Immortals: Fenyx Rising seems to be this year’s Ubisoft game hit the hardest by everything. It was only revealed at E3 2019, with a different title, and nearly no information. The you-know-what hit the fan only a few months after that, and everyone scrambled to figure out how to work and live.
The public wouldn’t see more until September 2020, months into the COVID-19 pandemic. And, with a new title. Obviously, Immortals was in development well before the pandemic, but it seems apparent the bulk of the work was done while the world was on fire. Also, because things weren’t stressful enough, we’re right in the middle of a console generation shift.
As I come back to my digital writing pad after quite a bit of time with Immortals, it’s also the tail end of a brief holiday vacation. I haven’t even played much of Immortals through the break, despite ramming through so many hours of it beforehand.
That might sound like a bad sign; did this guy avoid playing Immortals for nearly a week because he didn’t like it? Nah. Over the break I read some books, hung out with my kid, even managed to read a couple books. I really just relaxed and enjoyed my time away from the job, even through the stress of a holiday, and the situation going on outside.
I was able to forget (kinda) the pandemic, the election, and generally just being a left-leaning person who has to pay attention to corporations all the time. I sailed right through it, playing games for me and just vibing out in a way I haven’t for months.
And here’s the thing. I think my time with Immortals was in some way partially responsible for that. This game, that seemed to stumble out of the gate through no fault of its own, was a breath of fresh air I didn’t truly notice until right now. But it isn’t a breath of fresh air because of unique gameplay mechanics or anything, really.
It’s because despite everything, this game seems to just be happy to be here.
Immortals: Fenyx Rising Review | A Very Special Ubisoft Christmas
Frankly, there’s nothing dramatically impressive about Immortals: Fenyx Rising. You can tell by playing it was made by the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey team, but without the shackles of a franchise. The basic controls, from attacking to dodging and parrying, are almost exactly the same.
But the sky’s the limit in Immortals, and I mean that literally because there are like, air combos and stuff. It’s also a big ol’ open world with waypoint icons all over it, which lead to quest objectives, hidden goodies, and other points of interest. So it’s an Ubisoft game, of which we’re on the third in a row this holiday season.
On top of that, there are ideas lifted wholesale from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. So it’s a pretty derivative piece of work, all things considered. Not a bad thing in my book, but it is what it is.
But man, Immortals is so bright and colorful! It’s cheerful! The protagonist smiles all the time! It isn’t afraid to be silly; in fact the whole thing is literally a comedy. And unlike the usual Ubisoft form, Immortals doesn’t use real-life sociopolitical turmoil as vapid set-dressing.
Immortals is a breath of fresh air because of this scarce vibe for a massive AAA game from nearly any publisher, let alone Ubisoft. Its familiar territory with its Greek Mythology setting, but from an unusual perspective in games.
Immortals: Fenyx Rising is a full-on video game comedy, using the Greek Gods to ease the player into silly stories about people and how their relationships affect their personalities. The familiar mythology is a backdrop, but it’s also a way to present characters most people know.
So the writing team is able to leverage that assumed comfort to tackle these larger than life personalities without onboarding. The gods are portrayed in funny ways, but grounded in a modern-feeling context. What if the gods had personality traits totally different from their Olympian excess? Would that be a good thing?
Immortals is part Ubisoft formula, part Monkey Island and part social media fatigue. Ubisoft’s previous humor stems from screaming rabbit aliens and fart jokes in Far Cry text logs; this one feels so much smarter and uncynical in comparison.
The setup here is Fenyx, a total nobody the player customizes, becomes involved in a goofy feud between Zeus and Prometheus. Fenyx washes up on a mystical island, and is more or less forced to explore the area, find gear, earn powers, solve hell of puzzles, and save the gods themselves.
In the meantime, a vengeful Typhon has totally messed everything up, and wants Fenyx to work for him instead. With a comically sus version of Hermes calling the shots, Fenyx restores the gods to their former selves and becomes a mythical hero in their own right.
Most of the RPG-plus-customization stuff from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is present here, including transmog options for equipment right out of the gate. The combat is the same light/heavy/parry stuff with the right shoulder buttons, but this time you’re using physics-defying fantasy weaponry.
As you fill in your skill tree you can get normal stuff like parry attacks, then more Devil May Cry-lite skills like air-based techniques. Combat can come off as simple and mashy at first, but enemies soon test your ability to keep up with parry windows, and the combos you can string together using the air tech and powerful special moves can look and feel impressive.
Holding it all up is a Breath of the Wild-style stamina system, and puzzles laid throughout the land that offer brain exercise and physical upgrades. Using items like a bow, a glider and magnet-like power to move objects around (sound familiar?) you’ll clear “Vaults” as well as puzzles out in the open world.
You’ll open up fast travel points, stamina upgrades, and loot granting you new abilities and/or cosmetic options. It’s a lot of stuff! And since the Zelda-style physics-driven puzzles are so plentiful it feels like a totally different kind of game loop compared to the usual.
You definitely won’t have trouble worrying about having things to do with your time in Immortals. Some of it feels like the standard checklisting, but like I said above, so much is locked behind puzzles it almost always feels like your brain is engaged.
While at times you’re just gathering resources, it’s a small pool of items you turn into health and stamina upgrades, or craft some potions. And when you do turn your stuff in for upgrades you’re treated to silly little cutscenes inspired by Link’s typical reaction to treasure.
Speaking of treasure, gear strength is upgraded with currency you get from fights and chests, independent of the perks each individual piece gives you. Gear strength is also more of an overall metric; you’re upgrading helmet/sword/axe/etc instead of individual items.
So Immortals really eases back on the grinding you may be accustomed to seeing in AC games for example. That way you can spend more time doing the fun stuff, finding goodies and enjoying the story.
That story comes in main and side quests, which introduce you to new characters or treat you to hilarious narration banter between Zeus and Prometheus. This is the most fratboy version of Zeus I’ve ever encountered, and I’m so here for it.
Anyway, the point overall is there’s tons of game here, and like 80-90% of Immortals is more active than most games of its ilk. It’s hard to say much more about it - it’s that thing Ubisoft does you’ll know if you play Ubisoft games, but with a different context flavor.
The puzzles can get pretty challenging too, requiring attention to small details and mastery of Fenyx’s abilities.
An aside: 2020 has been a ludicrous year for everybody. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, but video games have grown more than ever. People have grown louder in online spaces.
Ubisoft in particular has been under a spotlight, launching several games in the wake of a very public controversy outing individual persons responsible for abuse and harassment (among other things).
And a well-cemented culture that enabled it. Leaders apologized, people left, and the saga continues because that fight doesn't end with YouTube videos. But there are still people on the ground at Ubisoft, working hard and making games.
As we explore this ethical and/or philosophical territory on either side of the equation, we still have to work. I’m part of that equation too.
If you’re hesitating to try Immortals because of Ubisoft’s 2020, I understand. However I think the game stands out as an answer to many criticisms the company often faces. It’s a bright, cheerful, funny action-RPG with lots of gameplay depth, tons of engaging puzzles, very little busywork, and no pretense.
In a world of AAA games that are dour, oppressive, violent, edgy, “apolitical” or buried under self-serious lore, Immortals: Fenyx Rising looks at this space through a different kind of lens. That doesn’t mean there’s no substance, but the themes are expressed without the baggage of military tropes, sci-fi lore, grimacing anti-heroes or multiplayer.
With humor reminiscent of a LucasArts adventure game, combat that finds a sweet spot between too much and too little, and derivative mechanics from one of the best games ever made that feel natural in this world, Immortals is easily your best bet out of this year’s Ubisoft offerings.
There’s a particular value in this work, a source of optimism, humor and joy emerging from a non-Nintendo developer at a time when it might be needed most. The world is an ugly place, but Immortals wants to remind us there are good parts, too.
- Adding aerial action to the contemporary Ubisoft melee combat style works wonders for it on a conceptual level
- Made me realize I missed chicken jokes
- Fenyx has super milquetoast dialogue. This may answer the “should Link talk” argument definitively
- A lot of the gear skills didn’t really seem useful; found myself using transmog way more than actually swapping parts
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review