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Into The Spine of: Atomicrops

Nuclear valley

Iwas born and raised in a city, so I’m unaccustomed to the countryside. The only time I sat foot in a farm happened during a school trip, in which one of the activities was to milk a cow. This was mandatory, so naturally we were all standing in line waiting for our turn. But as soon as I got close to the cattle I was met with an unexpected picture.

Blame the inexperience or my young age (I was like, 6 or 7?), but let’s just say udders look much more clean on cartoons. My expectations fell to the ground and I didn’t want to get my hands near it. So, as soon as my teachers weren’t looking, I just circled back to the end of the line. They suspected, though, and asked if I had taken my turn already, for which I say yes. But the line kept on moving, which means that some kids went again for some reason. Half way through it, we were all called to regroup in order to grab lunch, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

I played a lot of Stardew Valley in the past few years, but the picture of that countryside is almost too pristine. There aren’t many moments in which the harsh, cold reality hit you in the face, or invite you to milk it despite the swarm of flies surrounding the surface. But I guess they’re used to this in Atomicrops, where the promise of living a chill farm life is interrupted by a nuclear apocalypse and an army of mutated horrors ready to threaten your harvest every night.

This changes the pace of your usual farming sim exponentially, and studio Bird Bath Games presents an interesting premise where they combine a shoot ’em up with roguelike elements on top of a lite gardening aspect. Shovels and watering cans aren’t enough to fight back, so naturally there’s lots of guns to make use of, but these tools are still present. More interestingly, they merge quite well with the frantic nature of the game.

As with your usual rogues you begin each run with a default weapon and a task at hand. In here you’re not crawling through dungeons, but rather making your way to other islets in order to pick up supplies, items, and most importantly seeds for your farm. After battling through hordes of enemies and grabbing as much as you can, you need to go back and set things in motion, which is done by three quick actions – preparing the ground, planting the seeds, and then watering them. There’s a couple helpful mechanics for this, like the use of wormholes that save you from backtracking on foot, and a rush state of sorts after you plant several seeds in a row, making your character faster for a couple seconds. But by and large, it remains the same.

The thrill comes with the pacing of each in-game day. You only have so much time until night falls, when enemies will come in waves and try to destroy your harvest. These moments represent the odd mix of genres that Atomicrops introduces at its best, as you’re constantly watering your crops and planting more seeds while simultaneously dodging projectiles and taking down over-sized rabbits and snails alike. This is surprisingly easy to manage thanks to a clever use of the triggers (I played it on Switch, mind), and while it may take you a couple runs to really get used to it, the click happens fast. You end up focusing more on the shooting aspect, which is clearly the focus, while farming becomes a bit of a background activity that is really important for progression, but isn’t more complex than it should be.

Survive the night and a helicopter will come and pick you up, taking you to the town. The more crops you have in your pockets, the bigger the reward will be, which you can then use to purchase items, bridge kits to repair paths to other islets, and of course weapons – the latter, however, will only last for a day, and usually have a steep price. There’s also a romance aspect involved, which allows you to partner up with unique characters that have their own traits and stats, which then join you in battle (and life, too, since you marry them). From there, it’s rinse and repeat.

It’s one of the most intriguing roguelikes I’ve played in years considering how well it mixes many elements that probably shouldn’t be together. But its design understands what the core experience is, so everything else is there to compliment it. You won’t spend time looking at recipes or engaging in multiple choice conversations only to have a companion, it’s all a matter of currency management and trying to make the most out of each day. Which is great considering how tough encounters can be.

Atomicrops leans heavily on being a roguelike. I’ve died countless times and, for a while, didn’t get to progress as much as I was hoping to. The enemy islets have mobs flying around, but they’re usually fragmented into small bases – kill everyone who is guarding it and you’ll get loot, which can be one time use items to help you harvest faster or water all your crops in one go, or upgrade your character for as long as the run lasts. But considering how much dodging you’ll be doing, you’re always bound to stumble upon another group and create a much bigger problem. It’s great, honestly, but it can feel a bit too punishing at times considering how big the cost usually is to purchase upgrades and the limited use weapons.

Collecting these resources can take several in-game days, all the while recovering health proves to be a difficult task. I know it’s part of the genre expectations, but my time with Atomicrops led me to reflect on how much I often miss from roguelikes when the learning curve and early levels are so steep, usually just ending up bouncing off from them despite really enjoying what they have to offer.

There’s a strange novelty regarding this world that I haven’t seen anywhere else. The gorgeous and meticulously crafted pixel art style captures the vibes in really smart always, and doesn’t get at all confusing even when the screen gets busy, which is often a problematic in the genre. Bosses, in particular, kept on surprising me with how much they stood out from your usual baddies, and this applies to every nook and cranny of the game.

Folks who love a challenge will certainly dig the one that awaits in here. For me, it will remain as a game that I’d often think about, but only get around it whenever I get to hold my Switch and pick something to spend an hour or two. I’ll make sure to bring the console with me next time I have to wait in line in a farm, though.

By Diego Nicolás Argüello

Founder and EIC of Into The Spine. Probably procrastinating on Twitter right now. Talk to him about pinballs, Persona, and The Darkness. @diegoarguello66

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