Open world action games aren’t just a video game genre to choose from, they are an absolute fact of the medium. Games of massive scale dominate the tripe-A landscape, and players have come to expect large open spaces to explore as a default, rather than an option. They are everywhere, they are hugely demanding of your time, and I personally am exhausted by them. I actively avoid picking up open-world titles largely because I simply do not have the time or attention span for them anymore, especially those which egregiously pepper your map with side quests, collectibles, and optional activities, to the point where the central storyline might get put on hold for twenty or thirty hours while you tick off check boxes. This style of game appeals to a lot of folks, but I’m typically not one of them, and it’s no secret that Ubisoft has invested a lot of time and money into their open-world engine and technology, and are also notorious for filling their worlds with things to do. Immortals Fenyx Rising is a curious (and welcome) anomaly, because it is the first open world game in ages that I’ve not only enjoyed playing, but want to remain engaged with.
Immortals is Ubisoft’s third big open world release in 5 weeks’ time (Watch Dogs: Legion came out on October 29th, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on November 10th, lest you forget). That’s a whole lot of grand scale, massive sandbox, seemingly infinite checklist gameplay to take on in a relatively short amount of time, to the point where if you have commitments in life like at least 40 hours of work per week (if not more), a family to care for, or any other obligations that are demanding of your time, you might have to make some tough choices about which one of these games to put your time into. To be fair, each of these games fits into different enough categories in terms of tone, setting, and story, so you might not be looking to play all of them, but either way it’s a lot to ask of players to buy three of these things all at once, especially with what is sure to be the big behemoth game of 2020 lurking just around the corner (*cough* Cyberpunk *cough*). To my mind, Immortals Fenyx Rising isn’t just worthy of your time, it also might be most deserving of it.
Where Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs are both huge in scope and play to more dramatic stories, Immortals gives you a large, beautiful map to explore that’s fast to traverse and not overly dense with stuff, and an epic story that’s witty, light-hearted, and playful. The stakes in Immortals are still huge; there’s an enraged gargantuan monster threatening Gods and immortals alike to deal with after all, but the entire undertaking is treated as a version of the hero’s quest where success isn’t just necessary, but expected, and the emphasis is on the journey your character Fenyx is going to embark on to become the savior of humans and Gods alike. It is also refreshingly lacking in the mantle of over self-seriousness that so many games readily throw on, instead taking on an air of a cheeky self-awareness that allows it to add gravitas when it wants but more often crack jokes, make meta commentaries, and slyly wink at you from the periphery every so often. In this way, Immortals skirts the edge of fourth wall breaking tropes with but shows restraint in how and when it acknowledge itself, and the result is surprisingly refreshing.
The story kicks off with some exposition from the game’s big bad, Typhon, and quickly transitions to Zeus making a plea-disguised-as-demand to Prometheus for help in restoring order and saving the world. Right out the gate, you’re introduced to Immortals’ painterly art style that feels like an animated feature come to life, and the light-hearted narrative tone and characterizations to match. Instead of the booming, wise, and generally commanding characterization that has become more typical of late, Zeus in Immortals is more of a casual, mildly impatient, and generally flawed deity which is much more in keeping with how he and the rest of the Greek Gods are written in the original mythologies. They’re really just imperfect people with shortcomings like the rest of us who happen to be imbued with special powers and immortality. So, when Zeus threatens to zap Prometheus and then whines about his lightning powers having been stolen like an indignant teenager, and the duo make a wager placing the fate of everything on the success of failure of Fenyx’s ability to rise to the occasion, you immediately understand that you’re in for a big, fun adventure of the vein of something from Pixar or Dreamworks over the intensity of a big budget Hollywood action flick.
The first thing you’ll actually do in Immortals is customize your version of Fenyx, and it’s here that I want to touch some important inclusivity choices Ubisoft Quebec has made. Fenyx is a woman by default, but you can change the body type to that of a man, and beyond that every single customization option is available to both. That means you can set Fenyx up with man’s body and a woman’s voice, or a woman’s body with whatever kind of rad facial hair you want (I opted for the Tom Sellick mustache on mine because I envision her as a prankster who can grow facial hair and prefers to go with something ironic). While it isn’t necessarily the full spectrum of gender expression (for example, being able to select more male-presenting faces on a female-presenting body, or choosing female-gendered clothes for a male-presenting character), it is a great step in the right direction for giving players the ability to express themselves and their characters in whatever way they wish and I want to give them credit where it’s due. I’m hopeful this is just the beginning for letting players take more control over their ability to customize their characters.
Right after creating your version of Fenyx, you’re set loose on the world to play in the hour-ish long tutorial area, learn the basics of combat, and get your starting set of gear and abilities. Immortals is fairly generous in the fact that you get access to a lot of useful skills pretty early, and the world opens up more or less completely as soon as you leave the starting area. It shares a whole lot of DNA with the Assassin’s Creed series (unsurprising given it uses the same engine and the developers came up with the concept for the game while working on Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey), so you’ll spend a fair amount of time climbing structures, engaging in acrobatic combat with baddies, and surveying the landscape from high-up vantage points. It also shares a lot of similar inventory and gear systems from Odyssey, including the ability to customize the appearance of any piece of gear you equip (why don’t more games do this!?), so if you’ve spent any amount of time playing recent entries in the Assassin’s Creed series, much of this will feel familiar. However, Immortals also makes a point of diverging from Assassin’s Creed in the interest of folding in more concepts from Breath of the Wild, which it clearly takes heavy inspiration from.
Character movement feels more “game-y” in that Fenyx has a gigantic floaty jump, can climb up rock faces as long as her stamina meter allows for, and she lacks the grace of an Ezio or a Kassandra or an Eivor in that when she leaps from a great height, she doesn’t gracefully swan dive so much as haphazardly plummet, so you’d better make sure there’s something down below to break your fall (to a point, anyway). Immortals trades out Assassin’s Creed‘s series staple Eagle Vision for its own Far Sight, which is most useful from vantage points but can be activated from anywhere. Instead of automatically filling in the map with points of interest, Far Sight is used to manually scan your surroundings for areas where you controller vibrates and your reticle glows, allowing you to reveal the location of a chest, a dungeon, a collectible, a puzzle, or some other kind of location worthy of marking. I guarantee that some will argue this is less satisfying and more tedious than Eagle Vision, and admittedly I was put off by this at first, but I quickly realized that Far Sight empowers me to choose just how much stuff I want cluttering up my map, and for somebody like me who is often time constrained and always put off by too many distractions, this is a massive boon in an open world game. With this one design tweak, the player is given substantially more control over how much “extra” content they want to take on, or how focused they want to be on playing the critical path of the story, and for me that’s the difference between being engrossed and being overwhelmed.
After leaving the starting area, you quickly discover just how large and utterly beautiful The Golden Isle is, broken up into multiple visually distinct regions which you can plainly see at vast distances. I mentioned Immortals’ painterly art style before and it’s worth touching on again here; Immortals is a visual feast and a delight to look at every step of the way. There is incredible detail across every inch of the sweeping landscape, as verdant rolling hills dotted with cypress groves give way to icy, windswept peaks or a searing rocky desert, and cracks in the earth’s crust glow visibly red even from thousands of meters away. Waterfalls and ponds sparkle and shimmer in the sunlight, packs of animals roam and graze, and gigantic towering monuments rise far above the landscape to further illustrate the vast scale of the island, and provide useful landmarks. The map feels sprawling, and yet and totally accessible, and in truth moving from place to place is relatively quick prior to unlocking fast travel points. It’s utterly striking, and your forays into the Golden Isle are brilliantly scored with instrumentals featuring harps, angelic choirs, and bombastic orchestral movements that help center you as the hero in this tale. For as big as the game world is in Immortals, I still feel like I’m in control of how I progress and how much of the content I choose to engage with, and so rather than feeling like I don’t even know where to start, I have been left mostly to direct my own play and find my own path through the story, mixing equal parts exploration and exposition depending on my mood at any given point, without ever feeling like I’m missing out on one aspect or the other.
Once things open up, you truly can go to any region of the map you like and start exploring, and with the ability to track as much or as little as you want, things feel extremely open-ended in much the same way that Breath of the Wild does, and in that regard, much of where the game takes its inspiration from the Breath of the Wild starts to become even more apparent. The Golden Isle is littered with Vaults of Tartaros, the aforementioned holes in the ground and Immortals’ answer to Breath of the Wild‘s shrines (they are even bestowed three tiers of difficulty ratings!), wherein you will solve puzzles and challenges for gear and upgrade materials. Much like Link in Breath of the Wild, Fenyx is granted special powers to manipulate the environment with, including a Magnesis-like ability to pull, lift, and throw heavy objects, which becomes a crucial component of puzzle setting from the early stages. Fenyx is given the Wings of Icarus in the early stages which gives her a double jump and the ability to glide for long distances. Different armor and weapons provide different bonuses to various stats or abilities, and while there’s not a proper cooking mechanic in Immortals that lets you produce enough pixelated garbage to give Gordon Ramsay an aneurysm, there is at least potion crafting. Oh, and there are wild mounts to tame! Structurally and mechanically, there are a lot of parallels between Immortals and Breath of the Wild, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even if this source of inspiration is obvious at times, Immortals has made some mostly smart choices about which elements to incorporate and which to try to expand upon or experiment with.
Of course, a fair amount of time with Immortals will be spent in combat, and it’s worth touching on how that plays out and how it feels to get into fights. You’ll be given the opportunity to expand your set of abilities and increase the potency of your attacks over time, but ultimately combat boils down to a mostly straightforward melee system involving getting in hits, timing your dodges and parries well (the windows for which are fairly generous), and pummeling your foes when their guard is down. It’s nothing revolutionary, but Fenyx has the benefit of being a hero in a story, and so her dodges are swift and large, her parries are full of flourish, and you never feel encumbered by the nuisance of things like gravity or normal human strength; it plays like a video game and not necessarily like something striving for realistic accuracy. Foes can absolutely still knock you around if you aren’t careful, and so those generous timing windows are still important to get right. While I’ve come to prefer more precision control from other more hardcore games (like, I don’t know, the Souls series), Immortals‘ character control is perfectly fine and fairly forgiving. Being that this game is geared toward being accessible to as many people as possible, you can adjust the difficulty at any time to increase the challenge or focus more on just playing and moving through the story without being held up by fighting. Again, it’s not necessarily a hardcore action game, but it gives players choice in how seriously they want to take things, which immediately makes it more palatable to a wider audience.
Accessibility is clearly at the core of Immortals‘ design ethos. From the outset, you’re presented with a set of options to help you tailor the experience to your needs and preferences, and the game never once takes you out of the driver’s seat when it comes to choosing how you want to consume it. For all of the other great things Immortals has going for it, this may be the single best quality it possesses, and these choices will allow it to reach many more people than your typical open world action title might. Where some will see shallowness, I see an opportunity to engage with a genre that I’d long since written off as unrealistic for me to play. To call it a “lite” version of anything would be incredibly reductive and unfair, but it is certainly accurate to say that Immortals Fenyx Rising lacks the heavy-handedness and bloat of its cousins, which frankly is a plus in my book. The main story can be completed in around 25 hours, and the idea of being able to take on an open world game that’s actually reasonably sized is an exciting prospect.
I can’t say for sure whether Immortals Fenyx Rising is for you. The systems in this game are absolutely not super in-depth; they are streamlined, easy to understand versions of systems you see in other games, and this is true of character progression, combat, and practically everything else. They are designed to get to the point and let you get on with your game. It’s not overly involved because it doesn’t need to be, and there are plenty of games out there that do get incredibly deep if you want those kinds of experiences. Immortals Fenyx Rising isn’t the perfect antidote to open world fatigue, but it is a damn good first volley at trimming off the extra checklists for the sake of checklists, and giving players a more focused experience that they can dial up or down to suit their tastes. As a bonus, it’s wrapped in a gorgeous looking package with some clever writing and a story that may not be ultra compelling but is fun to enjoy nonetheless. It’s the perfect open world game for somebody who loves Greek mythology, for somebody who wants to have more control over their experience, who wants to be able to kick back and explore without pressure, or who wants to dig into a big game they can actually finish. For me, it’s a fantastic way to revisit a style of game I’d given up on and focus on just having fun with it, which is worth the price of admission for me alone, and I can confidently say that between the three big Ubisoft releases this season, Immortals Fenyx Rising is the game I’ll be choosing to spend my time with.
A Ubisoft Connect code was provided in advance by the publisher for review purposes