After almost 10 months in early access, the full version of Atomicrops is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. This post-apocalyptic farming simulator slash roguelike from developer Bird Bath Games tries to do a lot but often falls short of excelling in any one area, making for a balanced but ultimately disappointing experience.
In Atomicrops, the world has ended and it’s up to you to feed the survivors. Fortunately, intense radiation makes it possible to cultivate truly amazing produce. Potatoes, corn, cabbage, beans… all of it grows to incredible proportions. It’s great, as long as you can avoid the plasma rifle-toting rabbits that have militarized since the apocalypse. Successful gardening in the nuclear wasteland is all about splitting time between tending to crops and defending your small parcel of farmland.
Atomicrops’ default controls are laid out such that basic tasks become muscle memory. Almost everything that has to do with farming—creating new plots, tilling the soil, and planting seeds—is assigned to one button. But this is both a gift and a curse. Aiming at specific areas of the ground quickly becomes unwieldy on a controller (in my case, a pair of Joy-Cons). I frequently found myself farming the wrong spot even when no enemies were around to distract me, nevermind when skirmishes inevitably broke out.
My frustration was only compounded by Atomicrops’ lacking tutorial. Since the opening guide focuses almost entirely on farming, I was immediately at a loss upon being dropped into the main game. It gives you a few seeds to start, but after planting and tending to my post-apoc potatoes, it gave me no indication of what I should do next. Don’t get me wrong, roguelike games always have steep learning curves. My absolute favorite, The Binding of Isaac, is incredibly obtuse when you first boot it up. But Atomicrops throws so much at you so fast, and mixes so many elements from other genres, that a more robust tutorial would have gone a long way to smoothing over the early game’s rough edges.
So there I was, not making enough money to buy seeds during regular trips to town and without any indication of where to get more beyond my initial allotment. It wasn’t until I strayed from the beaten path that I realized there existed areas outside my farm to visit and gather resources. It’s in these wild unknowns that Atomicrops’ twin-stick shooter elements take center stage. Distinctive enemies fire off bullets that, when multiplied, turn the screen into a simplified bullet hell. There’s no dodge button à la Enter the Gungeon, so tactical movement is key to surviving your trips outside the farm. Every so often, flags stuck in the ground indicate a zone of enemy control. Defeating every enemy around the flag unlocks the area, earning you seeds, equipment, and other items.
It’s during one of these excursions that I realized I just wasn’t having fun with Atomicrops. Even on the rare occasion I was able to put together a decent run and reach a boss, I still felt like I was spinning my wheels. Roguelikes are supposed to be time-consuming, true, but they also need a sense of progression. Over the course of several hours, the core gameplay loop never felt like it was expanding or that I was making any significant dent in its adventure. I never got to a point where there were any distinctive differences between the types of crops I was growing, and heading into unexplored regions for more was an exercise in uninspired gunplay and, more often than not, a quick death. I’m sure there’s much more to Atomicrops than what I’ve seen so far, but the game’s moment-to-moment gameplay doesn’t do enough to keep me coming back.
I’m naturally drawn to roguelikes. I like the challenge, I like the feeling of starting from scratch every run, I like figuring things out on my own. But Atomicrops just doesn’t scratch that itch. I feel like the game would have greatly benefited from the developers honing their efforts on improving farming or shooting or looting rather than this jack-of-all-trades approach that makes each facet of the gameplay decent but confusing and uninteresting. Atomicrops is no doubt stylish and unique, but everything it does distracts from everything else it does until nothing feels meaningful.
Correction 5/28/20, 8:25am—An earlier version of this article misstated the location of Bird Bath Games, which is based in California.