Atomicrops is exactly what it describes itself as, an “action roguelite farming simulator”. It’s a description that (when added to its raw pixel art style) will instantly either turn you off from even considering it, or pique your interest as to what it’s all about.
The first and almost overwhelming feeling when first sitting down to play Atomicrops is that there’s a lot to juggle. I’m not talking Stardew Valley’s decisions of what to grow or build next, when to head into town, or who to talk to and romance, which can be a little overwhelming in their own slow-paced way, but the much more immediate pressures of a bullet hell shooter. You really are playing two games at once here, blasting away at enemies that come at you and looking after your small patch of vegetables at the same time, tilling the land, planting seeds, watering them, and doing more than a little bit of weeding.
Once you get used to it, you realise that it’s quite a bit more relaxed and player friendly than that initially sounds. During the day, the mutated enemies coming your way are small in numbers, fire only one or two slow moving bullets at a time, and are really more of a distraction and annoyance. At the same time, you can largely just hold the left trigger to “do farming stuff”, whatever that might be for the small square of land you’ve targeted. The range that you have for this is decent, when it requires your direct interaction, and once you’re watering plants, there’s a Mario Sunshine-esque backpack that just cannons water to where you need it to go, even if you then walk half a screen away.
But every farm needs supplies, and to get those, you need to stray out into the post-apocalyptic wastes of the world. It’s here that the game takes on more of that bullet hell vibe, as you cross the bridge and find little camps where gun-toting rabbits are sleeping as they guard boxes of seeds, swarms of angry bats float around near pickaxes, and where you’ll find some power ups like pigs who automatically till the land for you and make your life on the farm just that little bit easier.
It’s a taste of what’s to come at night, where you really have to head back to your farm and defend whatever it is you’re growing – and you’re growing some weird-ass mutated plants with deformed little faces on them that grow and bounce around as they get closer to picking. More and stronger enemies turn up, lobbing mortars at you, more actively coming in to try and eat your food. And every third night, you’re dragged back forcibly to your farm for a season-ending boss battle against an angry sun or a giant slug, accompanied by a load of additional smaller enemies. Your main goal initially is simply to survive until day, more than anything else.
As dawn breaks through the night, the nearby town that you’re hoping to supply with food send a helicopter to bring you and anything you’ve managed to successfully grow in to feed its handful of inhabitants. The literal peanuts that you get as money can then be spent on a new weapon – the little shooter you start off with is short ranged and slow firing, making a weapon upgrade a big deal – whether that’s an assault rifle or rocket-like attack squirrels… don’t ask. You might need to top up your health, or want to buy a drone to help you, and if you’ve been growing roses, you can hand them over to a couple of NPCs that, if you get far enough into the game, you can even woo and marry.
Of course, die and you lose it all – this is a roguelite after all – and I feel that Bird Bath Games have got a good way to go to find the right balance for the game. My main issue, and perhaps it’s just a lack of experience early on, is that I don’t feel that empowered to get on with the game’s rinse and repeat of objective. I’d go a whole day not planting crops because the base gun was too weak to deal with enemies quickly enough, meaning that I then don’t have enough cash to buy a new weapon, and when those weapons only last for a single day, that’s a constant drain on what I can spend money on.
The game is also really quite rough around the edges in terms of its presentation. The graphical style is a little bit too unrefined for my tastes, like it’s trying to capture the same 1930s Fleisher brothers animation feel that Cuphead did, but I’m not sure that quite gels with the pixel art. Beyond that, while it’s just starting its journey into Early Access on the Epic Games Store today, the interface feels pretty barebones and unclear outside of the core shooting and farming.
There is some promise here though. Right from the first moment it feels like you’re fighting for survival, and I started to get into the groove of things as I gradually earned more upgrades, unlocked a tractor to clear swathes of weeds in one fell swoop, and battled tougher enemies in steadily increasing numbers. Personally, I’d ramp that up even further. Make me more powerful, make enemies feel that little bit more dangerous, and get players deeper into the game more quickly with a larger farm and with more to lose. Then they might be able to reap what they sow.