Atomic Heart – All Explosion, No Heart
PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
There are reasons you might choose not to play Atomic Heart, even before you read a review of the game’s content. This Bioshock-esque action game has been surrounded by controversy for months, mostly due to developer Mundfish’s noncommittal response to questions about their stance on the invasion of Ukraine. This response may or may not be coming from a place of fear or uncertainty, or may be tied to the fact that some key parties in the game’s development are based in Russia, but we can only speculate on that. This article from Kotaku’s Isaiah Colbert did a more thorough job of explaining it than I will here. But I want to preface this review by saying that Player 2 stands with Ukraine, and if you want to avoid this game based on the external controversy, I wouldn’t blame you.
But even if none of that were at play here, I still wouldn’t recommend this game.
Since it was first announced, Atomic Heart has been likened to the much-loved Bioshock series. Russian, edgy Bioshock with sex robots and – admittedly – more modern and nicer looking graphics. There are many other comparisons to be drawn, some of which are related to the story that, no matter how much I disliked it, I don’t want to spoil. The biggest difference is the game’s setting, which takes place in a post-war alternate universe where the Soviet Union was victorious, meaning the world now predominantly lives under communism. I think somewhere along the way, the goal was to make a philosophical statement on whether or not communism is a good thing, but the way this game’s narrative is delivered makes it hard to follow along with its central thesis. Maybe others will have more luck, but I struggled.
Every time the protagonist – who seemed like he’d been transplanted from an early 2000’s era game – opened his mouth, all I wanted to do was tune him out. It was hard, because he says every single line with a weird sense of urgency and aggression that is so utterly antagonistic to every person he speaks to, even if they’re an ally. He makes an impact. But the words he says feel like they were written by a teenager with anger issues and a need to prove some kind of dominance. I don’t know how much of this was because of the translation to English, but every conversation felt rushed and disorganised, with many of the dialogue choices feeling out of place. I can give it the benefit of the doubt and blame some of the cheesiness (like his signature phrase ‘crispy critters!’) on localisation, but at some point I have to assume that the content of the conversations was the same, and the content was often what I objected to more than the delivery.
And there are so many different ways to be offended by the content. The game’s mascots, twin robots modelled after ballet dancers, are objectified and sexualised from the beginning. When men aren’t referring to or directly addressing the very few female characters in this game in consistent condescension, they’re talking about how it’s natural that men in this world can become ‘robosexual’, and obtain robots to be used for this purpose. Faceless, but somewhat sentient, robots. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game that hated women this much, and I hoped we’d left it in the past, but I’m sad to say that if this game is anything to go by, the misogyny is alive and well. And no, this might not be enough to put everyone off, but even if it doesn’t, the dialogue is bad enough in its own right that no matter what they’re talking about, it’s somehow offensive – even if it’s just offensively bad.
If combat is the thing you care about most in a game, it’s possible you’ll find something to like here. The protagonist, P-3, can obtain a range of weapons, as well as using his glove to unleash energy or powers to attack. An electrical power called ‘SHOK’ can be used to overload robots and make combat easier, to disable drones, or to open doors to unlock new pathways through levels. P-3 can also impart status effects on enemies by raising them into the air with telekinesis, freezing them, or covering them in conductive goo, and all of these make them easier to kill. Some enemies will be resistant to powers and some to ranged weapons entirely, which means leveling up your melee skills can be just as important. The system isn’t anything new, but it mostly works, and some of the enemy designs are interesting and a little unsettling. If carefully curating builds and upgrades is your thing, you might enjoy this aspect of the game. I didn’t, but you might.
Why didn’t I, you may ask? Because upgrading your weapons and abilities usually requires talking to ‘NORA’, a machine who for absolutely no reason at all, is personified as a really horny cowgirl, and who will constantly make uncomfortable noises and assault you with talk of ‘putting things into her’. It’s uncomfortable not only because it makes no sense, but also because P-3 is clearly not consenting to or enjoying it, so not only is it turning another female character into a weird sex object, but it’s also constituting sexual harassment against the protagonist. In a game where there was a lot to dislike, I think I liked NORA the least. Which is a shame, because she really did ruin a perfectly good upgrade system.
It’s worth noting that I played on PC and I had a lot of technical issues with the game. I have a high end gaming laptop that happily runs some pretty hardcore games, and every couple of hours it would be overloaded by Atomic Heart, which I can only assume was due to some poor optimisation. Evening turning the graphics settings down, things struggled to load, would constantly freeze, and I’d lose progress (which I absolutely didn’t want to spend time getting back). More than once, I softlocked the game by spawning into a ceiling after a death, or into a section of the level that wouldn’t allow me to backtrack and find my place again – it would simply leave me stuck. Playing Atomic Heart was not a pleasant experience for me, technically, which I will say may have put me in a negative mindset about the whole thing. Well, that, and… the rest of the game.
I know this is harsh. I know people will find something to like here, and I know that the areas where this game does a half-decent job are not the areas I prioritise in a game. But I can’t get past the bad stuff. The way it romanticises Russia, a country that is currently causing so much suffering internationally, is uncomfortable to experience. The sexism is not just fleeting, it’s a focal point of the game. The protagonist is one of the worst I have been forced to step into the shoes of in at least a decade, and the conversations he has with those around him are unpleasant to listen to, and make absorbing any information about the game’s actual plot very difficult. I don’t think this game is art, and I don’t think it’s revolutionary, I think it’s a huge cultural step backwards – no matter how pretty it may look – that is based on mediocre gameplay mechanics.
Atomic Heart was reviewed on PC using a code kindly provided by 5 Star Games.