The “4X” genre is called that for its four dimensions of play: explore, exploit, expand and exterminate. Neo Atlas 1469, the latest in a storied series by developer Artdink and the first to make it to English-speaking players, takes a different sort of approach to the formula, dropping a few of those four Xs and replacing them with its own.
In Neo Atlas 1469, you certainly explore and expand. You’ll outfit and increase your supplies of ships and items to better sail around the world. You’ll claim more ports and search far and wide for new places of interest. You’ll grab for resources and cash, and you’ll take every free moment to zoom in on land masses and see what you can uncover. You have a series of goals, each reaching a point further away from your home country of Portugal, and even the smaller quests along the way encourage you to stretch your territory and scope.
This sort of “what two things will make a new thing” concept has already found wild success in the more casual end of the games spectrum, and it works well here as a topping on an already-meaty globe-spanning strategy experience.
1469 is also a game in which you experiment. Progress is made by finding new and better goods, and many of those are made by combining two simpler commodities through trade routes. This sort of “what two things will make a new thing” concept has already found wild success in the more casual end of the games spectrum, and it works well here as a topping on an already-meaty globe-spanning strategy experience. It’s not just about “will a diamond and a ring combine to form a diamond ring,” because of course they will. It’s about crafting that diamond ring and using it to trade with other lucrative items to fund your expeditions! Less valuable mixes are incentivized, like a local pub owner who will pay if you craft new ales or a king with ever-changing whims wanting… really a lot of things, frankly.
Outside of providing impetus for tasks, the game’s storytelling is meant to be quaint and charming. It’s a tale of medieval Europe told by a team of Japanese people, so there’s certainly a sense of peculiarity to it and it doubly trips into some less-than-great stereotypes from time to time. Still, a tale of a “masked pirate” who no one seems to be able to tell is just a guy they know with a flimsy disguise, a heartwarming reunion of an admiral and his monkey friend and a request to get a sketchy sailor to repay his debts that sees him use the interface of the game to resist? These are amusing — if fleeting — distractions.
The game’s fourth dimension lets you explain, defining both the geography and nature of the world through your travels. The world map starts as an accurate representation of Medieval Europe with a haze covering everywhere else. As you set out into uncharted territory, the game procedurally generates that explored area. You can choose to accept or reject reports from your admirals when they return, deciding whether that area becomes a permanent part of Earth or whether you’d like to spend the time and funds to try again. The world can turn out very similar or very different in your play, and both the generation and your own choices shape that. This system effectively conveys the experience of the original explorers, with vague sketches of the lands beyond that weren’t always accurate. In 1469, our sketch is the real world.
You’ll also be asked questions about rumors of far-off lands, and your answers become reality. Is it true that a City of Gold lies to the east? Do they all wear gold there? These are less strategic than they are an effort to build a custom narrative, and if that idea appeals to you even at the expense of cutthroat simulation and economic triumph, Neo Atlas is your type of game.
The game’s fourth dimension lets you explain, defining both the geography and nature of the world through your travels.
There’s definitely a sense to 1469 that its means and ambitions are meager. Originally a Vita exclusive in Japan from a company known for not often expanding its audience beyond its home borders, it’s both intentionally low-fidelity and large-format. It’s designed for touch screens and transitions well to mouse play, but it presents things in an exaggerated scale on a monitor and the clicking suffers from an interface that expects larger pushes. You’ll need to learn exactly where to click to add pins to the map, and scrolling through lists of items could be better implemented. Also there are these cherubs on the screen at all times, and that’s a little weird? Or a lot weird. Certainly some degree of weird.
There’s certainly nothing quite like Neo Atlas 1469. It’s a relaxing game with a lot to keep you engaged, and it has that Artdink charm we know so well from Carnage Heart and Aquanaut’s Holiday. Mostly, we’re as happy as we are surprised to see it make it to the West — and the PC — as the long-running series just wasn’t going to work as a language-heavy import. Pick it up the next time you need a day to relax and recharge.