ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree (PC) Review

Stay awhile and listen
Header

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree is an incredibly stylised journey through Norse mythology, blending well-known legends with its own intriguing tale of family, destiny, and choice. It started out life on the Apple Arcade service and inherits a few mobile-centric designs, but it remains an epic adventure worth experiencing on PC – just so long as you’re in the mood for a lot of reading and often sitting back to just listen to a story.

Gamified Norse mythology

Seeing as ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree was probably designed to be played in short bursts, it’s incredibly dense when it comes to both the storytelling and gameplay.

The tale revolves around Estra, but begins with a prologue that first introduces her father and their tribe, the Atori. It’s set in an age when the Norse gods and their legends are increasingly forgotten by humanity, but the Atori were blessed by Odin to enforce his laws, protect Yggdrasil (from which they draw their “Odal” power), and guard the Bifröst – the gate between Midgard and Asgard. One fateful night, a mysterious warrior with radiant blue veins lays waste to the village and slays Estra’s father shortly after he gives her his pendant and tells her to run.

Fast-forward 10 years and Estra is living a quiet life on the outskirts of a village, helping out where she can but adrift without a clear purpose, deeply sceptical of her tribe’s purpose and the gods they’re meant to serve. However, that morning, she encounters and bonds with spirit-frog Yri and witnesses villagers driven to violence by a plague that turns blood blue in their veins. This is the catalyst for an epic adventure across Midgard that’ll pit Estra – using both her combat skills and wits – against Norse deities, mythical creatures, corrupted humans, and her own doubts.

As the blue vein sickness seems to affect those who succumb to grief or rage, ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree uses this as an opportunity to blend mythical fables with all-to-real trauma, highlighting parallels and questioning the moral values they teach. Of course, it helps no end that it’s consistently well-written, moves at a brisk pace, and the intensely cinematic cutscenes feature striking aesthetics.

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree Map

A lesson in mythology, puzzle doors, and lethal dance-offs

From a distance, ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree might look like an isometric RPG with a world to explore and quest in – but that’s only half-true. Although densely packed with things to do, progress through its beautiful environments is almost entirely linear, with fixed storytelling events, a limited number of battles, a handful of optional collectibles, and several moments of player-choice that affect the fate of secondary characters and the ending sequence.

As much as I loved the premise and mystery narrative, ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree relies heavily on passive storytelling. There are dozens of documents and shrines recounting Norse legends, while many interactions with quest-givers or optional NPCs are used to recount a personal tale or Norse legend to Estra – some narrated but many just lines upon lines of dialogue to the point it can feel like a visual novel. The good news is that much of this information is useful and provides Estra with the knowledge she needs to solve several riddles and avoid several fights – or at least make sure she’s picking the right fight.

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree Choices

When it comes to more traditional gameplay, ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree fares better – even if the world is so densely packed it feels artificial. Every area you traverse includes one or more puzzles, usually opening a path forward or revealing a secret, and these were always a highlight. They’re grouped into several categories – like solving logic riddles, finding hidden switches on a grid, or rearranging scrambled images – but ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree strives to ensure they escalate in difficulty as you go and the clues are never too cryptic.

All of them can be solved with a bit of reading, logic, or by studying the nearby environment. Those leading to optional rewards usually offer limited attempts, but you can consume a trading resource for a hint, or retry failed puzzles by consuming a magic point. It’s honestly worth tackling every puzzle as they provide several items required to complete sidequests, healing consumables for combat, and upgrades to several “Odal” magic types that improve Estra’s survivability. The puzzles are just tough enough to keep you engaged, but never become a roadblock that ruins the narrative pacing.

Of course, the most marketed feature is the rhythm-based battles that manage to look and sound incredible while still providing a clear beat to follow. You’ve got to keep to the rhythm, building up and sustaining a gage until striking the enemy a few times. At the same time, you need to avoid fumbling too many inputs, dropping it into the red, and taking a blow yourself.

Despite having limited success with rhythm games in the past, I found “Normal” mode, with two simultaneous tracks, more than manageable with a few healing consumables as a backup. If you struggle with this aspect, “Story” mode ensures you win regardless of your performance. If you enjoy pain, “Hard” mode ramps it up to four tracks that neither my brain nor fingers could handle on keyboard or gamepad.

What’s your angle?

A big part of ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree’s appeal is the hand-drawn art style and soundtrack. The aesthetics are striking, atmospheric, and it looks incredibly cinematic during cutscenes that sport film-like direction. The isometric overworld reminded me of Hyper Light Drifter, while the cutscenes and rhythm battles share some DNA with Another World and Flashback. It’s all hard and angular, but expressive animations combined with polygons of contrasting colour (rather than textured surfaces) bring the world to life. Lighting and reflections are handled in a similar angular style and look great.

The soundtrack is an enjoyable blend of traditional but atmospheric fantasy tunes during exploration and puzzle sequences, but the highlights are more dramatic orchestral pieces for cutscenes and epic battle tracks that range from tension-building string pieces to synth-heavy electronic beats.

The most variable element of the presentation is the voice acting. It’s limited to important cutscenes and a few key interactions, but several voice actors sound stilted or forced in their delivery. I could never be sure if it was actual Scandinavian voice actors just clashing with local accents, or if they had locals trying to emulate English with a Scandinavian-accented. This is more of a nitpick though as it does little to undermine the storytelling.

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree Art Style

Stay awhile and listen

Wrapping up, ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree may be arriving three years late for PC gamers but don’t let its mobile origins put you off. It tells a briskly-paced and fascinating story that provides a crash course in Norse mythology while still dealing with grounded and relatable trauma – all told with incredible style. The world is absurdly dense with engaging puzzles and rhythm-testing battles, yet you can see the credits roll in less than eight hours and still feel like you went on an epic journey. It’s a breath of fresh air in an industry all too often willing to sacrifice narrative pacing so they can market game length as if it’s an indication of value.

A review code for ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree was provided to gameblur by the publisher.

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree (PC) Review

ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree (PC) Review
8 10 0 1
8/10
Total Score
  • Story
    9/10 Amazing
  • Gameplay
    7/10 Good
  • Visuals
    9/10 Amazing
  • Audio
    8/10 Very Good

The Good

  • A compelling and briskly-paced narrative that blends Norse mythology with real-world issues
  • A dense world full of engaging puzzles and stylish rhythm battles
  • A stunning and cinematic audio-visual experience
  • Works perfectly with a keyboard or gamepad

The Bad

  • An overreliance on passive storytelling
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