First released in 2016 for the Playstation Vita, Neo ATLAS 1469 (developed by ARTDINK) has been ported across to PC and is now available on the ever illustrious Steam. It’s a curious title; a blend of simulation, strategy and visual novel in which you manage a Portuguese Trading Company through the tumultuous waters of 15th Century Europe. The main goal, however, is not strategic – there’s no ‘economic victory’ here – the game concludes when the whole of the map is revealed.
It’s an interesting angle to take, and one that actively encourages continual expansion and exploration. To explore further afield sturdier ships are needed, but these ships are not cheap. Trade routes must be established to fuel your gradually broadening horizons. Routes become more complex as traded items can often combine to create more expensive and luxurious products: glass and mercury forms mirrors, or silver rings plus pearls produce pearl rings. The prices of these products are often lucrative, but they are also finite – only so many pearl rings can be produced, according to the number of pearl shipments that make it to port.
Making a solid profit isn’t difficult, though ATLAS doesn’t actively tell you what you’re doing right. If a trade route is profitable it lets you set it up without issue, but if a route hits the negative red then your aide, Miguel, will slide in from the right and sternly ask you if you’re sure. Problem is, a lot of unprofitable routes have to be set up so as to get access to the ludicrous second tier, which can then net you thousands in profit – in these situations, Miguel doesn’t applaud your ingenuity, but warns you all the same.
The tutorial is extensive but largely uninformative – especially on trade. Trade routes are encouraged, and Miguel helps you form your first routes by pointing to items on the map, but you’re never told why or how. ‘Do this!’ chimes Miguel, his face flushed with happiness, and you do it, and there’s a profit, but there’s no in-depth breakdown. Consequently, I didn’t feel like the Master of the Portuguese Trading Company, I felt like a bumbling idiotic CEO being controlled by an overly happy aide. In fact, that sounds familiar, [insert controversial political joke here].
The tutorial then moves on to other matters, such as exploring new lands and creating new fleets; all of which were very simple tasks drawn out by needless exposition by Miguel and your chirpy new Admirals. These segments play out in the form of a visual novel – characters sweeping in from the left or right, uttering short sentences which you click, click, click through. During these scenes you have no ability to interact with the main screen behind the characters, and you’re forced to click-through. Every. Single. Line. These conversational sequences can last upwards of five minutes, and you’re there clicking absently every second or so. It’s mind-blowingly tedious.
Note to the developers: let the conversations run out natively and let the player fiddle with things in the background. Set a short timer on each dialogue window so that it rolls into the next line of text unless you pause. Then, have some kind of conversational history list screen in case the player misses something whilst micromanaging. That way, players can play the game whilst the other characters belittle the female character because she’s a woman and looks beautiful.
When unadulterated access is finally given back to you it’s then a matter of planning more adventures across the sea, investigating shipwrecks, and establishing new trade routes. Unfortunately, all of this gets old rapidly. These are all time based actions, and in the chasms between events you are encouraged to examine the land you have recently discovered. There are certainly things to be found between the folds of the map; such as extra goods to trade, or one-off products that boost aspects of your ships, or historical artefacts. But these items lack character – appearing simply as objects pinned to the flat, grey, drab landscape. You score some gold, but none of these things have any dramatic effect on your play through. Better yet, when you zoom back out to survey a larger area, many of these items sink back into the creases.
Now this is important, because we have to remember that the goal is to uncover the entire map. The journey, therefore, has to be engaging – either through story, through game play, or through level design. So restricting your ability to view all of the locations and items you’ve discovered is a terrible design choice. Zooming out is meant to be an awe-inspiring experience. A ‘look what I did’ moment. But in ATLAS that’s really not the case. The ability to influence the shape of the map is however a curious feature – wehn a fleet has completed an expedition you experience their journey through a report, which you can choose to approve or disapprove. Choosing disapprove will take you back to the beginning of the report, which will play out again but with different results. New landmasses can be found in this way, and inlets into whole new continents can be generated by ‘disapproving’ a report that shows shore rather than sea.
But this feature is in no way worth its £29.99 price tag. I can’t recommend Neo ATLAS 1469, as it was never built to be played on PC, nor has it been ported in a way that allows the PC player to enjoy it fully. The nature of zooming in and panning around the environment to find chests and villages likely worked on the small screen of the PS Vita, but it hasn’t transitioned well to keyboard and mouse. It feels dated, and it’s visually unappealing. All of this is a real shame, as the concept is a wonderful one – the idea of fusing together exploration with strategy and aspects from the visual novel genre is commendable – but in the case of Neo ATLAS 1469 it does not work.
With a few small amendments (like altering the click click click dialogue sections or allowing the player to interact with the main map whilst these exchanges play out) this game would be a great deal more satisfying. However, it will likely never have the complexity or intrigue present in other strategy titles. If you want a trading simulator, see Anno 1404.