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December 2023


Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Freedom Games
Developer: Orion Games
Release Date: May 1, 2023


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PC Review - 'Arto'

by Cody Medellin on May 1, 2023 @ 8:00 a.m. PDT

Arto is a challenging third-person action experience is set in a warped world devoid of color.

Back in 2021, we were treated to Chicory: A Colorful Tale. It was a charming game taken from a top-down perspective where players were tasked with saving a black-and-white world by painting over it with color. As good as it was, some people were not on board with a game that looked so cute. For them, Arto takes the premise and goes in a more serious direction, but the results are less than favorable.

The story begins with the tale of the Chromaclysm, an event that took an already fractured world and robbed it of its color. The Divinities that once governed each of the lands have been rendered powerless while their Apostles aren't making things any easier. You play the role of Liv, a being created by one of the few Divinities with remaining power. As a newly minted Apostle, your task is to restore order to each realm and fix what the Chromaclysm broke.

Shown from an isometric perspective, Arto plays out like a toned-down action-RPG. You can dole out basic combos and perform dashes to get away from enemies or cross chasms. You can use a parry if you time things right to give yourself an opening for a combo. You can get new weapons ranging from a flail to a fan, but there are no stores or weapon drops; you'll have to use Chroma, the currency of the world, to buy them in the sub-menu. XP doesn't exist, either, as any upgrades to the skill tree — e.g., more health, the ability to heal in a fight — are also done by spending Chroma. It's basic and the parrying system is slightly involved, but you'll be able to go far without performing a parry at all.

Despite the streamlining of most action-RPG elements, the expected game length remains intact. The seven different biomes produce enough areas where exploration is highly encouraged, but don't expect a litany of secret areas to discover. You will encounter a bunch of side-quests from quest-givers that will send you darting through all seven biomes to fulfill their needs in exchange for Chroma. It works to provide a meaty adventure and some lore, but don't expect it to match up with other bigger titles in the genre. Be forewarned that it also comes with one of the more infuriating end sequences due to a constant switching of art styles that confuse more than excite.

The visual hook comes from your ability to paint the environment. Instead of actively hitting a button to give drab areas some life, you walk around an area, and the game automatically paints everything in your radius. Color and vegetation appear and cause incidental events to occur, like birds returning to their nests or other animals coming out of their caves. As nice as this is, it comes to life once you visit the different biomes and see different art styles emerge. Going from standard game graphics to comic book/pop art to old pixels and Japanese watercolor is mesmerizing, and the load times aren't that extensive. This, along with some of the other art styles being emulated, is enough of a reason to give the game a look.

Yet all of Arto's strong points are drowned out by a litany of issues that plague almost every facet of this game. Starting with the menus, you'll be convinced that these are all placeholders because some vital information is missing. For example, you may have three save slots, but there's no indication telling you anything about the saves. Without any timestamps, you're left guessing about which save corresponds to your overall progress. Go through the menus, and some of them recognize mouse cursor placement even if no cursor is seen on-screen. Some options only respond to analog stick movements, and others respond to d-pad movement if you're using a controller. The indicators are hard to discern, so you may not know which option or quest you're highlighting. If you're using the screen to determine where a quest is, backing out takes you back to the game rather than the quest list. The overall flow feels haphazard.

Even if you get used to this, there are other issues. The map may look nice, but it does an awful job of pinpointing certain save points, quest markers, and your placement. Most of the time, those markers are way off the actual location, and while you can get a better idea of where things are by zooming into the map, you aren't told how to do that. Progress is an issue, as you'll see some quests asking you to complete something you've already done while pointing to a completely new area. You'll also notice that the game does a poor job of saving your settings. You keep telling the game to use a 4K display at 120hz, but often it'll arbitrarily reduce it to 23hz. The same thing happens with the screen shake, which reduces the shaking but doesn't eliminate it, so the Off option feels mislabeled.

The screen shake is a terrible addition to the game, as the shaking is so violent that you can easily lose track of where anything is. The subsequent reduction helps a bit in outdoor areas; the shaking indoors is violent enough to be disorienting. This all pales in comparison to a few other issues that ruin the combat. You aren't even told about the parrying system until you accidentally do it. Even then, the instructions pop up briefly, and the tells for the attacks come through so fast that missing them is normal and common. The automatic painting mechanic actively interferes with the combat; enemies tend to sport colors that can obfuscate the attack indicators. You'll often only know that someone hit you when you get a brief flash of black on-screen, and those cheap hits could've been avoided.

When it comes to initiating an action that isn't an attack or a dash, the game requires you to hold down a button. Having to do this to open a chest or initiate a save point wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that the amount of time needed to do it is lengthy, and the animations get old really quickly. The same thing occurs when healing, which makes you more vulnerable than you'd like, especially with the fast-paced combat.

Boss fights are another point of contention, as there's no real indication that you're doing damage. Despite the bosses being big damage sponges, the conclusion of each fight is deflating because a token appears when they die. Considering how long the fights can be, a little fanfare would be appreciated. After one fight where you battle two characters at a time, you receive no notice that one of them died until you realize that there are no more attacks from that character.

Speaking of boss fights, Arto tends to punish players for losing any boss fight. While most of them are near save points, there are moments when your rival Apostle Ava shows up before the fight to challenge you to an impromptu duel. This often leads to her getting in a few good hits before disappearing. You can return to the save point for a refill without risking enemy respawns, but it is an annoyance that doesn't need to exist. Additionally, death rips away all of your Chroma. Enemies yield such little currency when they die, so the threat of death forces you to constantly spend since you can't depend on saving up. It feels like further punishment for failure. Also, the camera's point of view is fixed, but the game commits the cardinal sin of hiding enemies behind objects. There's more than one moment when you'll need to lure out the enemy to a more visible place or simply mash away since the game doesn't provide transparency or take away objects that block your view.

Interestingly enough, there's also an issue with one of the side-quests that requires you to get a high score on an arcade game. The Breakout clone has physics that are way off; both novices and experts can easily tell that something is wrong. Slight movements of the paddle cause the ball to go at high speed, moving the ball straight up and down causes it to veer off at angles, and you can get stuck because the ball refuses to change trajectory when near a wall or ceiling.

Arto prides itself on having deep lore, but the delivery is lacking. Notes left behind by others might not seem long, but the writing makes them feel far longer than they are. The same goes for dialogue, since there's a tendency for NPCs to drone on. It also might not feel that the dialogue is that important, since the game names most characters but never displays the names when they're speaking. (This is important since the game lacks voices.)

One of the more perplexing things is how the title often makes it difficult to see dialogue. Liv's incidental stuff in the environment comes through in tiny speech bubbles that are difficult to read unless you're playing close to your monitor. Most of the dialogue from other characters is legible, but the stylized fonts are smaller and not easy to read. Your responses are even tougher to parse due to a combination of small font size, transparency with the selection boxes, a selection indicator that isn't that easy to immediately discern, and the game highlighting the worst option whenever the choices appear. This feels messy, since dialogue comprises a good chunk of the game.

One of the bigger issues that Arto suffers from is an overall lack of polish and optimization. After defeating the first boss and moving to a new part of the land, we had a constant softlock that occurred when going anywhere near that same pier. There was an instance when moving to one spot caused Liv to automatically warp to another nearby spot. The frame rate is never steady, and the camera seems to make the frame rate drop lower as it gets pulled further out. Transition to a different area means enduring some long pauses, while a trip further into the biome of Japanese watercolors dropped the frame rate so much that the only way to escape was to use the Windows keys to quit the game. Keep in mind that this was all running on a Ryzen 7 5800X with 32GB RAM and a RTX 4090 running the game at 4K. Even a recording of a stream on the game's Steam page shows this extreme frame rate drop. With no indication that this title is in Early Access, a player's day-one experience is abysmal.

A recent patch alleviated the crash issues, but that's about it. The performance issues remain present. While the patch brought about cloud saving, it also mutated the existing save file quite heavily. Coloring progress made in the biomes was cut in half. Previously acquired powers were fine, but weapons switched into completely different ones. Some side-quests were already completed, while others were reset as if they had never been encountered. Depending on your case, what may be the most damaging or fruitful was that the game had thought that we beat every boss, giving us immediate access to the finale. Drastic changes to the save files happened because of one update, which makes one wonder if future patches can make similar modifications — for better or worse. Players would be encouraged to wait until the updates stop messing with the saves and/or all of the patching is done before checking out the title.

Steam Deck players will be glad to know that Arto runs on the system. That is faint praise because it doesn't seem to take advantage of the features of the device and ecosystem. The game supports the device's 1280x800 resolution, but the cut scenes go beyond that, resulting in the longer subtitles being cut off at the bottom. The flaws are amplified due to the smaller screen, and the wildly fluctuating frame rate doesn't seem to be solved by a frame rate cap; the frame rate can go as low as 15fps at times. Changing settings from High to Low settings doesn't seem to make much difference, and the battery life hovers around 10 minutes on a full charge. Regardless of how you feel about the game, it isn't a showcase for the portable system.

Arto isn't ready yet. There's a good premise, the mechanics play out well enough, and the hook of painting the environment with different art styles is certainly appealing. However, there are simply too many issues in every category that cannot be ignored no matter how hard you try. Should this extensive list get fixed, players will encounter a decent game that we could recommend checking out if you're curious. As it stands now, you should avoid Arto.

Score: 3.5/10

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