Atomic Heart

Developer: Mundfish Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Available On: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC

I’d been playing this for around an hour or so before I was first treated to the bizarre design choice of an character upgrade system that is, for all intents and purposes, a sexually inappropriate fridge. And this serves to highlight one of the biggest problems with Atomic Heart – it just won’t shut up.

Approach that fridge with caution…

But let me set the scene. This game is set in an alternate history version of 1955. We’re in Facility 3826, the Soviet Union’s foremost scientific research division where they’ve developed a substance called Polymer that has led to breakthroughs in the fields of energy and robotics. The robots – the majority of which resemble shop mannequins with dodgy porn moustaches – in the facility have gone mad and killed most of the human workforce. You need to sort it out.

Well, you and your talking, robotic glove. Because obviously.

The problem with this game – as I mentioned – is that it won’t shut up. The glove talks. You talk to the glove. But the voice work – it feels like too much of a compliment to call it “acting” – is terrible. And the script is even worse. Given that the game is set in Russia – itself a contentious issue, anyway, given that the game also released a year after the invasion of Ukraine amongst other things – there’s a few stereotypical Russian accents and a dodgy German one, but for the most part everyone has an American accent. And our hero, known as P-3, whilst dropping f-bombs in almost every conversation will shout the same out-of-place thing when something bad happens – “Crispy critters!”

And then you’re sexually assaulted by a fridge.

These inactive robots are strewn all over the place

None of the dialogue is skippable and it’s all awful. If it turned out the whole thing had been written by an AI I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s hard to believe it’s been written by anyone who’s ever talked to anyone else in their entire life. And the fridge bits, in particular, make your toes curl and you just want it to be over. It really outstays its welcome, and when you’ve visited a few fridges where it doesn’t happen you think it’s all over, only for the next fridge to start the whole process again. You need to upgrade your character to get anywhere with the game, but you also don’t want to because five minutes of foreplay to get to a skill tree is about five minutes too much.

Gameplay wise, it’s a first-person exploration, melee and shooting thing. Think Bioshock but with all the fun sucked out of it. The weapons are alright, I suppose. You unlock powers for your glove – again, think Bioshock – but they’re nowhere near as much fun as unleashing a wave of crows or whatever. And, aside from a teensy icon at the bottom of the screen, there’s little to no indication of what power you’re about to unleash and chances are it’ll be the wrong one. Atomic Heart also has a love of tutorial screens the likes of which you have never seen. It felt like the first couple of hours of the game were constantly grinding to a halt because they game needed to pause and tell me things. And on the subject of slowing down – the lift journeys in Atomic Heart rival those of Mass Effect for length with no indication of progress, to the point where you will convince yourself the game has crashed. There’s a few bits where the frame rate suffers dramatically as well, one noticeable bit reasonably early on with a whole three forklifts is laughable when you consider the likes of Plague Tale taking care of 1000s of rats at once.

The lush green trees hide many a killer robot

Graphically, the outside stuff looks really nice. It’s nice to stand on top of a structure and look across the map at stuff, but when you walk there in the open-world element of the game you’ll find moments where your surroundings suddenly pop into existence. When you’re inside the various facility buildings though, it’s dullsville – generic corridors with a path that, even though there is scope for exploration (which will normally get you nothing more than a few upgrade materials), feels incredibly linear. This is especially true of the Test Areas which are, basically, puzzle dungeons that house upgrade chests. Solve a puzzle, open a chest, rinse and repeat. A few of them have a bit of combat in them – one has a ridiculously hard boss which will kill you with little-to-no warning – but it’s still a linear experience.

Speaking of being killed, save points. There are manual save points and autosaves. Except the autosaves are, with a few exceptions, triggered solely in the same room as the manual save point. And the manual save points can be – or feel – few and far between. I encountered a game-breaking glitch yesterday with a puzzle element being irretrievably dropped by your character if you went the wrong way. It’s not the first poor design fault I’ve found – my favourite so far is the fact that the game collapses a room you’ve previously had no access to on top of a collectible item which you’ve also had no access to and you then can’t collect it.

And yet I’m still playing it. So there’s something there. What it is, though, I’m not sure. It’s not the combat or the voice acting. It might be the exploration elements of the open-world, or the completionist nature of some of the achievements.

It’s kind of like picking at a scab. Not everyone does it, but those that do know they shouldn’t. You know that it’s probably going to leave a mark and yet you do it anyway.