Friday, May 29, 2020

REVIEW: Atomicrops

It's no secret that Stardew Valley is one of my favorite games of all time. I've sunk over 600 hours into it with no sign of slowing down. The success of the indie title has lead to dozens of copycats, but few have stuck out as their own. Among them is Atomicrops from Bird Bath Games, which brings virtual farmlife to the action-packed end of the world.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Atomicrops courtesy of Raw Fury.
Opinions are my own.

Atomicrops is an action-packed roguelite farming simulator where you must cultivate and defend the last farm in the post-apocalypse wasteland. Farm mutated crops, marry townsfolk, and kill every mutant creature that tries to invade!

Life on the post-apocalyptic farm starts off simple enough. You're given a few seeds, a small plot of land to plant them, a well and squirt-gun to water them, and a laser rifle to blast away anything that moves! Except the bees. Bees are your friends.

Unlike other farming sims, Atomicrops is not a fullblown RPG and features twin-stick shooting in a retro arcade arcade style that had me thinking of Zombies Ate My Neighbors. During the day, a relatively manageable amount of monsters will show up to shoot at you. The controls allow you to shoot enemies while farming so you shouldn't have too much trouble.

Nighttime is where things go haywire. Your farm is flooded by wave upon wave of killer cartoon rabbits and big mutant slugs that will try to eat any crops you haven't gotten around to harvesting. This is where the nightmare begins. Welcome to Bullet Hell, Population: You.

Surviving your first night on the farm after a successful first harvest will, unfortunately, not yield much in the way of profits. That's when it's time to head out to one of the areas surrounding your farm and take the fight to the enemy.

There are a variety of environments including plains and desert, and each have their own types of enemies who move and attack differently. Unlike like monsters that attack your farm at night, these enemies don't normally drop fertilizer, which means many are just in your way. Instead, you'll find small camps of monsters that, once cleared out, unlock rewards such as extra seeds and tools to make farming easier.

This is where you'll want to spend a lot of your early game and probably most of your nights. Be careful though. More diverse enemies mean the bullet hell is harder to keep up with and if you don't watch where you're going it's game over. And I mean game over.

One feature that took my by surprise is the game's permadeath. I usually avoid games with permadeath, although the few I have played have been enjoyable. The problem with Atomicrops's permadeath is that it is relentless. I knew it had been described as a rogue-lite, but I guess I expected something liter.

You start off with six hearts and when they're gone - you're done. No respawn, no continue, no checkpoint, no resurrect at the temple. Just game over. The nonstop bullet hell makes it hard to never take damage so the obvious answer is to just heal so you never hit zero. The problem is the game makes it incredibly difficult to heal.

It is very rare that a monster drops a heart when you kill it. Your best bet at replenishing your health is from the doctor in town. But you can only visit the town at the dawn of each new day. And they don't accept money, only roses. And you can only grow roses from a rare seed found only by venturing beyond the farm and into the dangerous enemy territories. So by the time you earn yourself one heart, it's likely you've already lost three or more. Oh, and the price of hearts goes up every time you buy one.

This is without a doubt the most frustrating aspect of the game. You work hard to unlock upgrades to make farming easier, but before you get a chance to use them: dead, game over. And restarting means restarting 100% from scratch. Other permadeath games I've played have a chest or something where you could store items to give your next life a headstart. Not here.

And keep in mind the constant bullet hell means that no less than 10 things are happening at one time. So while watering crops and dodging attacks I find myself wondering if I should pick up an upgrade because I can't remember if I already have it or remember it from my previous play-through that was just two minutes ago.

Every time I die and see all my work go up in smoke, I throw the controller down and say, "I'm done with this game." But here's the thing: I can't stop playing. There's no explanation, but I think it's the same adrenaline rush you get from going to sleep in Stardew Valley where you know all the work you put in one day will pay off the next. But here it's the opposite: dying ignites a spark that inspires you to keep going. Learn from your past mistakes. Try something different. Figure out a new strategy.

I would've loved for Atomicrops to have given me an ongoing adventure instead of one I have to restart over and over again. But the permadeath kinda makes the game special in its own way. I can't really tell you why, but for how annoying it is: I like it.

This is definitely not a game for everyone, so if the thought of starting over and over again quite possibly every few minutes then you might want to skip it. But if you are looking for an extra-hard challenge, Atomicrops is the game for you.

Atomicrops is now available on the Nintendo Switch.