Karan PradhanDec 04, 2020 14:08:06 IST
The urge to rage-quit isn’t one to which I normally give in, but there are times when I can definitely see the appeal.
It could be a ridiculous difficulty spike in a JRPG that leaves you gnashing and gurning in frustration questioning why turn-based combat even exists as a concept. Or a particularly infuriating battle in a beat ‘em up that sees you succumb to the same combo or move time after time. Maybe it’s a particular scenario in a sports game that has to be replicated to match its historical real-world counterpart, and something or the other keeps going awry. Hell, it could even be an interminable loading screen you have to sit through every so often.
But you try to resist that urge and power through, try a different loadout, maybe even go for a different approach or just try the same thing again and again. And when it all comes together and the cutscene loads, there’s very little like it in all of gaming.
You’re going to experience a fair bit of both these emotions — the urge to rage-quit and the elation of conquering a previously unconquerable level — playing Immortals Fenyx Rising, which released on 3 December across all major platforms. The action-adventure game blends surprisingly deep combat mechanics with a variety of puzzles — some more frustrating than others, set in a charming world that’s somewhere between cartoony and realistic. Oh, and it features a tongue-in-cheek take on Greek mythology.
In a brief chat with Tech2 (conveniently located here), associate game director Julien Galloudec had warned us that the game was designed to be “challenging”. And it most definitely is, but not necessarily in the manner you’d expect: Certainly combat, particularly at normal difficulty and upward, can be incredibly challenging at points; it’s the puzzles that pose the greatest challenge to your sanity and the safety of fragile objects around you.
First things first, Immortals Fenyx Rising is-… well, it’s certainly an odd name. Aside from lacking a colon between the words ‘Immortals’ and ‘Fenyx’ — a tiny but significant move that would have made the title a great deal more coherent grammatically, it feels a lot less epic (for want of a better word) than the originally planned Gods and Monsters. Whether as the result of a trademark dispute between Ubisoft and Monster Energy or an altered narrative focus, the game underwent a name change.
If it had been the former, it not only represents a ridiculous state of affairs begging the question of how anyone can trademark a common noun, but also seems most surprising that the energy drink company didn’t go after the Charlize Theron film back in 2003.
Super-fun movie trivia digression aside, it’s a strange name that sounds more like one of those freemium mobile games that neither look nor play remotely like what the trailers depict. Still, that’s what they went with, so that’s what we’re stuck with.
Immortals Fenyx Rising, had in the build-up to its release date, drawn comparisons to Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild from 2017 and this year’s out-of-nowhere offering by miHoYo, Genshin Impact. And at a certain level, these are well-founded, when you start playing and experience the traversal — climbing, swimming, gliding etc — for the first time. Indeed, Breath of the Wild is acknowledged as an inspiration by the developers.
Look closer, dig deeper and go further, and the differences begin to emerge. For starters, the game chooses not to go for a kawaii aesthetic in terms of characters, setting and story, and instead tells a most accessible tale set in a lighter version of a decidedly adult universe. The telling of the story is also more focussed and less meandering than in the other titles mentioned above and in their own way, the puzzles (those blessed puzzles) contribute to pushing that narrative along. The combat too feels a lot deeper and once you get the upgrades, more nuanced than those other games.
Surrounding it all is a charming — if a tiny bit sparse — world filled with beautiful vistas, vivid lighting and a host of interesting non-playable characters. I use the word ‘charming’ quite intentionally because despite some odd and inconsistent textures (the grass for instance, which takes a fraction longer to show up than the rest of the environment, and when it does, it often looks slightly off), distinctly average lip-syncing and host of admittedly far from game-breaking graphical gremlins (whether it’s an NPC disappearing momentarily in a cutscene or the remnants of a deceased enemy refusing to leave the screen for quite a bit longer than one would like), Immortals Fenyx Rising is extremely easy on the eye. I’d go as far as to say that flaws in some cases even give it more of a personality.
The premise of the game is that monster Typhon — son of Gaia and Tartarus — has taken the Greek gods out of the equation by stealing their respective essences and it’s down to a mortal, a storyteller by the name of Fenyx, to return said essences to the gods and ultimately take down Typhon. Punctuating this journey are cutscenes, animated sequences and voiceovers by Zeus and Prometheus that add layer upon layer of lore to your story.
The argument could be made, rather uncharitably however, that the cutscenes go on for far too long or that the dialogue in cutscenes is never-ending. However, this misses the crucial point that Greek mythology is dense and any effort to interpret it in a light-hearted and approachable manner undoubtedly requires context and familiarity with the characters and stories. That said, the ability to skip certain cutscenes would have been handy, particularly after the 10th time you watch Fenyx zip around a cauldron and make funny faces — incidentally, there’s one of these unskippable cutscenes every time you brew a potion, upgrade your armour, increase your health etc.
Immortals Fenyx Rising eschews the tedious-but-acceptable mechanic of codices in favour of telling the stories through its characters. And the move pays off. Fenyx’ naïve sincerity, Zeus and Prometheus’ turn as old men bickering one moment and sharing dirty jokes the next and the distinct quirks of each god (most notably, Athena as an ill-tempered child) come together to form a neat and most entertaining package that helps you better understand all the things that are going on. If, like me, you’re not all that well-versed with your Greek mythology, this is most useful.
It was around my 13th or 14th hour in the game that the urge to rage-quit damn near consumed me. There I was in a god vault, which is like a regular vault — sections of the game where you have to solve a series of puzzles, kill a strong enemy or both in order to get a MacGuffin or upgrade ingredients — but takes a lot longer to complete and is a lot more complex. After spending the best part of an hour on the damn thing, I’d had enough. I can’t deal with this right now, I told myself, resolving to look up a walkthrough as soon as one went online.
I’d grappled with tricky puzzles elsewhere in the game and persistence generally tended to yield reward, but this was impossible. One last try, I declared and decided that would truly be that for the day. No dice. Alright, one more last try, I promised/threatened (I can’t be sure which) myself. Whether it was an inspired bit of puzzle-solving, the outcome of trial and error, or a thick slice of luck, I’d cracked the final section of the puzzle and was swiftly on my way to collect my reward. The dopamine hit was off the charts.
It’s in the puzzles and their relative difficulty that Immortals Fenyx Rising really shines. You’ll encounter puzzles that incorporate all manner of mechanics from pressure pads, sliding blocks, mazes, archery, speedrunning and much more. Of course, there are visual pointers and hints on some puzzles if you lower the game difficulty to ‘Story’, but by and large, you will need to use your mind… even strain it in a couple of instances. And for the most part, it’s great to see that almost none of these puzzles have arbitrary solutions and that they can all be arrived at logically. That’s the sort of challenging gameplay I can appreciate.
What I can’t appreciate, however, is clunky combat. The light blow-heavy blow attacks, both of which have an aerial component, are easy enough to pick up and a doddle to pull off against weaker enemies. It’s when these enemies get stronger that you need to begin relying on the dodge button — as you would with any other action-adventure game. This is where the problems start, because while the dodge function is great at getting you out of harm’s way, it’s almost too effective, propelling you as it does far enough from the enemy to negate any advantage. The enemy is ready to strike again once you return within striking distance.
This renders the entire combat mechanic extremely laborious and coupled with the extreme difficulty spikes experienced when you take on most enemies, you’re left boxed in and running away from most battles. Over time, you’ll find chests, complete vaults, traversal or archery challenges and earn in-game currency (which comes in the form of lightning bolts, drops of ambrosia, coins and so on) that you can spend on new moves, weapon and armour upgrades, and larger life and stamina bars. Armed with these new moves (most notably, the ability to quickly dodge upto five times), combos and reserves of health, the game transforms drastically. Combat becomes intuitive and fun, if still a bit challenging (but the good kind, not the ‘this is broken, goddamnit’ kind) and traversal becomes more efficient.
It’s hard to tell for certain but this could be the game’s way of keeping you on a linear path — without signposting it with warnings, something Immortals Fenyx Rising only does if you run into boss-level enemies — until it believes you are ready to break out on your own. If it is, colour me most impressed.
With a generous helping of humour, solid combat eventually, tricky puzzles, interesting characters and an engaging story, Immortals Fenyx Rising has all the ingredients to be the sleeper hit of the year — one that has seen the release of such games as The Last of Us Part II, Ghost of Tsushima, Watch Dogs Legion and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, with Cyberpunk 2077 literally hours away.
As happy as I would be to recommend this most interesting new IP from the Ubisoft stable and call it a day, I would be remiss if I didn’t explore one major question this game, along with several of its ilk, raises: What makes a good open world?
Is bigger better?
Are side quests essential to a good overall experience?
Should the main story be linear?
How integral to the experience is traversal?
Or is fast travel the way to go?
Is your open world just a glorified obstacle course?
Should scenery be part of the narrative?
Or is it sufficient for it to just look pretty?
How densely packed with NPCs should the world really be?
What’s the right level of density in terms of things to do vis-à-vis size of the map?
Should non-interactive objects exist on an open world map?
This could go on for a while.
As far as Immortals Fenyx Rising is concerned, it mixes enough different activities into gameplay to avoid tedium and stay entertaining. While the open world looks beautiful, unfortunately for a significant part, it falls into the trap of being a glorified obstacle course, which is fun to scale the first time, but makes you reach for the fast travel option at every other instance. The sparse feel — almost complete lack of harmless NPCs just going about their daily work — of the island is explained, and yet when gliding serenely over hills and plains, seems stark and a bit depressing.
Immortals Fenyx Rising is a good game that must be experienced for its puzzles and engaging storytelling. But is it a good open world game? I’ve been struggling with this question for a while and I’m about ready to rage-quit.
Game reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Review code provided by the publisher.