There are times when playing Atlantis Evolution could make Chinese water torture look like an appealing alternative. The writing and voice acting are so bad they're almost good--you probably won't find more unintentional camp humor in a game. The interface can be cumbersome. The gameplay will have you shaking your head in disbelief and disgust as you encounter one badly designed puzzle, maze, or action sequence after another. Fortunately, if you can bear playing Atlantis Evolution long enough, it starts to get better toward the end, but by then it's scant consolation.
In Atlantis Evolution, you play as Curtis Hewitt, a young photojournalist steaming home to America in 1904 after an expedition to Patagonia. His ship sinks during a fierce storm, leaving him stranded on a lifeboat that spirals down through a whirlpool into a hidden world. Then an alien craft appears overhead and sucks Hewitt up into it. From there, he's transported to the civilization of New Atlantis, which he has to explore and escape from.
That's no easy task, because Hewitt is viewed as a "deviant," an outsider who doesn't bow to the ruthless, all-seeing "gods" who rule the Atlanteans with iron fists. Everywhere Hewitt goes, he encounters statues of the angry humanoid gods, statues that are actually observation devices used to intimidate the simple agrarian populace into utter obedience. Hewitt also gets chased by armed guards who zap him at the slightest provocation. When he tries to glean helpful information from cowed, zombielike workers, they only regurgitate whatever they've been taught to say.
The idea of a simple civilization forced to submit to suspicious alien gods will be nothing new to science-fiction fans. It still could have proven interesting if it weren't so horribly implemented in Atlantis Evolution. Between the stilted dialogue, weak voice-overs, lapses in logic, and exaggeration that slams every point home with the subtlety of a Day-Glo jackhammer, the story begins to feel like a big joke.
You start to see this early on, when you encounter an enemy guard who has a litany of ridiculous things to say to you. Imagine a Keanu Reeves impersonator. Now imagine him reading a line like, "The path you will follow to humility depends on the death of your deviancy." Whoa! When you try to escape from the guard, he shoots you with some kind of ray gun and warns you, "And that was nothing, outsider. This weapon can reduce you to dust." A few dialogue clunkers like that wouldn't be so bad, but they're everywhere, lending the game an unintentional air of parody. Simple peasant farmers casually note, without any hint of irony, how they've been "purified and freed from independent thought." They'll assure you that "[truly they] are blessed to be so downtrodden for [their] own good." This is Mystery Science Theater 3000 material.
You play the game from a first-person view with occasional cutscenes that show Hewitt interacting with people. You proceed from one fixed node to another, though you can pan the camera 360 degrees. You interact with the world using a basic point-and-click interface, but for something ideally so simple, it's surprisingly flawed and counterintuitive. It takes too many mouse clicks to access, use, or store inventory items. It can be hard to move around, thanks to a bug that sometimes prevents your mouse click from registering. (Other bugs can cause the game to crash and sounds to drop out.) When talking to characters, you choose topics by clicking on little icons instead of text. This system works pretty well, but you may as well just click all the icons, since "conversation" in this game means sitting back and passively listening to characters.
The biggest deal breaker in Atlantis Evolution is its gameplay. When you're exploring a village early in the game, your first "puzzle" is the dramatic task of getting a drink of water. That can turn into an onerous chore. A cutscene can mislead you about the location of the bucket you need to dip into the village well. If you try to leave the village to find it, you're told you need more information first. That leads you to believe you need to talk with the villagers for clues, even though you've probably already done that. Eventually, after a pixel hunt, you find the bucket and grab your precious drink of water.
Now the "fun" is only beginning. You leave the village to find yourself pursued by enemy guards. You run away by clicking on the path in front of you, but you discover you're in a forest maze with no clue at all where to go. If you slow down and consider your path, the guards catch you, and you have to restart the segment from scratch. You might finally elude them by finding shelter in a cave, but there you find yourself confronted with a row of marching crab-spider thingies. If you get too close, they leap onto your face and kill you, and you have to start the segment over. Why you can't jump over or climb around them is unclear, but it does become clear that you need another inventory item to pass them. So, it's back out into the forest for another endless series of do-overs whenever the guards catch you while you seek the elusive item. Heck, you don't even know what you're looking for.
The sad irony is that after you solve this segment, you're plopped down in another forest maze and then another one after that. There you engage in more pixel hunts for items like a stick. A stick in a forest--of course! These sorts of annoying, boring, repetitive, or downright dumb challenges fill the game. If you're not wandering through confusingly similar scenery again and again, you're hunting for tiny objects when you don't even know what you're looking for. When it's not a pixel hunt, it's a string of nearly identical Dragon's Lair-style action sequences with sloppy controls and "gotcha" deaths. When it's not a cheap death, it's a simplistic minigame that has nothing to do with the main gameplay or story. These minigames lamely ape old classics like Defender or Frogger, so you actually have to win a match of Snake to shut down a big death ray and play a game of Pong to battle the gods.
Despite its lengthy catalog of flaws, Atlantis Evolution isn't all bad. In one segment, you get caught in a tree snare and suddenly find yourself viewing the world upside down as you helplessly dangle there in a net. It's an unexpected and memorable touch. In a dramatic cutscene, a giant water serpent attacks our hero. The puzzles start to get more interesting and original when you finally encounter the humanoid gods. The game also boasts some decent music, replete with unusual ethnic instrumentation. It helps make up for the many weak voice-overs that badly mar the audio. You'll encounter colorful graphics, too, with lavishly appointed private chambers for the gods and forests of huge alien flora. Then again, a lot of the graphics are blurry or numbingly repetitive. In fact, numbed is how you'll likely feel after subjecting yourself to the tedium and torments of Atlantis Evolution. If you can stick it out until the final third or so, you'll find a few rewards, but unfortunately they're too little, too late.