The cubes are probably my favourite thing about Immortals Fenyx Rising. The floating cubes. Huge cubes, taller than me, scattered nursery toys of the Gods. You whack them to start them up and then they glow and hover above the ground. In this state you can pull them about and even throw them. You can stack them and use them for all kinds of platforming puzzles. Clever stuff, inevitably. What I love though – and I think I do love the cubes a bit – is their playfulness. Prod them and they drift a little. Lob them at a target and they spin away afterwards with a sort of Space Odyssey laziness. Once I was standing on a cube and I got another one stuck underneath it, which meant the cube I was standing on started to tilt and threatened to throw me off. Immortals is always a lively game, however the cubes seem to really bring it to actual life. You sit up. There’s a bit of mischief in them. A sense of surprise that is sometimes missing from the wider experience.
Immortals Fenyx Rising used to be called Gods and Monsters. It’s an open-world action-adventure set amongst the Greek myths. You play as Fenyx, a demi-god who has washed up on the Golden Isle just as the monster Typhon has arrived to get revenge on the gods for his banishment. All fine. It’s a game about hitting enemies with a sword and an axe, and gadding about from on high with wings made for you by Daedalus himself, before engaging in a little puzzling.
The tone is cartoonishly light-hearted but – these are Greek myths after all – too bawdy for kids, which is a bit of a shame as they seem like the prime audience for this sort of gentle blend of activities. The game’s most famous, perhaps, for having pinched The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s art style – the dozy hills, the waving grass, the craggy spires in the distance – along with a bunch of its main ideas. You can climb any surface here, just like Breath of the Wild. There is a stamina meter that works in a familiar way. You can lift giant objects and the visuals for this feat are very similar to the visuals in Breath of the Wild. You can ride wild animals once you’ve tamed them. You can glide on those wings of yours. There are dozens of little puzzle chambers dotted around the open world. I could most likely go on.
It’s interesting, then, that Immortals rarely actually feels like Zelda to me while I’m playing it. That landscape, for one, may have the right grass and the right lighting, the right grippy sensation in your hands when you’re clambering up something, but the Golden Isle of the gods is nothing like Hyrule. It feels far more compacted and artificial: it is constantly busy with individual bits and pieces – statues, caves, temples, huge pieces of machinery. I’ve tried to work out why this makes it feel so compromised, and I think the only answer I can really hit on is that everywhere you go in Immortals is somewhere. Or at least that’s how it seems. Zelda was filled with stuff to do, but it was also good at making the world feel natural. It had huge expanses – meadows, mountainsides, lakes – where it didn’t really seem to have anything specific in mind for you. It spread its landmarks out and put dreamy edgelands between them. Somehow, this created a sense of immersion, even wonder. I am just about ready to be told that Immortals’ footprint is actually bigger, but Hyrule always felt bigger. And at times it felt like it had not been made so much as stumbled upon. It didn’t absolutely worship utility and set-pieces, or if it did, it was just much more skilful at fooling the player.
This is not a particularly serious problem. It’s just that Immortals’ landscape is busy, one bit of business frequently running up against another. It’s pretty busy from the start, but once you leave the fields of the first proper area, things get really packed. One territory is a giant machine, another – my preferred – is home to a vast mountain ascent of which I will say no more, except that it is sad that the game only really finds a touch of its own character so late in the day.
It’s not just the landscape that borrow from Zelda without conjuring its sonorous magic. Zelda’s shrines – one-shot puzzles that reward you with something you’ll want to spend on upgrades – re-emerge as vaults. But vaults are not quite as Shriney as they first appear to be. For one thing, the presentation is lacking. Shrines had this strange, numinous feel, sheer walls and implacable surfaces that genuinely felt ancient. The sense was of having stumbled (that special word again) on something vast and religious and beyond understanding: Karnak Temple or the Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid! The vaults are often clever puzzles – you manipulate blocks and roll boulders and fling things and fire arrows through fire to light stuff and move the wind about and all that puzzley fun – but they take place in classic video game void spaces – platforms drifting in the air, caverns measureless to man. It’s fine, but it doesn’t have a distinct sense of place, a specific personality. It feels like what video game spaces are before someone’s properly thought about them.
That question of a specific personality is a real problem here. In fact, for the most part, Immortals struggles with two personalities, neither of which are entirely its own. It looks like Zelda and has some of its trappings, but deep down it’s closer to an Assassin’s game, one of the recent ones, from Origins onwards, where the combat settled into something a little more traditional. It feels like Assassin’s very much when you’re fighting, in fact, that dodgy, slidey, slicey flow of battle, the same parry to interrupt a strike, the same light and heavy attacks, and even some very similar move upgrades. It also feels like Assassin’s in the flow of quests, a tale told in a series of go-here-get-me-that tasks as you do the bidding of a bunch of fallen gods who you are recruiting to stick it to Typhon.
A lot of this stuff actually works well moment-to-moment. Some of those vaults, for example, operate as mandatory dungeons for each area of the map, and these elaborate set-pieces tend to be satisfying and clever. I loved the one that features those cubes, for example, but there’s another great one that has you moving through a maze and tackling poison-spouting vines as you go too. There’s also a fleeting sense of mythy spectacle in the world, with Ubisoft’s towers re-emerging as huge statues of the gods, lording over intricate temples and hidden caves where secrets await. Loads of side quests and optional challenges plug into an upgrade system that makes you more powerful in entertaining ways – nice attacks and nice armour trade-offs. The potion system seems much more simple than Zelda’s recipes, but it has its own upgrade tree that I really enjoyed picking through. And as I said before, the final fifth of the game is the strongest – the quests and the landscape suddenly clip together in a very neat way.
Moment-to-moment is fine, then, but as much as I had fun, Immortals failed to cast a spell on me, to live in my mind when I wasn’t playing in a way that really separates the competent games from the truly good ones. Most games borrow and iterate, but Immortals doesn’t get the balance right. There isn’t much distinct to think about here, and already it remains in my head not as a grand undertaking but as bits and pieces of stuff I quite enjoyed, a switch or a pressure plate resurfacing now and after that. The memory is already fragments.
I feel for Immortals a bit. Blame Covid, blame budgets, blame Ubisoft, blame the paradoxically thrifty, endlessly repurposing way the publisher makes all its huge, expansive, generous games, however Immortals never truly finds its own voice until the very end. It’s a skilful, lovingly made product, however it is unmistakably a product, and the best video games in this category all seem like real experiences.