Atlas Rogues Preview: Majora’s Mercs

Atlas Rogues combines the tactical high-stakes combat of XCOM with the exaggerated cartoon characters of the Hero Shooter genre, and stuffs it into a Roguelite. Add to that the option to cooperate with up to three friends and you have an experience quite unlike any other. I enjoyed my time with it, but it being in Early Access puts a massive asterisk next to that statement.

Atlas Rogues Preview PC Majora's Mercs Cover

There’s a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to Roguelites that go through the effort of contextualizing repeat playthroughs. While Atlas Rogues doesn’t go overboard with its story-telling, it is nice to know that every successful run pushes you closer to one ultimate goal. Saving the world from a calamity that will invariably occur in the foreseeable future isn’t a new concept, but it can be incredibly effective if done right – both in the narrative and the game mechanics.

THE STORY – DAWN OF THE FIRST DAY – 720 HOURS REMAIN

The Atlas Reactor is the only one of its kind left on the planet. Three mega-corporations, known as the Trusts, are competing over the privilege to use its power. Now, the Reactor is about to blow, taking everything and everyone with it. There’s way more lore to all of this, parts of it will be revealed as you play, while some of it seems to be open to interpretation.

Each Trust has its reasons for wanting control over the Reactor, each employing their own private armies to further their goals. You are in charge of a team of Freelancers – mercenaries on any other day, but, through happenstance, destined to save the world. When the Reactor first went nuclear, your team manages to ride the wave 30 days into the past. The exact science isn’t explained, but making sense of time travel is a fruitless endeavor anyway, so I don’t blame Gamigo at all. Now, it is up to you to gear up, gather intel, return to the Reactor on the final day, and prevent its destruction.

Atlas Rogues - Early Access Trailer

I was quite impressed when the game opened with a beautifully pre-rendered CG cutscene showing off both the personalities and skills of most of your starting cast of characters, though it lacked subtitles – quite unfortunate when having to play at low volume for whatever reason. I enjoyed this little movie a lot; watching the Lancers in action immediately endeared me to them, and while it was probably not the smartest use of money, it certainly wasn’t wasted.

The remaining dialogue throughout the game, at least currently, is delivered with simple text boxes and character portraits. No voice acting, no flair in the presentation, and way too many typos – it’s rather sterile, but outside its strong core premise, the story isn’t the main draw of Atlas Rogues.

THE GAMEPLAY – LIGHT ‘EM UP … BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE

Before you begin, you have to select a team of four Freelancers. There’s only four available at first, but more are unlocked by completing certain missions during your playthroughs. They’re split into three groups, Damage, Tank, and Support. You might want at least one of each, though I found Support to be by far the least useful. The Lancers are currently completely imbalanced, and you will feel like you’re being punished for not sticking to the same team every time. There’s Rask, for example, a giant mutant cat thing, who not only deals decent damage, not only has a powerful self-heal, but also has an ultimate ability that resets all of his cooldowns. Rask is, currently, literally – not figuratively – invincible if given the right equipment and talents. Compare that to his fellow Tank Titus, who has more health, but dies in a few hits regardless, since he brings no notable defensive skills to the table. A lot of balancing needs to be done here, but for now, I recommend sticking to the few characters that can actually get the job done.

Most of the unlockable characters kinda suck.

Most of the unlockable characters kinda suck.

The gameplay in Atlas Rogues is split into two phases. One is a city map, on which different missions and events can be selected. The other takes you into a small arena for the turn-based tactical combat.

On the map, there are a few factors for you to manage. You have 30 days, each combat mission or dialogue event will take up a certain number of them. Whatever you do, you’ll earn ISO (money), Talent Points, gear, Rez Contracts and/or intel on one of the three Trusts. ISO is, of course, used to buy gear or intel during certain events. Talent Points allow you to unlock passive upgrades for your Lancers. Gear is split into Weapons, Armor, and Utility, and offers drastic improvements when equipped. Intel is crucial for unlocking key missions, and you likely won’t survive the final encounter without it.

The map will quickly fill up with more quests than you can handle.

The map will quickly fill up with more quests than you can handle.

I found TPs and gear to be the most important rewards to aim for. Whenever spending a point to unlock a Talent, you get to choose between two (later three) randomly chosen upgrades. While most of them appear in the pools of all Lancers, such as more health, increased movement range, or a higher critical chance, more than a few are unique to each character. These often alter the properties of a specific ability. Garrison’s Piston Punch can be upgraded to grant armor when landing a hit; Lockwood’s Light’em Up – an attack dealing damage in a wide cone in front of him – can be tweaked to be narrower, but reach further, and come off cooldown faster. Getting a lucky draw on your Talents can immensely increase a character’s usefulness in combat.

Gear offers bonuses to different stats. Since there are no traditional level-ups in Atlas Rogues, equipping new gear will be the main way of increasing your team’s power level. 

Not all of these stats are self-explanatory, and the lack of tool-tips doesn’t help. I know what “Health” is, and have a vague idea as to what “Attack” does. But “Piercing”, “Armor”, and “SPT Attack”? I have no idea. This problem extends to the various buffs and debuffs. I assume “Might” increases damage dealt, but “Unstoppable”, “Wounded” and “Volt” elude me. The game suggests pressing ALT and hovering over the icons, but to my knowledge that doesn’t do anything.

Situations are only really parsable when characters are far enough spread out.

Situations are only really parsable when characters are far enough spread out.

Rez Contracts are hard to come by, and incredibly valuable. You start with three, and one is used up whenever one of your Lancers dies. The ability to bring back a character in the middle of combat at full health can make all the difference between a close call and a game over. Any dead Lancer at the end of the mission consumes a contract, so you might as well get them back into the fight.

If you manage to collect 100% intel on any of the three Trusts, you gain access to a special mission. You’ll infiltrate that company’s HQ, take out its boss, and steal one of the three reactor keys. These missions are especially long and challenging, but will make your life a lot easier later on.

The dialogue events are fairly straight-forward. A situation is presented, and you make a choice. Sometimes, you get to see exactly what you lose and what you gain for each option; other times, you just have to guess. Since they will often give you a reward at little to no risk, it’s usually something minor, like a single piece of gear, 5% intel, and the like.

The best way to prepare for the finale is to embark on combat missions. Most of these will take place in small arenas, and demand you either defeat all enemies, or one specific target. 

Every character has two actions, one Move and one Attack, though you can spend both to sprint at double speed. Every Lancer comes with one standard attack, three abilities with cooldowns, and one ultimate that can be used after gaining enough energy. 

Rask is an absolute beast in more ways than one.

Rask is an absolute beast in more ways than one.

What sets Atlas Rogues apart from many other tactics games, is the fact that most skills are aimed freely. This opens up a whole new level of strategy, as lining up the perfect shot, slash, or explosion can turn 100 damage into a devastating 500 spread across the entire enemy team. There’s no friendly fire, so go wild!

If you’ve played any modern tactics titles, many of the systems here will seem familiar. Putting cover between you and your attackers reduces the risk of getting hit. Half cover is destructible, full cover is not. Depending on stats, talents, and abilities used, any given shot has a chance to miss, glance for reduced damage, hit for normal damage, or crit for a bonus.

Every arena features power-ups to temporarily increase the effectiveness of your Lancers, or refill their health. Picking up a movement or attack buff early in the battle can make a huge difference. Atlas Rogues puts a strong focus on speed – the less time you spend in combat, the lower the risk of having to spend a Rez Contract. I enjoy this change of pace from other, slower titles; there is no fog of war, and mid-fight reinforcements are rare, allowing for short, intense fire fights with little to no downtime in-between engagements.

The only exceptions are the Trust HQ and Reactor missions. These take place on far larger maps that are split into several encounters. The tough Trust infiltrations are capped off by a boss, and offer vital rewards. For one, each boss is actually an unlockable character, and defeating them adds them to your roster for future runs. Missions related to that Trust will no longer appear on the city map, and you won’t have to deal with them when it’s time to return to the Atlas Reactor.

Atlas Rogues - Official Trailer

The Reactor mission is a wonderfully climactic finale, where all your choices come together. When first entering the facility, you’ll be greeted by one squad of enemies from every faction, minus the ones you’ve taken out previously. This means that, should you fail to defeat any Trusts beforehand, you’ll have to overcome not only a horde of grunts, but all three Trust bosses at the same time. And the fact that they all have abilities that buff and heal their allies does not make things any easier. If you’ve been diligently collecting talents and gear, you should be able to make it past one or two bosses. There’s more to come in the second half, but I won’t spoil any more than that. This battle is the perfect way to cap off the one to two hour run that preceded it.

I absolutely adore the interplay between simple resource and intel management and the fast-paced, snappy tactical combat. It may not offer the same level of torturous difficulty and soul-crushing permanence games like XCOM or Darkest Dungeon provide, but that’s just fine if you value fun and genuine enjoyment over blood, sweat, and tears.

One major caveat: This game does work properly about 30% of the time. Most annoyingly, the AI will occasionally freeze up and refuse to make its move, leaving you stuck waiting for your turn permanently – luckily, you can quit out of a battle and try it again without penalty, but it’s still frustrating. An issue I actually had a bit of fun with, is that sometimes, by TABing through your party, you are able to execute a move action during the enemy turn, allowing you to get out of the line of fire. Clearly unintentional, but at least it works out to the player’s advantage.

GRAPHICS & AUDIO – SYNTH & NEON LIGHTS

There’s an undeniable style to Atlas Rogues. From the exaggerated, cartoonishly animated characters, to the colorful environments – when not coming apart at the seams, this game is positively beautiful. It also runs smoothly in 4K at high settings on a GTX 1070; quite rare for modern games.

Environments are surprisingly detailed, even when viewed up close.

Environments are surprisingly detailed, even when viewed up close.

It doesn’t always look this good, though. On interior maps, the camera will constantly reposition itself to clip through the walls and ceiling, making it hard to zoom out far enough to get a good look at the battle. Upon death, especially when hit with a powerful attack, ragdolls will contort in ways that are as funny as they are immersion-shattering.

The UI needs a lot of work. Enemy health is displayed white-on-pink, which is difficult to read. When too many characters bunch up in one place, it is impossible to tell whose health bar is which, and can easily entirely mask the presence of some of the units in the gaggle.

Even when playing single player, instead of displaying the characters’ names, your username is hovering over them. After spending several hours with them, I still had to look up the cast’s names while writing, since to me, they were all called BennetDoesGames. On the gear screen, any variables are displayed in purple. This works fine, except when the backdrop is purple.

The sound design, on the other hand, is absolutely delightful. A constant hum of synths and surprisingly danceable tunes underline both the planning and combat phases – and I do apologize for putting that image in your head. The Lancers’ little quips in battle convey tons of personality, and every attack and skill has a nice OOMPH behind it. 

Overall, the presentation is enjoyable. While the UI is nowhere near ready, the in-game graphics are immensely charming, and the soundscape creates a wonderful, light-hearted sci-fi atmosphere.

Atlas Rogues was previewed on PC. The game was provided by Team Critical Hit.

Summary
Atlas Rogues has a lot of potential. Condensing the progression of a 30 hour XCOM campaign into a streamlined, two hour experience is an appealing proposition for those not interested in sinking too much time into a single game. Managing your remaining days offers a rewarding challenge, and every choice matters. I can’t quite recommend it in its current state, as the repeated freezes and forced restarts waste a lot of the time the game was designed to save. Keep an eye on it, I expect it to be well worth your money by the time it hits 1.0.
Good
  • Charming presentation
  • Catchy synth soundtrack
  • Meaningful time and resource management
  • Straightforward, enjoyable tactical combat
  • Runs are neither too long nor too short
Bad
  • Partially illegible UI
  • Frequent freezes and softlocks
  • Camera often misbehaves

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