Atlantis Evolution is set in 1904 when Curtis Quick, a young photographer, gets caught in a vortex and finds himself in Atlantis. Unfortunately, the citizens of Atlantis are having all sorts of problems with their gods, and Curtis begins helping them, which introduces him to several more cultures, lots of puzzles, and plenty of games. An original soundtrack complements the gameplay.
If you are a regular player of adventure games, you can't hear the word "Atlantis" without thinking of the famous series of games from now-defunct Cryo Interactive. When Cryo went bankrupt, it seemed unlikely that there would be a fourth game in its Atlantis series. However, it seems that when Dreamcatcher/The Adventure Company purchased the Cryo catalog, they also got the rights to the Atlantis name and logo. Some former members of the Cryo team got together and with TAC's blessing (and, we assume, assistance) and created The Atlantis Company for the purpose of keeping the series alive. Atlantis Evolution is the first game to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of its ancestors.
Unfortunately, it seems that the title font and a flying boat are all that this new title managed to salvage from the previous games. The tough puzzles and slow, thoughtful gameplay that were the hallmark of Atlantis II and Atlantis III are gone, replaced with ancient arcade games, sneaking/timing sequences and a near constant threat of death. Atlantis Evolution also offers a completely different graphical style, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. During the course of the game, had it not been for the familiar cursor and the use of little boxed icons to represent different dialogue choices, I would have forgotten I was playing an Atlantis game at all. Now, I'm not saying that Cryo's Atlantis games were the be-all-end-all of adventure gaming. I thought both Atlantis: The Lost Tales and Atlantis III were turkeys, myself. However, the series has garnered some very devoted fans, and Atlantis II is often recognized as a pretty darn good game in its own right. Unfortunately, fans of the series will find that most of what they enjoyed about the earlier games has vanished, while critics of the series will find that the alterations that were made are not any kind of improvement.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that when the new Atlantis team retooled the series with Atlantis Evolution, they mistakenly threw the baby out with the bathwater.
I was actually quite delighted and had high hopes when I started the game. The introduction acquaints us with Our Hero, one Curtis Hewitt. Curtis is a turn of the century photographer who is sailing back from Patagonia with some precious photos of the area. We meet Hewitt as he is relaxing on the deck and taking in the sea air. A storm hits and a crew member advises Hewitt to get below deck. A brief interactive sequence follows, and then the ship sinks. Hewitt manages to escape with his trunk of pictures and equipment on a lifeboat... only to get sucked into a whirlpool and end up in New Atlantis, a realm located somewhere inside the Earth and founded by the survivors of the original Atlantis.
These opening cutscenes blew me away. The character modeling is stylized but appealing, managing to convey a 3D appearance while still being classic 2D animation. The backgrounds and animations are dazzling, and the water animation as Hewitt is swept out to sea is some of the best I've seen in an adventure game. The voice acting is pretty decent, with Hewitt having a likable and expressive tone and a comically sarcastic undertone. I was thinking "This game is gorgeous! It could really turn out to be something great!"
Such thoughts soon came to a screeching halt.
I soon discovered the true nature of Atlantis Evolution: continual repeated death. Early in the game, Hewitt escapes from the New Atlantean authorities and becomes a fugitive. For the rest of the game, he is either running from guards or sneaking around trying to avoid them. This makes all of the detail and beauty of the scenery a complete waste in some areas, as if you take a couple of seconds to actually look around and appreciate the art, you die. The sneaking sections are all a matter of timing and memorization. Take a wrong step or move too quickly or slowly and you are treated to a cutscene of a guard shooting you down. Unfortunately, you don't see where the guard shoots you from, so you spend another few deaths locating him so you can guess your correct next move. (In one instance, the guard who kills you can't even be seen at all, as he is apparently inside a building and shoots you through the door.) This sneaking around section takes up a considerable amount of the total gameplay, and it is more reminiscent of the arcade classic Dragon's Lair than any adventure game. Go Left. Pause two seconds. Go forward-left. Turn right. Pause five seconds. Et cetera. Dying means starting back over at the beginning of the sequence; at least there is no need to reload a saved game.
The resemblance to classic arcade games doesn't end there. As Hewitt becomes enmeshed in a revolution against the "Gods" of New Atlantis while also trying to find his way back to the surface, he is forced to activate or deactivate a lot of different machinery. You would think that this is where most of the puzzling in Atlantis Evolution would occur. And you'd be dead wrong. It seems these Gods spent their youth pumping quarters into video games. Instead of solving puzzles to get the machines running, I found myself playing Tanks (two tanks on opposite sides of a mountain trying to gauge the proper trajectory to hit each other), Frogger, Missile Drop (an early Defender-type game) and even Pong! There were, in fact, only two real puzzles in the game. In the first one, you must combine two inventory objects to make a third one. This isn't exactly difficult, as you only have three items in your inventory at the time and you already know what one of them is for. The other puzzle involves piecing together some runes to make a combination. This puzzle is quite easy too, but by this time my brain was so dulled that I actually had to think about it for nearly a full minute. (For those who consider this paragraph a spoiler, my response is that this game was spoiled long before I got my hands on it.)
I did find myself completely stumped by the final sequence. But it turned out that this was not a function of any particularly brain-teasing on the part of the designers. Rather, progress and success depends on realizing that the game has "broken its own rules" and wants you to use an inventory object in a manner inconsistent with the whole rest of the game and where there is no corresponding hotspot.
When you aren't busy dying or playing Frogger, you spend most of your time in mazes. Most of the maze areas aren't extremely difficult (though one is a real bear to navigate), and it turns out that every "dead end" is essential to your quest anyway. Nevertheless, the whole thing becomes incredibly tiresome. To make matters worse, if you aren't being chased through a maze, you are pixel hunting in it. The hotspots aren't especially tiny, but the objects are frequently behind you when you enter the screen, forcing you to look around the ground a full 360 degrees with every step. In a couple of places, the colorful palette of Atlantis Evolution actually works against you, as the requisite item is obscured in a riot of color.
It is almost like this game was designed by two completely separate teams who had no contact with each other. Team A worked on the graphics, music and story. They developed some gorgeous backgrounds and animations. They gave us a superior score that really enhances the game and is quite beautiful. (Though the looped music in the final area is a bit too reminiscent of the Harry Potter theme music.) They drew up a story that, while a pastiche of some of the worst of Star Trek ("Landrew sees all! You are not of the body!"), was at least coherent. The plot advancement and acting did manage to draw me in and forget how silly the story really was. The dialogue system, which uses the traditional Atlantis boxed icons instead of text was flawed, but workable. There were instances in which the dialogue tree would end the conversation sequence before key topics could be discussed because I hit the "trigger" topic out of order. However, there was only one instance in which this was a major issue, and I was later able to piece together the information I had missed. Overall, this team was responsible for everything that was good about Atlantis Evolution. Team B was responsible for puzzle and gameplay design. This team apparently grew up riding the "short bus" to school and spent their afternoons hanging out at the arcade--until the regular students got out of school an hour later. And they did everything in their power to make sure that no consumer would get the chance to appreciate the hard work of Team A.
If you are desperate for some new eye candy or, like Team B, have an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for the arcade games of the early 1980's, then you might find some enjoyment in Atlantis Evolution. Otherwise, your best bet is to give this one a miss and replay Atlantis II instead.
People who downloaded Atlantis Evolution have also downloaded:
Atlantis 3: The New World (a.k.a. Beyond Atlantis 2), Atlantis 2 (a.k.a. Beyond Atlantis), Atlantis: The Lost Tales, Aura: Fate of the Ages, Black Mirror, The, Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express, Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle, Ark of Time
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