What if the climate shifted for the worse and the earth was submerged in water? What if machines began to take on the form of marine life and terrorize the few humans that remained? Earth Atlantis offers a potential answer to these questions, with the stage set for sometime after the end of the 21st century, during which time hunters hunt ever-present gigantic sea/machine hybrids that threaten human life. It’s an interesting concept and one that caught my attention practically the moment that it was formally announced, in part due to its unique aesthetic, which is intended to mimic old-school maps.
As an early disclaimer, I have not finished this game. As of this writing, I am approximately half-way through the game’s Quest mode and am playing through it on Normal difficulty. As such, this article will be more of an impressions-type article and I may follow it up with final thoughts at a later time. However, I’ve spent five or six hours with the game and my opinions of it have changed little in that time.
At its core, Earth Atlantis is a side-scrolling shmup. It is open-world, allowing players to explore freely, but those who are familiar with side-scrolling shmups will find it to be instantly familiar. The game features four playable ships and two modes: Quest and Hunt. Quest mode is the mode that I have played, and thus this entire article is based on; I will describe it in more detail later on. Hunt mode is a time attack-style mode in which you attempt to kill all of the game’s bosses in a single life. It sets itself apart by being focused on boss fights, but it is primarily a fairly stereotypical shmup. Additionally, because it is open-world, it allows players to turn back and forth, similar to Deathsmiles and games like it.
I am not fond of the world structure. The game world is fairly small, but it features tons of winding paths and tight corridors. Trips take much longer than they feel like they should, as you are often required to take one very specific route to each key location. Boss fights happen in set locations, which are often at the very end of the game’s winding paths. Very few boss fights occur in locations that are relatively easily accessible.
By the time you reach approximately where I am in the game, you will have unlocked the entire world, sans a few shortcuts. You will have fought approximately a dozen bosses and you will have already revisited multiple boss fight locations to fight new bosses. Bosses appear in waves of two or three, often in locations that are across the map from each other. Despite the facts that the game world is small and that you will be backtracking a lot, you will still spend quite a lot of time traveling.
Furthermore, despite the unique aesthetic, the game world can often feel fairly bland. It is set in an alternate future version of our world, but there are few elements tying it to ours. There’s a house here, a school bus there—one area even features the Statue of Liberty—but the majority of the game’s environments are nondescript wreckage and caverns. One zone even features ton of Greco-Roman pillars, which feel completely out of place.
The story, being practically nonexistent, does little to help. Upon starting the game up, you are shown a screen that gives you a brief synopsis what caused the world to be submerged in water. Upon starting a new game, you shown another screen that tells you that the “Weat sea” has lost all of its hunters and that you will need to kill a set of monsters. The person telling you this will send you the locations to these monsters. That’s the entire story. The former screen is shown every time that you load up the game, while the latter screen is shown every time that you either die and respawn or load up a saved game. As of where I have made it to thus far, I have not seen a single other line of story text. Especially given its brevity, I am quite disappointed to see that what little is there appears to contain errors.
When you first load up the game or a saved game or respawn, your ship will be at its lowest possible level of power. Taking from shmups of the past, basic weapon power-ups and health pick-ups are drops that are found on small enemies all over the game world. These enemies will spawn endlessly; there is no way to clear them out entirely. Additional power-ups that give you a secondary weapon—homing missiles, bouncing bombs, torpedoes, or an electric weapon of some kind—can be found in crates around the world. Secondary weapons effectively replace the bombs found in traditional shmups, offering an additional weapon that automatically fires when you hold down the fire button. These secondary weapons can also be upgraded by finding multiple secondary weapon power-ups of the same kind. The exact number of times that both weapons can be upgraded depends on the ship that you are using. Once powered up, you will want to be careful, as both weapons have a chance to be downgraded when you get hit.
While this sounds fine at first, the game takes something else from traditional shmups: every time you die, you lose all of your power-ups and have to start over from scratch. As you will likely die often—multiple times to the same boss, even—this is downright infuriating. It takes an already frustrating setback and turns it into a monotonous grind to get your power back. Basic enemies pose practically no threat, especially after you’ve begun upgrading your secondary weapon, so, by the ninth or tenth time that you’ve started from scratch, this will be an incredibly dull process.
The process is made worse by the fact that secondary weapon power-ups and their locations are randomized. Only a set number of secondary weapon crates can exist at once and they spawn in predetermined, but random locations throughout the world. As you unlock more of the world, the game will be given more locations to spawn them, which will increase travel time. When you break open a crate and grab a secondary weapon power-up, a new crate will instantly spawn at a different crate location at random. In my experience, the game will intentionally place the new crates a decent distance away from you. Given that many of these crates are in locations that are opened by defeating bosses, which are often found at the end of winding paths, and that the power-ups that you get from crates are random, you could very well spend upwards of half an hour just trying to upgrade your secondary weapon to level three every time you die.
You will encounter a few Start Points throughout the game, which can lessen the journey back to a boss that just defeated you, but you are automatically respawned at the last Start Point that you visited and the way that secondary weapon power-up crates are distributed means that you will likely be traveling throughout the world anyways. Furthermore, most of these are located a decent distance away from any key boss encounter locations, which defeats the purpose somewhat.
In Quest mode, this combines into a confusing mix of mechanics. Why does it save your progress in terms of monsters killed and then force you to restart the upgrade process from square one every time you die? I couldn’t answer that, but I can say that I am not fond of it, as it borders on feeling like it was designed that way to artificially increase the length of the game.
Once you do make it to a boss, you will likely find even more frustration. I am an experienced shmup player. I am not good enough to clear most shmups in a single credit, but I consider myself to be at least average and can clear multiple levels in DoDonPachi, Espgaluda, Guwange, Touhou 7, and more in a single credit. Earth Atlantis’ bosses were still downright infuriating.
The problem is the exact way that the game’s bosses are designed. Boss patterns are simple and unchanging, which makes you feel as if you should be able to beat each of them with ease. Most bosses simply require you to shoot at a specific part of them and dodge projectiles and their bodies. Some bosses, such as the hermit crab-like boss Tridon, have multiple steps, such as shooting every ring on their shell to make them show their face, which you can then shoot to deal damage, but even those follow the same pattern repeatedly. However, the game’s reliance on one-shot mechanics, homing projectiles, fast-moving projectiles, and use of tight corridors cause them to be more frustrating than they should be.
Every single boss will one-shot you if their body touches your ship. This includes when they are flipping around, in the cases that their center isn’t in the direct center of their body, such as with nautilus-like boss Tentacon. However, most bosses also move faster than you and make a beeline straight for you during movement. The swordfish-like boss Gradion dashed at you while you tried to dodge around its small abode. There are mechanics in place to keep a certain amount of space around the top and bottom of each boss fight zone, but these are often lined with indestructible mines that take approximately half your health, should you run into them.
Unlike traditional shmups, you can take upwards of ten hits from projectiles before dying. Some projectiles deal more damage, but the average projectile will take about one-tenth of your health. As you dodge around during boss fights, you have about ten projectiles worth of health to burn in the event that you should falter and get hit. Because of this, I am baffled by the sheer number of one-shot mechanics, which can often make your health bar feel completely worthless. Worse, the nature of these mechanics can often leave you between a rock and a hard place, driving you straight into other damage sources.
These encounters are often combined with a combined abundance of homing and fast-moving projectiles. You’ll often be in the process of dodging the boss or homing projectiles only to have a wave of fast-moving projectiles comes straight at you. This is sometimes made worse by the fact that certain projectiles are solid white, which easily gets lost among darker projectiles, making it hard to see when you’re about to get hit. Gradion often forces you to dodge one set of projectiles only to send a fast-moving set of solid white projectiles straight out in front of it, which, more often than not, proved to be my downfall.
The bane of my existence, however, was the octopus-like boss Takodon. Takodon shoots barrages of homing projectiles at you, forcing you to move up and down throughout the small quarters that you fight it in. It then launches a tentacle upwards from the ground at a random location, acting as a spike that can one-shot you. In essence, it drives you downward then hits you with a one-shot attack. The fight is made worse by the fact that you can only damage it by shooting its eye and the tentacle, should it appear in front of you, blocks your shots. I did eventually defeat this boss, but it took approximately eight to ten attempts. I have since found a new bane of my existence, but I have yet to attempt it enough times to definitively comment on it.
The game’s special events aren’t any less frustrating. The first special event that I encountered pitted me against 30 sunfish. I wasn’t prepared for the battle to be quite as frantic as it was and I ended up dying. I returned to the encounter and was pitted against 80 fish that shoot electric bolts, the ranks of which quickly crushed me. Upon returning a third time, I was pitted against 120 nautiluses in an encounter called “Death By Firing Squad.” It turned out to be aptly named as their numbers and constant firing of projectiles made it difficult to find open space and I ended up losing the encounter four or five times before the encounter changed again. During this final attempt at the encounter, I was pitted against 200 jellyfish. Yes, 200. While this would initially appear to be the most difficult encounter yet, the jellyfish enemy’s lack of projectile weaponry made it a tedious, but fairly easy battle.
The underlying reason that these encounters are as frustrating may not surprise you. Unlike the traditional shmup, your hitbox encompasses your entire ship. You are required to dodge dozens of projectiles at once and the bosses themselves in small spaces with a hitbox the size of your entire ship. If the game had adopted a more traditional hitbox system, wherein your hitbox is only a pinpoint in the center of your ship, it would be a completely different story. As is, however,
These mechanics combine into a game that is inherently frustrating. Bosses almost demand that you have full power, but the random nature of all power-ups causes the process of powering up to be longer than it probably should be and it is all taken away the moment you die. Many bosses feel unfairly balanced, simply firing too many projectiles at you in too confined of a space. This notion was reinforced by bosses that are located in more open areas. Oftentimes, the easy way to beat a boss was simply to load up on homing missile power-ups and keep the boss off-screen as often as possible, letting the homing missiles slowly deal the bulk of the damage. In open spaces, the bosses’ simple patterns and bullet patterns alike simply weren’t threatening.
Furthermore, defeating a boss rarely feels rewarding. Other than granting a large health pick-up and a random secondary weapon power-up, more often than not, defeating a boss will simply unlock a new spot for a secondary weapon power-up crate to spawn, which is empty at the time that it is unlocked. Some bosses unlock paths to new areas that you then don’t have to visit, as the entire new wave of bosses is located elsewhere. A select few open up shortcuts, which are the slightest bit helpful for travel. Between the deaths that often feel cheap and the
The game also lacks the same level of nuance that the average shmup does. Holding the fire button doesn’t change your movement speed, though it will often cause movement to become jittery. The fact that secondary weapons have infinite ammo and fire automatically means that they require no skill or timing. Their bonus damage is just sort of dealt whenever your ship is positioned in a way that they can hit their target. To the game’s credit, some enemy projectiles are destructible, but it offers little in the way of feedback when firing at them, so, even if you’ve memorized which projectiles are destructible, it is often impossible to tell how close they are to being destroyed.
The lack of nuance extends to the HUD, which is naught but a health bar and an extremely basic map that can be turned on or off. The map is simply a square that displays your location, the locations of bosses, and the locations of secondary weapon power-up crates. It does not display the lay of the land, which may leave you wandering aimlessly as you try to find various crates; due to the fact that the game world features many winding paths, memorizing the locations that the dots on the map represent can be difficult. Furthermore, there is no display indicating how many power-ups you’ve obtained in relation to your current ship’s maximum power, which can make it difficult to tell when you are at maximum power.
Ultimately, the game feels like it is just shy of being a cohesive, fun experience. A few minor changes would have made the Quest mode that much more worth playing through. Add Metroidvania-style progression with increases in power after each boss; players that want the sort of experience that Quest mode currently offers will likely find something closer to what they’re looking for in the game’s Hunt mode, so a completely different progression system is necessary in Quest mode. Let players choose which Start Point to start at when respawning or, better yet, respawn them at the entrance to the lair of the boss that just defeated them. Open up more paths between zones to decrease travel times through the small zones. Add in additional background stories that perhaps tell the tales of the beasts that you are encountering or the hunters that they’ve killed. The story could even be told through panels of text, as the current story is. It just needed something more than what was provided.
It also has several technical issues. In TV mode, I noticed brief framerate drops at random intervals. I also noticed a number of graphical glitches, which seem to be related to the game’s heavy use of shaders. Once, the game’s audio cut out entirely for a good second or two. To its credit, the game does offer the triggers as fire and turn buttons in addition to the A and B buttons, but it offers very few other options, only allowing players to change the music and sound effects volume, language, and whether the picture frame effect is on or off.
Thus, I cannot recommend Earth Atlantis. I am aware that, while the Switch’s library is quickly expanding, there are few shmups on the system at present, but, despite its stunning art style, this one simply doesn’t offer a fun experience. Every time that you die, you are in for upwards of half an hour of fighting trivial enemies and searching for power-ups to return to a fight that will last a minute or less. Bosses have simple attack patterns and simply aren’t balanced well, often being far too easy or far too difficult, depending on where they are located. Despite being a game that focuses on boss hunting, your worst enemy will be the repeated grind to become battle-ready, rather than the bosses themselves.
Earth Atlantis is available on the Nintendo Switch eShop for $14.99.
Important note: Publisher Headup Games sent us a copy of Earth Atlantis for the purpose of writing this article.