A Boat Gone From Dowdy To Derelict
Folks, this one’s gonna be hard for me. Thing is, the job of a reviewer is to tell you whether you should or should not buy an entertainment product, and as a product Neo ATLAS 1469 is deeply flawed. It’s a shallow, ugly game that takes way too long to get started and doesn’t do much to change its base gameplay once you get there. If the game’s premise doesn’t immediately grab you, there is absolutely no reason for you to play this game, as it will do absolutely nothing to pull you in further.
But at the same time, I find the game utterly enchanting. Even as I write this review I have it open in another window, popping in every so often to check in on the world, my world, the one my actions and choices have defined and maintained. This is an exploration game that gets exploration – the excitement of finding new worlds, charting new courses, overcoming obstacles. It’s also a darn fine business sim, and I have to check in, you see, to make sure that my trade company’s continuing to make money, that none of my goods have devalued to the point that I need to drop them, that pirates aren’t attacking my cogs.
No question: I love this game. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.
In Neo ATLAS 1469, you take control as master of a failing unnamed Portuguese trading company and try to restore it to its former glory by making money and charting new territories. As the (ridiculous and incomprehensible) name of the game implies, you do so in the tumultuous year of 1469, a time when exploration was “in” and Europe was just about to discover how big (and spherical) the world really was. Or, so the opening cutscene says – in truth, nothing of particular interest happened in 1469 and the Age of Discovery is generally considered to have started much later than that. In truth, while the game has a strong feel of history about it, that sense that you’re watching and taking part in a major era of humanity, anything historical about the game is purely aesthetic. Which I don’t think is a bad thing, really – I’d much rather play as a group of heroic adventurers battling pirates and krakens than a bunch of genocidal white guys starting the slave trade.
When the game sticks to being about exploration and trade, it shines. Unfortunately, Neo ATLAS 1469 spends a lot of time pretending it’s a visual novel, and that’s when the game slows to an absolute crawl. Even if the story were great, I’m not sure I’d be okay with how often a pair of talking heads will pop up to interrupt gameplay, and the story of Neo ATLAS 1469 is, quite frankly, awful. Few if any of the characters have clearly defined personalities – if they do, it’s usually obnoxious repetition of a single character trait, like the greedy Pedro or the scholarly Francisco. Worst of all is Miguel, your assistant. He’s the character who speaks the most, informing you of every change to your trade empire, and while I assume his unrelenting stupidity and incredibly out-of-place chibi art style is meant to make him funny or endearing, it really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really doesn’t. He’s one of the most obnoxious helper characters I’ve ever encountered in a game and if there was a button to turn him off I would smash it so hard that it’d necessitate the purchase of a new keyboard.
Sometimes the banter works. I like, for example, how your admirals will have different responses to the same types of events while sailing. A group of dolphins singing might lift Maria’s spirits, while Francisco will become annoyed that he doesn’t have time to study their calls. It’s a nice touch that makes everything feel a little more real, and makes your admirals seem like more than just different sets of stats. But making me sit through page after page after page after page of dialogue about how much Francisco cares about those damn dolphins doesn’t make me care about him more. It makes me hate him.
And unfortunately, the visual novel stuff makes up almost the entirety of – by my count – the first 75 minutes of the game. Neo ATLAS 1469 has quite possibly the slowest start of any videogame I’ve ever played, and while skipping the tutorial will allow you to skip some of that, it won’t skip all of it (and you’ll be left without some information crucial to playing the game.) I mean, I get it, Neo ATLAS, you have a lot of mechanics to explain, but 75 minutes of mostly talking before I felt like I was completely free to run loose in the world? Absolutely ridiculous.
I’m not saying that a marriage of visual novels and sailing sim gameplay couldn’t work well. I’m saying that it doesn’t work well in Neo ATLAS 1469.
But when the game does finally get good, oh my does it get good. Gameplay essentially has three pillars: exploration, investigation, and looking for treasure chests. Exploration is basically sending your ships into the unknown, hoping that they’ll find something. This is where the game’s biggest idea comes into play – the world is defined by maps, and maps change. In short, if your explorers come back with a map you don’t like, you can change it, changing the areas you can access. This means that your world map might look like the actual world map, or it might look like the abomination above. Mine, personally, is somewhere between the two – I like to keep the geography fairly familiar so that I can navigate based on where I know countries and regions to be, but I’m not above bending the rules if it makes a trade route work better.
Investigation is looking deeper into something you’ve already found, whether that’s a sunken ship you want to search, a temple you want to explore, or an enemy you wish to destroy. Investigation is often tied into quests, which means – you guessed it – more talking!
And since both exploration and investigation are mostly a waiting game once you get your ships in motion, looking for treasure chests is something you do manually. These treasure chests may contain, well, treasure, but they might also be hiding things that are crucial to your progression in gameplay. This is a really smart mechanic, because it gives you something to do while your ships move of their own accord, elevating Neo ATLAS 1469 above the likes of Virtual Villagers or Cookie Clicker or other similarly ignorable background games.
Of course, a trading company’s nothing without trading. There’s not much to this – you pick two different ports with different products, assign a ship to run that route, and if you’ve picked your products carefully, the result will be a steady trickle of gold. If you’ve picked two products that go together, you can create a new, more valuable product (for example, combining sulfur and saltpeter to make blackpowder.) Nothing in the game helps you learn these recipes – you have to figure them out yourself, which I thought was a nice touch that rewards actual critical thought. Beyond finding out the most valuable routes to pursue, your trade will mostly run itself, but if you leave them unprotected for too long pirates will start attacking your vessels and you’ll soon find your revenue streams drying up.
Since getting money isn’t particularly difficult so long as you’re keeping an eye on your trade routes and investigating as much as you can, the game’s strategy mostly comes from the question of how best to manage your fleets. Each fleet has an admiral, and each admiral will have different specializations. You can level up any of their stats by having them perform tasks specific to that stat, meaning that as you move into the middle and late game you’ll probably have a few favorites you mostly stick with, but I was surprised with how many admirals there were and how much they changed gameplay even when I thought Neo ATLAS had no more to offer. You’ll also unlock more ships as you play through the game, and instead of just becoming better they become increasingly more specialized, making careful fleet planning essential to successfully run your company.
Perhaps nothing so perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy of Neo ATLAS 1469 like its art style. Mostly, the art ranges from mediocre to bad, a collection of assets that don’t look like they belong anywhere near each other. This is a game that places the aforementioned visual novel character portraits right next to horrible 3D babies in the UI that would’ve looked bad in the PS2 era. But on the other hand, when you zoom in, you see that everything on the map actually appears to be made of canvas, with really stylish visible creases and folds. It’s inspired design surrounded by hideous garbage.
Do the game’s good qualities outweigh its flaws? That’s for you to decide. I can tell you that I’ll be continuing to play Neo ATLAS 1469 for a long time yet, exploring all it has to offer, trying different fleet builds and different admirals, leaving it running in the background and checking in to see how my empire’s doing far more often than my busy work schedule should allow. On the other hand, if I’d had to pay the $29.99 asking price, I’m not sure I’d feel I’d gotten my money’s worth.
This could have been a truly great game. Instead, it’s some truly great ideas, weighed down by a lot of bilge and barnacles.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Arc System Works; Developer: ARTDINK; Players: 1; Released: February 14, 2017 ; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Neo ATLAS 1469 given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.