Ato by Tiny Warrior Games
Ato features a samurai warrior taking down a bandit crew one by one in feudal Japan to recover his kidnapped child. Also, he’s a cat.
Catlike Grace, or the Lack Thereof
Cats, much like ninjas, are good at jumping and fighting, so it makes sense that there’s a lot of that here. Ato is primarily comprised of exploration sections broken up by involved, one-on-one fight scenes.
The exploration requires a lot of jumping, and to put it bluntly, it’s pretty hard and on occasion frustrating. Exploring the landscapes unlocks different forms of movement, some of which, like the flying dodge-roll and the double-jump, are pretty self-explanatory, but are all-too-often cumbersome in practice.
Cats Always Land on Their Feet
Various circles dot – no pun intended – the landscape, and require various combinations of jumping and focusing to traverse. Hold down the attack button while a particular circle is highlighted, and you can fly directly to it. Another type will bounce you if you strike downward and hit it with your sword.
The use of just a few buttons to manage all of these, rather than simplifying things, makes the controls feel awkward and cumbersome, especially when playing with keyboard rather than controller.
In the modern tradition of games like Celeste, you can adjust the difficulty settings, but that makes the all-too-frequent jumping sections manageable rather than frustrating. It doesn’t quite make them fun.
Like Cats and Dogs
The fight scenes, on the other hand, are elegant to a fault. I don’t usually enjoy retro boss rush games like Titan Souls, but Ato does fights right.
Each opponent adds new challenges, and your fairly limited set of dodges, dives, strikes and counter-moves are varied enough to meet those challenges without being so complicated in execution that you lose track of your controls during each encounter.
Fights aren’t a breeze, by any means, and you definitely have to pay attention to how your enemies telegraph their moves, but they feel eminently fair. I wish, in fact, that the difficulty settings were more granular, allowing me to make the fights tougher and the jumping sequences easier to breeze through.
Thirty-Six Pastel Views of Mount Fuji
Apart from the fun of the fights, Ato redeems its occasionally painful platforming with a gorgeous pastel pixel art style reminiscent of Japanese landscape paintings and rendered in limited seasonal palettes.
Admittedly, the neon pink of spring – evoking the blossoming of the cherry trees – is a bit of an eye-searing way to open the game, but still beautiful in its way.
Running through the landscapes – and even leaping through them, during the less intricate jumping sequences – is a delight, the way grass rustles as you move through it, the parallax animation rendering the trees in the foreground a sot blur, a subdued, koto-infused score adding to the sense of time and place.
Ninja Flight, Bandit Fight
Ato reminds me a bit of ‘80s-era Taito games like Demon Sword and most especially The Legend of Kage. It makes me wish that the movement was as consistently light and effortless as in those games, which felt like the bamboo forest flight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon rather than modern precision platform fiddliness.
Still, there’s a lot more to like here than not, and despite my personal preferences and complaints, Ato is more than worth playing. An understated and exquisitely pretty exploration of modern “old school” game design, its subtle visual approach and emphasis on thoughtful action is an impressive example of wordless story-telling.
Ato is available via Steam and Itch.io.
Check out the official trailer for Ato below: