This First Impression article is based upon about the first hour of gameplay and may not necessarily be indicative of the game as a whole. This includes the score at the end.
With a name referencing the atomic number for gold, you might think that Atomic 79 is about mining, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s more about shooting a whole lot of voxel skeletons. Aside from the initial hub, the entire game takes place inside a single, dark room where you must survive against the relentless hordes of spooky skeletons for as long as possible while collecting as much gold as you can. Even though Devil Daggers immediately comes to mind, Atomic 79 is far more upbeat, infinitely more charming, and feels pretty different overall beyond belonging to the same odd ‘arena survival FPS’ subgenre.
Gameplay is far and away the most important element here and Atomic 79 nails it. Seriously, I was planning to play for about 30 minutes before writing this First Impression article (as I do for most non-RPG’s for these types of articles) and I kept doing “just one more run” until I was somewhere slightly beyond the hour mark. You die the moment even a single enemy touches you, but movement is fast and responsive, allowing you to make quick turns and to hop over obstacles hidden in the darkness.
Shooting feels really good as well and seeing skeletons fly apart as they fly through the air is always satisfying, though you rarely have the time to stand around and admire your handiwork. One very important feature is the warning symbols which appear on the sides and the bottom of the screen if enemies are closing in on you from any of those directions so you can always know if it’s save to run to the side or backwards without needing to stop and check; players are encouraged to never stop moving and to make abrupt changes in direction as the situation changes. Load times between runs are also very short, as they need to be in a game like this.
I particularly like two ways in which Atomic 79 creates added tension. First, you have infinite ammo, yet there is no automatic reload. Clip sizes are rather large by default and you can upgrade them to become even larger between runs, but you always need to pay attention to your current ammo count. Running towards a lone skeleton to escape from a larger horde only to hear the clip of an empty chamber as you aim for its head is incredibly intense and demands some very quick decision making. Secondly, skeletons demand some degree of precision to kill. Body shots and head shots both work, but shooting off an arm or two does nothing at all. Seeing a skeleton ceaselessly continue to move towards you after having visual confirmation of missing just enough to ineffectively take off an arm is more effective at raising tension than if there was no visual change for a ‘close miss’.
Perhaps the most defining trait of Atomic 79 is its layered forms of progression. The most basic form of progression is survival time; new enemy types and variants start appearing and enemies become far more numerous in general as a run goes on. There is apparently a boss fight of some variety if you manage to survive for long enough and there even seems to be a definitive, obtainable end to a run, though I haven’t come close to it.
Gold is the other source of progression and needs to be considered both as an overarching resource and on a per-run basis. You are accompanied by F.R.A.N.D., a floating pink robot which moves around the arena digging up chunks of gold in various spots while providing a handy light source. Golden skeletons also occasionally spawn which drop gold upon dying. The catch here is that gold can only be cashed in by bringing it back to the beam in the center of the arena, a location which becomes increasingly difficult to reach as the run progresses. Furthermore, each piece of gold is worth more based on the amount of pieces you are currently carrying, so the first piece is worth five, the next six, then seven and so on. Thus, waiting longer to cash in your gold lets you obtain far more per piece, but there’s an ever-increasing risk of getting hit and losing it all without cashing it in.
On the overarching side of things, gold is used between runs to permanently upgrade and unlock weapons. It looks like there’s a total of four guns plus a grenade and you can take along any two out of the four (you always have the grenade). That said, you start with access to a pistol and grenades and the only other gun I was able to afford as of this article was the machine gun. Reload time and ammo capacity are the two main ways you can upgrade guns and the machine gun can also have its fire rate boosted.
Of the two guns I tried out, I liked the pistol much more due to the massive three second initial reload on the machine gun, though the machine gun has a lot more upgrade potential for the long run. Regardless of which weapons players ultimately decide to upgrade, it seems like the general sense of progression behind Atomic 79 is to initially focus on getting as much gold as possible and then gradually transition over to focusing on surviving for as long as possible, which becomes easier when you’re not as worried about cashing in your earnings.
It’s worth taking a moment to discuss the grenade on its own. You can only have one grenade at a time, though you can upgrade its explosion radius and its recharge rate. Unlike other weapons, there is no set reload time for grenades. Instead, your grenade gradually refills as you kill enemies with your guns, so you get to make use of this powerful weapon more frequently as the run intensifies. On top of flashily killing everything within a respectable radius even at the default levels, grenades grant you a few seconds of slowed time, making them even more valuable when you need to find an escape route or if you want to snipe a few of the more difficult enemies.
Ordinary skeletons (or ‘skeltins’ as the game calls them) are far and away the most common enemies here, but they aren’t the only foes. There are two other main types of enemies. First up are the skells, fiery flying skeleton heads which will relentlessly chase you; their small size and the fact that they can fly over obstacles makes them far more difficult to deal with. The second enemy type, bone balls, are blue skulls in rolling cages of bone. Bone balls aren’t as good at homing in on you as the other enemy types, but they move very quickly and failing to get a clean shot or two off on the skull itself will only knock them away.
Otherwise, you have the gold skeletons I mentioned previously and the skeletons and skells have a green, toxic variant which explodes upon death to take out anything near it as well as a fiery red variant which, to be perfectly honestly, doesn’t seem all that much different from the standard version from what I’ve seen of it. It’s not the biggest enemy list in the world even when you factor in boss I have yet to encounter, but it’s effective enough for a game where even an exceptional run only lasts about six minutes.
The aesthetics really bring the whole game together. The chunky voxel graphics look great and give the game a sense of personality that a realistic style couldn’t convey. The hub room is also rather charming and has a playfulness to its menus and posters which doesn’t distract from ease of use. Lighting also plays a crucial role as the mining arena is pitch black beyond a few light sources like your robotic friend and the special enemy variants. Boxes, barrels, and abandoned mining equipment lurk in the dark and, while they can aid your escape, they can easily endanger your run if you unexpectedly come across them from an angle where you can’t easily jump over them. the soundtrack, small though it may be, is also phenomenal and the arena song is upbeat, energetic, and incredibly catchy. You shouldn’t play this game on mute since listening for the various types of enemy sounds is rather important, but I couldn’t imagine playing without the music.
It probably goes without saying at this point, but I like Atomic 79 a whole lot so far. This particular arena shooter subgenre isn’t something I’m usually fond of, but this game has won me over with its charm, smooth controls, and an actual sense of progression.
First Impression Verdict: Great! 5/5