Over the course of several years, Deck13 has delivered solid Soulslike games with the likes of Lords of the Fallen, The Surge, and its sequel, but the studio is heading into uncharted territories with its next outing. Atlas Fallen will be transporting players to a a unique fantasy setting that’s buried under a sea of sand, and it’s bringing with it the promise of high-flying super-powered combat, an emphasis on exploration on a wide and semi-open world, support for co-op, and more. It’s looked like a promising prospect in all that’s been shown of it so far, and ahead of its launch in August, we recently reached out to its developer a few of our questions about what will make Atlas Fallen tick, what’s setting it apart from Deck13’s previous offerings, and more. Below, you can read our interview with Deck13 managing director and Atlas Fallen creative director Jan Klose.
"In direct comparison to the Surge games, Atlas Fallen is way more open and extends an invitation for exploration – it’s one of the core gameplay pillars. Levels are no longer mazes with an optimal path, instead they are wide areas where players can freely choose what to tackle next."
After Lords of the Fallen and The Surge, there was perhaps an expectation that Deck13 would continue developing Soulslikes. What was behind the decision to try out something new and different with Atlas Fallen?
We learned that challenging games target a very passionate but specific audience. We loved the way they engaged with our projects and the enthusiasm they brought, but we also discovered that many other gamers gave these games a shot but they were discouraged by the steep learning curve. This was something we especially noticed when we proudly showed our work to friends and family members and saw them struggle. In contrast, the main goal for Atlas Fallen was to create a game that reaches a wider audience but offers an approach that makes everyone intrigued by the setting and the mechanics. Therefore, we now have three different difficulty levels. From genre newbie to seasoned veteran, everyone should find the challenge level they are looking for with Atlas Fallen.
As an extension of the previous question, seeing as Atlas Fallen is, unlike your past games, not a Soulslike, how differently is it approaching difficulty?
When designing a game without the more strict souls-like rules, which feel punishing to some players, for example restarting at campfires and losing progress, it means that we needed new but equally convincing rules instead. This opened new opportunities for level design. In direct comparison to the Surge games, Atlas Fallen is way more open and extends an invitation for exploration – it’s one of the core gameplay pillars. Levels are no longer mazes with an optimal path, instead they are wide areas where players can freely choose what to tackle next. And that obviously comes with a challenge for balancing the difficulty. Atlas Fallen solves this by splitting its world into different bigger areas, each offering multiple hours of content. But while challenges on the main path should always be balanced in a way that they can be overcome without expert skills, we placed further tricky challenges to the side of the path. So if you explore off the beaten track, it might still end deadly!
With Atlas Fallen featuring some choice and consequence mechanics, how much of a focus should players expect that side of the experience to be? Will the choices made by players have much of an impact on how the story plays out?
Atlas Fallen being an action-RPG also means that players are offered with choices throughout the playthrough. In story context, this means having choices in dialogues that will influence the outcome of quests. Sometimes the fates of characters are in your hands and certain choices might lead to their deaths. As a result, the story and the tonal beats might be different from player to player, but globally the main story follows a set path, which players can also influence. Choices are also a strong component of gameplay elements. Character creation, armor upgrades and cosmetic customizations, open levels and a big variety of skills invite the player to make choices according to their preferences. Especially the Essence Stones, a system of modular active and passive skills, allows players to create a tool kit for combat encounters that resonates with their fighting style.
"Atlas Fallen being an action-RPG also means that players are offered with choices throughout the playthrough. In story context, this means having choices in dialogues that will influence the outcome of quests. Sometimes the fates of characters are in your hands and certain choices might lead to their deaths."
Atlas Fallen‘s setting is clearly one of its biggest selling points. What were some of your biggest inspirations behind it? Was it a premise born out of gameplay ideas around sand-based combat and traversal, or did it happen the other way around and the gameplay ideas came after the setting was decided on?
After having completed developing the Surge games and in search of a new setting, we actually started with the core feature, the one idea that we wanted to build the game around. After the team contributed a crazy amount of creative ideas, it was on the directors to forge a unified vision from them. And for some reason, “sand” was what stuck with us, and once it was on the table, we started creating everything around it, layer by layer, starting with the first features and world building. I think that a game can only become good if the game’s universe, story, and gameplay features evolve hand in hand, piece by piece. It’s what we’re trying: working it out together. Sometimes it works better, sometimes worse, but I think our games really shine when we all push forward the same ideas.
Another big selling point of the game seems to be its superpowered combat. Breaking that down to its individual components, how much variety will Atlas Fallen have on offer with its shapeshifting weapons, and how will their shapeshifting attributes impact gameplay? Similarly, how crucial to the combat will the abilities be?
Atlas Fallen has three weapon classes, all with different strengths and downsides. Players can equip two of them at a time to combine their specialties and to counter their weaknesses. All these weapons evolve when fighting, as a result hitting harder, growing bigger and stronger. The Dunecleaver for example is a weapon that mainly appears as a hammer, able to pull off area-of-effect strikes and staggering attacks. But it also transforms into a mighty axe and even a scythe. All weapons come with unique special attacks, special combos when using the secondary weapon and attacks that launch players into the air or slam them down on their enemies.
We also have super-powered abilities called Essence Stones. These are a variety of active and passive skills which players are able to freely socket into their combat loadout. They’re divided into different categories. We have mighty damage skills that fire projectiles at enemies, summon tornadoes or call down hammers from the sky – why not! But there is also an entire category of stones with the main purpose of messing with the enemies. These so-called Trick stones consist of leaping abilities, stuns, slowdowns and other fun ways to obstruct the world’s monsters. The game also offers stones to improve healing, negate damage and accelerate the way Momentum, our core combat resource used to activate these skills, is gained.
How much emphasis does Atlas Fallen put on build variety with its customization and progression mechanics, in terms of allowing players the freedom to upgrade their character the way they see fit?
The design intention behind the Essence Stones is to offer players as much freedom as possible. Whether you’re a defensive or offensive player, the tools available at your fingertips will fit your playstyle, while still inviting you to branch out and explore all the other possibilities. Players can stick to just selecting skills from one category and make full use of synergies – from full glass cannon damage wielding maniac to a defensive aura tank, anything is possible. But there’s also the option to go for a loadout mixed with stones from different categories, exploring some complementing combinations. This system also really shines in co-op, where players can design their loadouts to fulfill unique roles in combat to maximize their chances of success in challenging encounters.
"After having completed developing the Surge games and in search of a new setting, we actually started with the core feature, the one idea that we wanted to build the game around. After the team contributed a crazy amount of creative ideas, it was on the directors to forge a unified vision from them. And for some reason, “sand” was what stuck with us, and once it was on the table, we started creating everything around it, layer by layer, starting with the first features and world building."
What can you tell us about Atlas Fallen‘s traversal mechanics? How will they tie into exploration?
As touched on in an earlier question, exploration is a core part of the gameplay. And since the areas are huge and due to the cataclysmic events of the past also filled with challenging terrain, players will need to make full use of all the movement abilities the game has to offer. Sand Gliding lets you surf the wide dunes of the world quickly and can also be used as a seamless opening move leaping into combat. The Air Dash becomes a necessary tool when crossing huge chasms or leaping over bigger gaps in destroyed structures of the past. This ability can be upgraded to increase the amount of times a player is able to dash. It’s also an essential part in combat when trying to evade an enemy. What makes it unique in combat is that the ability resets to its full amount of charges after hitting an enemy. Because of this twist, skilled players who mastered the combat will be able to stay airborne throughout their encounters. These movement tools are complimented by a double jump, helping you to reach even higher places.
Where the semi-open world is concerned, what should players expect in terms of the map’s size and how much environmental variety it will offer, especially given the setting’s core premise?
In terms of world size, Atlas Fallen is our biggest game yet, and we’re fully aware that a desert setting creates the challenge of filling wide areas with life, points of interest and engaging activities. We already realized this in the pre-production step and have since made sure to enrich the world. In terms of environmental variety, players can expect to explore castles, forests, oases, mountain ranges, caves and much more.
Atlas Fallen is putting quite a bit of emphasis on co-op as well, but would you say it’s the ideal way to play the game, or is it an equally viable experience across solo and co-op?
Atlas Fallen was designed as a single player game with an optional co-op mode, but we’re confident that both are equally viable and unique experiences. The game can be perfectly played alone without even recognizing, from any of the gameplay mechanics, that it was also designed with co-op in mind. But yes, almost the full game can also be played with a partner. They will be present in all cutscenes, be at your side when you make decisions in dialogues and fight with you in combat. Some Essence Stones offer unique benefits in coop, while still being viable choices for a single player run. Co-op also has a dedicated balancing, ensuring that if you embark to explore the dunes of Atlas Fallen with a partner, the monsters you encounter are prepared to handle the both of you.
Do you have any plans to eventually also bring the game to last-gen consoles?
There are currently no plans to bring Atlas Fallen to the last-gen consoles.
Given that you have now worked on all the current gen consoles, I hope you don’t mind answering some questions about their hardware. Since the reveal of the PS5 and Xbox Series’ specs, a lot of comparisons have been made between the GPU speeds of the two consoles, with the PS5 at 10.28 TFLOPS and the Xbox Series X at 12 TFLOPS. How much of an impact on development do you think that difference will have?
For the final game players will experience, these differences between the platforms should probably be insignificant. Only during development, when comparing our game’s performance between both consoles at each tiny step of their rendering process, the differences become noticeable. That helps us in detecting inefficiencies inside the project, debugging them and further optimizing Atlas Fallen.
The PS5 features an incredibly fast SSD with 5.5GB/s raw bandwidth. How can developers take advantage of this, and how does this compare to the Xbox Series X’s 2.4GB/s raw bandwidth?
Games, especially ones that offer players lots of freedom in their decisions about where to head next in the world, need to shuffle around a lot of data very quickly. One example for that would be a data-intensive task like loading textures. Having quick SSDs makes this a bit easier. To put it into perspective, while the number for Xbox is lower on first glance, it is still immensely high and not easy to fully utilize.
" Since the areas are huge and due to the cataclysmic events of the past also filled with challenging terrain, players will need to make full use of all the movement abilities the game has to offer."
Both the PS5 and Xbox Series X boast Zen 2 CPUs, but there is a difference in the processors of both consoles. The Xbox Series X features 8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.8GHz, whereas the PS5 features 8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.5GHz. Your thoughts on this difference?
While this appears to make one console better in direct comparison, we think the resulting effect is very small – even marginal. Both consoles offer very competent hardware for a game of our size and ambition.
The Xbox Series S features lesser hardware compared to Xbox Series and Microsoft is pushing it as a 1440p/60 FPS console. Do you think it will be able to hold up for the more graphically intensive games as this generation progresses?
That heavily depends on the development priorities. Generally speaking, hardware specs are only really limiting if you don’t have the time and resources to specifically optimize for said hardware. Looking at what the new Zelda game is pulling off on hardware that is less capable compared to the one of the other platforms, is a prime example for optimization done right. Of course this reaches a threshold at some point, but the longer a generation of consoles lasts, the better developers get at optimizing for these platforms.
What frame rate and resolution will the game target on the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S?
For PS5 and Xbox Series X we will offer a quality mode at 4k resolution and 30 frames per second. Players also have the option to choose a performance mode, providing 1440p and 60fps. For Xbox Series S, the game will run on a stable 60fps on 1080p. All modes are supported by dynamic resolution, helping to keep the framerate up in data-intensive situations.