The Collage Atlas review – a gentle wander in sketchbook dreamscapes | Games

The Collage Atlas’s standout characteristic is obvious from first glance: everything you see in the game has been hand illustrated in pen and ink. As you walk, scenery materialises in black and white in front of you, intricate gates open at your approach and rain comes down in black lines. Stop stock-still at any point and you’re looking at an absurdly detailed sketchbook drawing. The art, design and ambient music were all created by John William Evelyn, whose talent is evident in every frame. From glasshouses to skyscapes, floating islands to underwater lighthouses, this picture-book world is consistently beautiful to look at and meander through.

There is much repetition of motifs and scenery: lanterns, crumbling theatre-prop moons, anchors, grandfather clocks. This is out of necessity, as every drawing is so elaborate, but it does sometimes make it hard to navigate the game’s abstract dream-world. Paper windmills planted in the ground or pillars of light show you the way to the next area, but when I tried to explore beyond the obvious path in search of secrets, the repeating patterns of arches and grass proved disorienting.

Watch a trailer for The Collage Atlas

The sparse story is told by stray letters that arrange themselves into verses in the sky. This would be a fascinating way to explore poetry: assembling the verses from collected letters as you walk around a drawing inspired by the words. It is unfortunate that the actual writing is, to put it kindly, unexceptional (“I chase a never of tomorrows / Knowing only a forever of todays”). The message of the atlas, whose pages you assemble as you explore, is an earnest if obvious meditation on hope, but next to the extraordinarily expressive detail of the drawings, the words can’t compete. Without a proper plot, they don’t provide the atmosphere or narrative propulsion of more parable-like art games such as 2012’s The Unfinished Swan or this year’s poetic horror game The Imagined Leviathan.

There is a lot of soul in The Collage Atlas, and a lot of beauty. Aesthetically, it is extraordinary, and worth playing just to gawp at. It lacks direction, and might have been more affecting without words – but a few hours’ wander through its dreamscapes filled me with admiration for its creator’s artistic talent.

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