Hands on with gods and monsters in Immortals Fenyx Rising

Sometimes, I like a game because it’s unique, because it’s innovative, because it’s unexpected. God of War was one of these games. So was Breath of the Wild. The game formerly known as Gods & Monsters, recently renamed Immortals Fenyx Rising, is not one of those games.

Sometimes, I like a game because it’s familiar, because it’s more or less what I expected, because it’s a comfortable quilt of things I’ve seen and enjoyed before. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was one of those games. Immortals Fenyx Rising is one of those games, too.

It was a highlight of E3 2019 (a before times public gathering of thousands — imagine that!), during which Ubisoft surprise premiered a trailer for a game that looked like its take on Breath of the Wild.

Since then, we’ve heard very little. The game was originally slated for a Feb. 25, 2020 release but was quietly delayed. We’ve seen even less, unless you count leaked purportedly leaked footage. Rumors of a nebulous change in direction and title appeared, but there was nothing official. And then, last week, for the better part of three hours, I wrapped my hands around a controller and played Immortals Fenyx Rising.

Yeah, so that name.

First up, a dollop of Midwestern apology for what could sound like snark: The first time I heard the name Immortals Fenyx Rising, I thought it was a joke. It’s not as good as Gods & Monsters, right? As my friend and colleague Russ Frushtick said, it sounds like a free-to-play mobile game. It’s a downgrade, is what I’m saying. And if that title was indicative of the rumored change in direction, then what did that say about the rest of the game?

Turns out the title makes more sense in context, since you and I will play as the titular Fenyx, the lowly mortal savior who battles through the supernatural onslaught of ancient Greece.

Image: Ubisoft Quebec/Ubisoft

And that brings us to the rest of the game, which I have little choice but to describe as exactly the kind of game you get when the people at Ubisoft Quebec who created the exquisite Assassin’s Creed Odyssey make a new game also set in ancient Greece but now less realistic and instead heavily inspired by The Legend Zelda — and not just Breath of the Wild. It exists somewhere in the middle of Odyssey and Breath of the Wild, trying to blend the best of both.

Take skill trees, for example. Breath of the Wild doesn’t have them. Odyssey sure did. Immortals Fenyx Rising has them, but without so many options. They’re smaller, more manageable.

I spent the last year-plus thinking of the character shown in the original trailer as Ubisoft’s Kid Icarus, but I was surprised to find that my demo’s pre-made version of Fenyx was a woman. Based on footage Ubisoft later provided of something called Aphrodite’s Beauty Chair, which looks suspiciously like a whimsical character creator where you can customize the full model as well as voice and hairstyle, Immortals Fenyx Rising includes models of men, an option that would, like so many things, mirror its cousin Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

The painterly look of Immortals Fenyx Rising is often my favorite part. I’m a simple guy. I like pretty things. I also like to tell everyone who’ll listen that graphics might make a decent game better at the margins, but they can’t make a good game great. Immortals Fenyx Rising makes a great first impression, but could it sustain that sense of wonder?

The landscape of Immortals Fenyx Rising gets prettier the farther it gets from the camera
Image: Ubisoft Quebec/Ubisoft

There were moments when I stared into the far distance and Immortals Fenyx Rising’s painterly art style charmed its way right into the corners of my mouth, and I’d feel myself smile at the pastel beauty. The map — a top-down camera that pans over a 3D landscape, exactly like it does in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey — is the best example of this. Rather than aim for accuracy, it’s rendered quite literally in broad brush strokes. It implies a sense of whimsy, even when I planned out my route through the bleak industrial landscape of The Forgelands, a barren, desaturated wasteland of hardpan where I spent nearly all of my time.

Up close, though, the game’s world gets decidedly less whimsical, and Ubisoft Quebec renders Fenyx’s immediate surroundings more realistically. That’s great for showing off intricate gear like the armor and weapons I find and equip, but it’s also a weird contrast with many other (and I’d argue, more visually pleasing) parts of the game.

Sometimes this game tries to be both stylized and realistic simultaneously. To the best of my recollection, just about every time I kill a (realistically rendered) enemy, they fly off in a playful arc, leaving behind a puffy trail of gray smoke, rendered in flatly shaded, cartoony fashion. The cartoonish smoke contrasts with the realistic rendering. I like the contrast, but it also feels like the design team hasn’t really picked a lane.

Combat feels good, mostly because it feels like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, especially the frenzied battle moments that feel like Dark Souls. I lock onto enemies with a click of the right stick. Right Bumper is my light attack. Right trigger is my heavy. If I time it just right — and I often do, because it’s a lot of fun — I can hit both bumpers at the same time to deflect attacks and stun my enemies.

Image: Ubisoft Quebec/Ubisoft

Fenyx has a slate of special moves that summon things like a giant hammer to pound enemies, dozens of spears that thrust out of the ground for an area of effect attack, and a running shield bash, all of which pay narrative nods to the ancient Greek setting.

And when I’m not getting into fights/scrapes/whatever, I’m solving environmental puzzles, all of which are clever. Some of them take place in dungeons disconnected from the real world. They have secrets. They have chests to tap on and open, just like in Breath of the Wild. They’re abstract like those weird geometric levels in 3D Mario games. At one point, I kid you not, to solve a puzzle, I play gigantic stone pinball. It makes no sense, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a lot of fun for a few minutes.

That’s most of what I’m looking for in an open-world game. I’m always less interested in the overall story missions than I am in just sort of wandering around to see what kind of trouble I can get into, a few minutes at a time. I love nothing more in an Assassin’s Creed game than stumbling across a cave and exploring it for the next eight minutes.

In its best moments, that’s what Immortals Fenyx Rising feels like — a game I could get lost in.

The more I play it, the more I like it, and the more I want to explore this open world action adventure role-playing game hybrid that wears its influences on its sleeveless ancient Greek armor. We’ll all be able to do that on a metric ton of hardware in about four months. Immortals Fenyx Rising will be released Dec. 3, 2020 on Stadia, Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC.

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