How Metroidvania is it? High Fit. Some sections of the game are a bit dungeon-like but given wordless way the game is presented you have incredible freedom to explore and forge your own path
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat
Time to beat: ~5 hours
Review Info: Ato was played on PC using the Steam version.
Buy Ato if you like…
- Unique Frenetic Action
- Pogo Jumping
- Wordless Emotional Storytelling
- Pleasant Colorful Graphics
▼ Review continues below ▼
Video games as a narrative tool is a broad medium, ranging from novel-like experiences with walls of text, to games that only convey enough plot to justify a reason to run to the right and jump on things. However, both extremes have a “story” to tell. On the one side you have an author’s vision with a few addictive gameplay elements to enhance the experience, and on the other is the story the player creates for himself. Often times as games move between these two points the story is juxtaposed against the gameplay, with one taking precedent over the other depending on the game’s overall focus. Then are games like Ato that try and marry the two. Ato plays out like a silent independent film; there are no words spoken or written – even for the tutorials – thus it is up to the player to project their own feelings onto what is happening. While the story is still told in cutscenes where you have no control over your protagonist, not having to click through dialog still seems to blur the line just a bit. The gameplay itself is fun and novel all on its own, but the way it’s presented makes it truly memorable.
Ato opens with the protagonist’s child being kidnapped by what looks like a gang of thugs. You chase after them and are immediately thrown into Ato’s Metroidvania world. There are literal sign postings teaching you how to use the game’s various mechanics, but for the most part you will be relying on the game’s map to tell you where you haven’t been so you can know where you should go next. This completely hands-off approach to the game’s progression can be dubious to design, but there are secrets around every corner, and boss encounters are abundant, so there’s never a sense that you’re lost or aren’t making progress. The frequency of rewards is bolstered by the usual practice of splitting health upgrades into fractions of a full hit point – aka Heart Pieces. This makes up the bulk of the upgrades you’ll be finding in your wanderings, but depending on what difficulty you’re playing on, the health is still a strong reward nevertheless. The map is perhaps a little too useful in your endeavors since it marks clearly which rooms have optional collectables in them and which rooms have exits, even if the exit is hidden behind a secret passable wall. However, the ease at which you can uncover the game’s secrets is a benefit to the overall design, because Ato is meant to be fast and frenetic, and exploration could have otherwise been a pace-breaker.
Most of what you’ll be finding while wandering are dead ends with mini-challenges to complete. This aspect of Ato could have easily been one of those mobile games where you select a level from a screen full of numbered squares. Finding them in a Metroidvania world is much more interesting, especially when the rewards are so valued for the rest of the game. A lot of these rooms have you doing platforming trials against a clock, where you put your abilities to the test in a race to the finish. With the more open/no-handholding approach that Ato takes, balancing these challenges with scaling difficulty might have been disastrous. Ato manages its progression by making exploration beget more exploration. One of the most common rewards you’ll discover are coins that serve no other purpose than to open gates that require you to be holding a certain number of them. The gates aren’t so restrictive that a diligent explorer will ever feel obstructed by them, but they do ensure that a player has a specific level of experience before allowing them access.
The way the protagonist controls is fluid and predictable. You can swing your sword in four directions, with downward slashes giving you lift when you hit solid objects. This downward slash mechanic may sound familiar, and that’s because it’s fairly common in melee platformers and is often referred to as “pogo jumping”. Ato’s most unique mechanic is the ability to instantly dash through objects and enemies in that anime lightning fast samurai style. To execute this technique you hold down the action button until a cone appears in front of your character, then when any target comes within range of that cone you can let go of the button and instantly appear on the other side of it. Outside of combat there are pegs that that only exist to allow you to use them as a make-shift double jump using this dash technique. As the game gets more complex you must combine dash jumping and pogo jumping in order to be successful. These two mechanics are the core of the game and by themselves they keep many challenge rooms interesting. Later on there are even more abilities that you’ll unlock that keep the variability – and novelty – especially high. Since these challenge rooms aren’t necessarily puzzle platforming, aka they’re all about execution, repeating them on a new playthrough also won’t necessarily feel like it’s a challenge you’ve already mastered because you can always do it a little better.
The bosses feel almost as numerous as the challenge rooms, or at least it didn’t feel like there was any shortage of them. All of your platforming abilities come in handy in these fights, with the dash technique having a special application. When bosses telegraph their attacks they occasionally flash before making their swing. If you can use a dash attack at that exact moment, the boss becomes stunned and is thrown into the air where you can hilariously juggle them for extra damage. The downside to using this skill is that it almost necessarily requires you to play defensively. When you’re charging your attack you’re not attacking, and using the dash at the wrong time teleports you directly into danger, which you obviously want to avoid. If you rely on dashing too heavily you’ll be spending a lot of the fight just watching the boss do its thing until you can counter attack. On the flip side though, this design encourages the player to observe and memorize a boss’ pattern. Pattern memorization in an action platformer isn’t an unusual winning strategy, but in Ato there’s an extra layer of player expression involved. Knowing exactly what the boss is going to do next means you can dive in with regular hits and then hold that charge button at just the right moment to perform an interrupting dash and combo the foe into the ground. This is the kind of depth that creates a chasm between beginner and high level play, while keeping the game still amusing at that beginner level.
Something I quickly discovered while fighting bosses though is that many of them just can’t handle the pogo jump. Bouncing off of the boss’ head is a great way to avoid damage from their frontal assaults. The telegraphing is usually generous enough that when you’re already in the middle of the boss’ hurtbox you can easily pivot to one side or the other depending on which way their attack is going. Most bosses have some kind of punish programmed into them specifically meant to counter head bouncing samurai fathers, but I usually found the mobility offered by the air to be much more forgiving than trying to face them on the land. I’m not really bringing this up as a criticism since it’s actually hilarious fun to exploit the AI in Ato, but at least on the hardest available starting difficulty it was something of a dominant strategy for three-quarters of the content. That other twenty-five percent where pogo jumping won’t lead to a fast kill includes the final boss, and these other encounters have enough novelty to them to prevent the game from becoming samey.
Ato’s greatest weakness is its production values. I opened this review by praising Ato’s ability to marry its gameplay and story presentation, but I can’t help but think that the game would be a lot stronger if more work could have been done on its environmental story telling. There are critical rooms and structures that definitely have a story to tell, but everywhere else the platforms are like the landscape was just painted on there. Objects you interact with are often just circles with arrows, or objects with obvious symbolism that detract from the immersion that could have complimented the narrative. Many of the challenge rooms look a little bit like a game prototype rather than a final product – functional enough to be fun, but lacking in visual strength to compete with the genre giants that had the budget to take the extra step. Furthermore the animations are a bit stiff, even in the combat. These are all observations that clearly are restricted by Ato’s budget of course. The mechanics are spot-on, with sound effects and a tightness of control to give it an important satisfying crunch, but still, it lacks a little something visually.
I wish I could say more about the game’s actual story, but trying to write out something that was told entirely through visuals seems like it would be a disservice. Not to mention it’s not really worth spoiling something that should be left as part of the unfolding experience. I will mention though that in spite of some graphical weaknesses weighing down the game’s world, it still managed to tug at my heartstrings just about every time a cutscene played out. There aren’t any words spoken or written, but there is one voice in the game that hit me as a husband and father myself right in the weak point. The candy-like pacing of the rest of the game would have earned Ato a recommendation for fleeting fun, but the way its packaged is what pushes it from good to great for me.
Ato is a delightfully fun game that’s easy to consume thanks to its frequent rewards and novel challenges. It’s polished in all the places that are most important, even if there are some ways the presentation could be improved. A single play through isn’t particularly long, being only about 5-7 hours to snag all the 100% collection achievements. There’s so much depth to the combat and there are a number of difficulty modes you’ll unlock after beating the game, so even after the credits Ato still has the potential to keep you busy for a while. I think it’s still worthwhile even if you play it once, however. Ato was for me at least exactly the kind of break I needed after working a long hard day at the office. With its combination of engaging gameplay and a memorable narrative experience, Ato becomes undoubtedly one of my favorite 2020 releases.
Most enemies don't like it when you pogo jump on them, making many fights have a similar strategy in spite of some unique charge dash mechanics, but it's still a lot of fun to pogo jump.
The Mini-Challenges are great, and usually consist of timed platforming challenges to stretch your skills with the controls
The hands-off exploration leads to fast and frequent rewards, making it fun to check every corner of the very helpful map.
There aren't a whole lot of puzzles, but the ones that are there are fun if not a bit fleeting.
For a story that is told entirely through wordless cutscenes, it hits some strong emotional beats. A highlight for the experience
The graphics are quite pleasant, and while the animations can be a bit stiff, they're consistent and don't interfere with the action. Level architecture is very ''gamey'' but it works.
The music does exactly what it needs to to infuse emotion into its otherwise silent presentation.
Getting through the game normally is fairly fast - about 5 hours for near 100% completion, making it easy to play again. But what gets Ato its high replayability score are its numerous difficulty modes for you to tackle.
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