ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree PC Review

A gorgeous exploration puzzle game with a fantastic rhythm combat system that presents a cinematically told and presented narrative and world.

By LCLupus, Posted 26 Jan 2023

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is both the first and second game by Wildboy Studios because of a slightly strange release schedule. The company’s first PC release was Nitro Kid but ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree was its first actual release. It was originally released on Apple Arcade back in 2019, but it’s great to see the game on the PC platform as it is a far better place for it.

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is an isometric exploration game with a heavy focus on a constant variety of puzzles and a rhythm combat system when the combat decides to come along. You spend the majority of the game as Estra, a young woman who suffered a terrible tragedy that will not be spoiled here but does occur within the first twenty or so minutes of the game.

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree, PC, Review, Narrative-Focused, Isometric, Rhythm Game, Norse, Apple Arcade, NoobFeed, Wildboy Studios, Untold Tales

Estra must explore her world, which is entirely Norse in design, and find a way to stop the menace of the Blue Vein. The Blue Vein is some kind of a corrupting influence that turns people into raving monsters. It is usually triggered by some kind of emotional turmoil, so this is where the stronger narrative focus on dialogue comes into play.

You are presented with multiple dialogue options, and you can often choose whether or not to reveal certain information to people. Emotional distress may lead to a fight though. ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree clearly does not want you to get into too many fights to the death as some of the fights end with the option to spare, kill, or try to fix the Blue Vein that has caused the issue in the first place. It isn’t very often that a game explicitly wants you to do the wrong thing. So, it may be best to presume that the good guy narrative means not killing people who have just been infected by a spiritual virus of some kind that turns them into violent monsters.

When it does come time to fight in ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree, the game adopts a rather engaging cinematic style. There is no traditional combat system. Instead, the game enters into a rhythm system with multiple difficulty settings. Normal mode gives you two different notes that you need to keep on the beat and on hard that number doubles. There is also a story mode that makes it easier for you.

However, in the normal mode, it really isn’t difficult unless you’re terrible at rhythm games. It isn’t exactly Guitar Hero, but it, strangely enough, scratches a similar itch. There has been a resurgence of more rhythm-oriented games of late with things like BPM: Bullets Per Minute and Metal: Hellsinger being some of the most recent examples, but ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is not as intense as either of those games. The point isn’t to have a particularly challenging time and to instead progress through the story. In fact, the fight scenes all look rather pretty as it shows the two foes fighting against one another while you play along on your controller/keyboard fretboard.

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree, PC, Review, Narrative-Focused, Isometric, Rhythm Game, Norse, Apple Arcade, NoobFeed, Wildboy Studios, Untold Tales

The musical segments in ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree offer a good change of pace to the game, but they don’t occur all that often. Most of the time, you’re not fighting or in any kind of danger whatsoever. All combat is relegated to the rhythm sections. While outside of combat, you instead explore the world.

The world in ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is full of Norse knowledge and iconography. As you explore, you encounter various texts and statues that will explain the world. This is a way of providing information about Norse life and mythology without interrupting the game too often. This additional information is, for the most part, entirely extra fluff. It’s world building stuff. It teaches you about Ancient Norse life, but it isn’t necessary to understand the majority of the game itself. In fact, there are various characters who are not-so-subtle references to various Norse figures. For instance, three rat characters are named after the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, who is likely most known to modern gamers as the main character of the first half of the History Channel show Vikings. You do not need to know this to proceed through the game, but it does provide an interesting bit of backstory.

The rest of the exploration in ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is spent on searching the environment for items that give you gold, which can later be traded for other, more useful items. You can also explore the environment to find healing items or special artifacts and ingredients that form a secondary type of collectible.

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree, PC, Review, Narrative-Focused, Isometric, Rhythm Game, Norse, Apple Arcade, NoobFeed, Wildboy Studios, Untold Tales

However, healing items are somewhat useless if you can master the comparatively easy combat system. You only lose health if you screw up in the rhythm sections. So, it’s possible to go the entire game without using a healing item. This renders difficulty in the game a somewhat mixed bag. In addition, you can find various upgrades in ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree that supplement your character in various ways. Since the combat system isn’t too difficult though, this can feel somewhat unnecessary.

In all likelihood, unless you find rhythm combat difficult, the hardest parts of the game come in the form of puzzles. ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is full of puzzles. The puzzles massively range in variety and difficulty. There are some puzzles that are literally like jigsaws, in which you must arrange a series of tiles into the correct image, or you may need to pay attention to environmental cues to show you which tiles in a puzzle correspond to different quantities and then arrange them in order. Essentially, every puzzle, much like every combat encounter, is unique. Some of them do repeat, such as the jigsaw puzzles, but most of them are used once and then discarded.

The constant use of new puzzles is a great thing because it always keeps you on your toes, but it also means that some of them are laughably easy while some of them can be quite challenging. For instance, there are also math-based riddles, and if you’re not good at math or word games, you may struggle to parse the solution. There is an upside to this though. ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is not a game that wants you to get stuck. The developers want you to enjoy the story, so why would they make it too difficult for ordinary people to play? The answer is: they wouldn’t.

Every puzzle comes with a built-in hint system. The hint system is entirely opt-in. If you are struggling and you need a hint to get you through, then ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree has you covered. These hints can get you out of situations where you simply don’t understand the puzzle, and as the puzzles are so varied, this is a great feature to have. Furthermore, the game allows you to change the difficulty of the rhythm sections at various points throughout the game. So, if you’re struggling with that instead, you don’t need to restart the whole game on a different difficulty system.

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree, PC, Review, Narrative-Focused, Isometric, Rhythm Game, Norse, Apple Arcade, NoobFeed, Wildboy Studios, Untold Tales

All of this gameplay is to accommodate the story. You, as Estra, need to journey across Midgard to try and save your people and your world from this mysterious Blue Vein plague that haunts your world. This is presented through a gorgeous aesthetic. The game uses simple, predominantly untoned colors that are stark against the background. Everything is made up of strong geometric shapes rather than realistic curves. It makes the entire game look unique.

The combat sections and the narrative cinematics show this off better than anywhere else. Silhouettes are pushed into positions against single-color backgrounds that make everything pop. ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree wants to look like an artsy animated piece of art, and it succeeds in doing that. The juxtaposition of duller colors against the bright blue of the Blue Vein also works well to turn a color that is usually associated with goodness and calmness into a menacing color. It’s a fantastic trick the game plays.

Overall, ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is a fantastic narrative experience with a gorgeous aesthetic and a good series of puzzles that do vary in quality, but their sheer diversity should help with that problem. It has a combat system that is, quite simply, fun to play, and it will take about 8 hours to finish. However, as was previously mentioned, this game did actually release back in 2019, and I reviewed it back then, but to see it on a PC is to see it at its best. Mobile devices cannot give a game like this the proper fidelity and feel that it deserves.

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree was still good on Apple Arcade, but it has also seemingly vanished from Apple Arcade. So, this is the best version anyway. It is highly recommended and a fantastic narrative experience that went far too underappreciated in its original mobile home.

Justin van Huyssteen (@LC_Lupus)
Senior Editor, NoobFeed

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General Information

Platform(s): PC, PS4, Switch
Publisher(s): Untold Tales
Developer(s): Wildboy Studios
Genres: 2D Top Down
Themes: Story Rich, Rhythm, Norse Mythology
Release Date: 2023-01-27

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