With its untold depths, couldn’t the sea keep alive such huge specimens of life from another age, this sea that never changes while the land masses undergo almost continuous alteration? Couldn’t the heart of the ocean hide the last–remaining varieties of these titanic species, for whom years are centuries and centuries millennia?
-Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: A Tour of the Underwater World
I’ve mentioned this before in my work but I’ll mention it again: the sea is at the heart of me. I dream about the ocean. I grew up around it, spent hundreds of thousands of hours within it. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist. One of my first novels was Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The ocean fascinates, terrifies, and calls to me. It’s in my blood.
I have reiterated all this because it underscores one of the reasons why I love Earth Atlantis and its immersive properties (heh, water joke). My oceanic affections might have led me to try out this game for myself on the PS4, having missed it on the Switch, but I stayed for the shmup gameplay, the monster hunting, and the bullet hell. What I found in Earth Atlantis was a robust, occasionally tedious but fun title for blasting benthic behemoths and abyssal atrocities, the kind of game where you have to be on your toes but can also relax into the gameplay and hit that trancelike state of entertainment.
Given my endearment for the deep, you might initially think that I’d believe more ocean equals more better. Turns out I don’t believe that because that’s stupid and Earth Atlantis proves it.
Some cataclysmic climate catastrophe caused the Earth’s oceans to rise at the end of the 21st century, enveloping all but a tiny bit of land. Ninety-four percent of the Earth is now underwater and the oceans have become the perfect breeding ground for Jules Verne’s wet dreams. Mechanical marine life swarms the dangerous seas, sinking ships and shrinking the floundering remains of human civilization ever further. Sea monsters such as the naturalists of the 14th century could only dare imagine now play beneath the waves, kings and queens of their domain.
Only the hunters stand between the human race and obsolescence.
As a hunter, you’ll command the Nautilus, an armored submarine equipped with front- and rear-facing pew pew pews. While navigating the underwater world and blowing up anything artificially living thing in your path in a complete reversal of sustainable fishing, you’ll be able to find upgrades for your submersible. These appear as floating bubbles with letters in them: P stands for the basic power up to upgrade your main weapon, allowing you to crank out even more bullets than before.
There is also the Electric Beam that fries nearby enemies, the Torpedo Missile that’s fairly traditional so far as torpedoes go, the Homing Missile which is a shmup staple, and the Bouncing Bomb for ricocheting off of walls, great for those tight coral corridors. Your submarine can only carry one special weapon at a time, but snagging multiple bubbles for the same weapon with power up its offensive capabilities: launching more missiles at once, for instance.
One of the games best upgrades is a full revamp of your vessel. New submersibles can be unlocked after finding them and fighting them as rogue enemies in the sea. These are the Aquanaut, Moby Dick, and Musashi. Each have their own unique uses, ranges, arcs of fire, and offensive and defensive capabilities. Musashi has got to be my favorite with its liberal use of lasers. The back-facing and diagonal weaponry and upgrades remind me a lot of the Gradius games.
One thing I didn’t quite grasp from the trailers is the fact that Earth Atlantis doesn’t play out like a typical side-scrolling shoot ’em up. There are no levels or stages with bosses at the end, and fortunately, you can take a few more hits than in your typical shmup. Instead, there’s an emphasis on Metroidvania-esque backtracking and exploration in an open world that opens wider as you advance.
Your goal then is to hunt down a series of unique monsters (or swarms of them) like a bounty hunter. Once you exterminate your target, typically other targets will appear or a new path will open up. Once you’ve explored the entire map, it becomes a matter of clean up, taking down each target as they appear and traveling back and forth across the West Sea.
Earth Atlantis, in the end, is still a shmup and therefore a pretty short game. It took me about three hours to seek and destroy every last target in normal mode. It won’t be long before you too hang it up to dry.
The 8-bit Review
The unique visuals of Earth Atlantis feature the style of old sketches, reminiscing a time where sea exploration commenced and the sea was believed to be inhabited by fantastic as well as dangerous creatures. Now, once again, the world has to be discovered.”
I’ll readily admit that this game’s graphics were the first thing to grab me when I initially encountered its trailer. Adapting the visuals of a sea-faring biologist’s sketches to an entire game was a bold move and a unique one, lending an elegance to the game’s appeal. However, desaturated, monotone graphics walk a risky road; they can alienate the player through their dullness but at the same time they can create a distinctive gaming experience. Many indie games opt for a minimalist design philosophy but I want you to know that Earth Atlantis isn’t about that. It may not have a whole lot in the way of a diverse color palette but it certainly is not without detail and complexity. The boss monsters especially are gorgeously rendered and their massive, imposing designs make each fight an event.
At times it can seem like there is too much detail, in fact. The beautifully crafted backgrounds with their shattered scaffolding, ruined architecture, submerged vehicles, and other relics of humanity’s past alongside the jagged, encrusted rock create such a rich backdrop for the game. Earth Atlantis proposes its sense of distance, and much welcome distinction when navigating and shooting, through gradients of brightness. The nearer stuff is darker and the further stuff is lighter.
The monsters and machines can swim in and out of the background, giving the game a real sense of depth, despite its sketched appearance. Overlaying all of this is a texture like the fibers of parchment paper. I’m not really sure how I feel about this texture as it was occasionally dizzying while moving at top speed in some areas, but at the same time it adds to the style of the game.
Where the visual design is most interesting is where it directly affects the gameplay, of course. One suspicion I had when getting into Earth Atlantis was that the monotone graphics would make seeing all the danger difficult, and my suspicion turned out to be well-founded. There are some enemies like octopus crouching against rocks that have lighter tones and so blend in, a natural camouflage defense from which they can launch their missiles at you, but that’s not all…
Enemy bullets and torpedoes and other projectiles are easy to see since they’re dark against the light background but monsters later in the game loose blasts of electricity. Not only do these harmful zaps occasionally force your ship to lose its upgrades but they’re also quite difficult to see since they’re white against the light background. You have to constantly keep an eye out for them. Even in the screenshot below they are tough to spot.
So while the graphics are indeed beautiful and unique, they can occasionally result in some seemingly unfair deaths. Game Overs return you to your last save point, which can be far from where you perished, and you’ll lose all your upgrades but overall… I never found the graphics too frustrating when it came to their effect on playing the game!
I really liked the soundtrack for Earth Atlantis and it’s just a shame that there isn’t more of it. This rousing, adventurous symphony plays over the explorative portions of the game whenever you’re not facing down the maw of some gigantic leviathan, but it’s the same track (or at least a handful of very similar ones) which resounds throughout the entire game from start to finish. You can hear riffs of it in the abridged trailer music in the video below.
It’s a wonderful thing to say of a work that you wished there was more of it, and I say that with absolute certainty here. The varied boss music, especially toward the end of the game, had just the right amount of impetus and energy that I wanted from this game. The high adventure sound is appropriate, I felt, but some edgier music to highlight the danger of the machines was received with my wide open arms.
This re-release includes slightly improved controls, evidently. If you played the Switch version of the game then you may be interested to hear that.
I wanted to give the gameplay a score of 8/10 because this was such an enjoyable game to play, however, I had a hard time with my momentum when I first played the game. I looked at the controls before beginning and saw there was a helpful mini-map. When I began exploring the underwater world, clearing the first few bosses and opening up more avenues for travel, I found myself wanting that mini-map yet I couldn’t seem to get it to appear. I ended up closing the application and restarting the game, fortunately the mini-map appeared after that. It was a minimal glitch, to be sure, but it frustrated me to think that the entire game was going to be played blind. You’ll definitely need that mini-map.
Other than that, I really found no major problem with Earth Atlantis’ gameplay. It’s labeled as bullet hell but it’s certainly one of the more mild instances of that concept in gaming. The screen does occasionally become crowded with projectiles and enemies but I never felt like these were too overwhelming. Exhilarating, more like!
The upgrades and special weapons, and the multiple submersibles in particular help to flesh out the game and give it its sea legs. There’s just enough content in this regard to keep you experimenting with different weapons and vessels right up to the end of the game. Undoubtedly you’ll find your own favorite setups and hone in on the best uses for each submersible.
For instance, much as I loved Musashi, there were clear instances where that ship was not the best choice. Some larger, free-floating monsters can be taken down more easily with seacraft that wield a spray of ammunition instead of a fixated beam or two. For that, the Aquanaut was my gunship of choice. Moby Dick was decent for close quarter combat whereas the basic ship, the Nautilus, was fairly well-rounded and straight-forward, though using it forced me to keep an eye out for hazards from above and below.
The game is really about the boss monsters. It’s a monster-hunting shmup, after all, so yes there is some tedium of backtracking and scouring for your targets, with the risk of getting lost or stuck for a bit. The boss fights themselves make up for that, though. They got this old heart a-palpitating!
Earth Atlantis can instruct you how to play itself within a minute, across two tutorial pages accessed from the main menu, no less. All you have to know is what the different items do and how to read the mini-map radar, plus a few controls such as shooting (of course you hold the button down) and turned your ship around. Given the exploratory nature of the game, turning your ship is one of the game’s primary features. I found it a little awkward at first since turning interrupts your rate of fire but it’s easy to get the hang of eventually. This is a shmup, after all. It’s highly accessible. Players can expect to beat it through mastering maneuvering if only they put in the time necessary to refine those skills.
The game comes with three difficulty modes: Easy, Normal, and Hard. I died quite a few times even on Normal mode, though this doesn’t cause you to lose too much progress. I quickly learned that the game rewards consistent runs on a single life so that you can maintain your upgrades. Dying will cause you to drop all of them, which means you have to obliterate baddies to accumulate your power-ups and go exploring for chests with special weapons once more. If you’re stuck on a boss, this can suck up some time. Still, I’d like to play the game on Hard sometime.
There’s a Quest mode that represents the game’s main campaign with its three difficulty settings and a Hunter mode beyond that, also with three difficulty levels. Quest will take you all across the West Sea in search of your targets (there are over 40 of them), but at your leisure. Hunter puts a time limit on the game which you can maintain by destroying enemies and opening treasure chests for energy points. Defeated bosses drop tons of energy points and these refill your timer. It’s possible therefore to speedrun the entire game while the clock is ticking.
The visual flair was what initially attracted me to Earth Atlantis but I stayed for the shmupping, and that’s after largely expecting the game to be style over substance. True, Earth Atlantis can occasionally feel like a watered down (ha!) version of a classic shoot ’em up, perhaps a mite diluted by the inclusion of modern sensibilities like the open world concept.
It’s ultimately the sketch art and the emphasis on monster hunting over completing levels which causes Earth Atlantis to stand out in my mind. I can’t recall a similar combination of those ideas and I think they were eloquently combined here. The graphics may not be enough to grab everyone or sustain engagement, but they were for me, and I was delighted to find more things unique about Earth Atlantis than just its visual philosophy.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
As you likely know by this point, I enjoyed my time with this game. Earth Atlantis captures the yearning soul of exploration. It’s just long enough to stuff in those delectable fish fights while at the same time being short enough to not truly become a drag or a bore. I think it’s well-paced and well-executed in its simplicity and even in its limits, the likes of which I wish it had exceeded at some points for more music or more weapons. What’s here is enough. The sea, she called me. I answered. I had a good time. I got her number.
I’d like to thank Headup Games and Pixel Perfex for trusting us with their treasure of a game for this review!
Aggregated Score: 7.1
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Categories: Game Review