Nearly every Steam review and description of Atom RPG I read said the same thing: It’s old-school Fallout, but Soviet. “That can’t be,” I said to myself as I waited for the game to download. “That’s too reductionist.” A few hours of playtime later, I’ve revised my opinion: Atom is old-school Fallout, but Soviet.
This is a good thing, for the most part. The setting of a Russian wasteland—the product of a 1986 nuclear escalation that, in the game’s fiction, destroyed both the Soviet Union and the Western Bloc—is atmospheric and hostile, but far from humorless. Combat is turn-based and heavily stat-driven. There are dialogue options aplenty, and you can level up your speechcraft, which lets you talk more gooder. That’s arguably the most important stat in the game, since you need it to talk your way through hairy situations. Also, everybody calls each other “comrade.”
The game also wears its old school influences on its sleeve, meaning that it opens with a classic big ol’ list of under-explained character stats that you can (and probably will) screw up if you don’t consult one of the few comprehensive English-language guides that other players have made. And even then, you’ve got to invest a ton into some stats to even make them functional. Overall, it’s difficult to create a well-balanced character. In part because of that, the game can also be pretty hard.
After about an hour of reading guides, watching videos, and of course, fretting about my stats, I created a character named Ruta who was primarily a smooth talker. I took special care to max out her endurance and dexterity so she’d be able to survive any combat encounters that she couldn’t talk her way through. The game then explained to me that my character was on a mission from the secretive Atom organization. Its goal is to return the Soviet wastes to a state of relative peace and equity reminiscent of much earlier, better times, and hopes to achieve this by locating old technologies and texts. An Atom mission appeared to have gone awry, and I needed to locate some agents who hadn’t returned.
I’ve yet to get around to pursuing that initial mission. The game’s story started off with my character getting mugged by some roving military types, at which point I staggered into a nearby ramshackle oasis. Fortunately, this town’s citizens welcomed me with open arms—and then, like townspeople in post-apocalyptic wastelands are wont to do, informed me of their bandit problem. I spent the next few hours engrossed in doing every side quest in the area. I was, for the most part, not disappointed in these adventures.
I chugged an experimental alcoholic beverage for a woman working at the local tavern and hallucinated at death’s door. I went on to collect strange mushrooms for her, which—come to think of it—might explain her drinks’ hallucinogenic properties. I agreed to pick up a copy of Lord of the Rings, which the local barkeep described with wide-eyed wonder as a book about “another world,” from a nearby major city. I cured a man of (maybe) demon possession by (maybe) accepting the demon into my own body. Or (maybe) that guy and I were both delusional. (I could’ve also told the demon to flee into a pig, but I didn’t.) I settled a dispute between three ex-expedition partners who were all convinced that each others’ bodies had been taken over by the freaky “skin wyrm” that the trio had recently come face-to-mandible with in a nearby swamp. I did this by listening to their stories and looking for discrepancies, because—as they each told me—the skin wyrm creates a perfect copy of a person, but it gets small details wrong. Dilemma: they all flubbed details in their stories.
I also killed a lot of mutated rats, spiders, and wasps with a giant shovel and infiltrated a bandit commune. The mutated creatures and bandit gangs aren’t as unique as some of Atom’s other writing; these are examples of moments when the game leans more into hackneyed wasteland cliches. Combat, so far, has been functional but nowhere near as interesting as dialogue, and even after poring over guides, I’m not sure my stats are as good as they could be. This is also the sort of game where male characters frequently take great pains to condescend to my female character, and while some questlines have allowed me to subvert that in fun ways, I know that this particular vision of a post-apocalyptic fantasy wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of irradiated, maybe-poison, maybe-not-poison tea.
On the whole, though, Atom has really impressed me so far. It’s a quirky and surprisingly ambitious RPG that adds its own unique flavor to the Fallout formula of old. It’s rough around the edges—and those edges are, themselves, covered in smaller, rougher edges—but I’m looking forward to exploring more of its shamelessly strange world and maybe, just maybe, getting around to checking out the main quest.