unlike many other titles, where difficulty levels simply modify enemy health and damage, Atlas Fallen has proper difficulty levels. On lower difficulties, groups of enemies will politely attack you one at a time, while on Hard they’ll be less willing to wait their turn. You lose a charge of your healing idol with every difficulty level, and the damage increase caused by your momentum meter becomes more punishing as well. In practice, this means that fans of Deck13’s previous titles will be able to play on Hard and be challenged, and people who don’t want to die a bunch can play on Easy and still enjoy themselves.

When it comes to exploration, however, the playing field is level — and while there may sometimes be objective markers, Atlas Fallen doesn’t lead you by the nose to every quest item. Instead, you’ll often be able to see where you need to go, but it won’t be clear how to get there. Like the combat, the game’s level design incorporates a lot of verticality, and you’ll need to use your double jump and mid-air dashes to parkour your way to many a hidden chest.

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The omnipresent desert makes the brief sections of green feel all the more vibrant

In a similar vein, when sent to speak with an NPC in a city, I was surprised to find that after entering the city, I had to actually look for the NPC — all my objective marker told me was that I was in the right general area. Fortunately, the guard at the front gate was able to point me in the right direction. It’s a small thing, but I loved the choice to encourage exploration, and to reward behaving in a realistic way (asking for directions rather than using magical hero intuition to find the person you’re looking for).

Despite the many opportunities for exploration, Atlas Fallen isn’t quite an open world game. Instead, after creating a custom character, you’ll make your way through a series of regions that vary in size; there’s lots to do and see in each area, and you can return to previous zones if you want, but your path through the game’s different regions is linear. Most players will spend about 20-30 hours to complete the core content, and up to 60 hours if going for 100% completion.

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It may not be a true open world, but there are nooks and crannies aplenty

While it isn’t a typical open-world RPG with a map full of collectibles, you will be able to gather plants and use them to craft upgrades, and you can choose to scour the map for chests and hidden goodies. It looks to have kept the most satisfying elements of open-world games in (exploration and freedom of movement), but with a focus on meaningful, crafted areas over copy-pasted, repetitive content.

The combat and the exploration were both captivating, and it was hard to pull myself away from Atlas Fallen (I might have been a few minutes late to my next appointment). It was clear in talking to Jérémy that Deck13 are very proud of what they’ve accomplished, and based on my time with Atlas Fallen, I’d say they have every right to be.

Atlas Fallen releases May 16th for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC via Steam.

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Unabashed FromSoftware fanboy still learning to take his time with games (and everything else, really). The time he doesn't spend on games is spent on music, books, or occasionally going outside.

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