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Immortals Fenyx Rising should have stayed small

If Breath of the Wild and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey exist on a spectrum, Immortals Fenyx Rising is somewhere in between. Although Link, Zelda, and the rest of Hyrule aren’t here, the bright, grassy fields and physics-based puzzles are abundant in Ubisoft’s mythical, action-adventure game. Kassandra and the many systems of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are here, too, in the wry hero Fenyx and in the many icons on the map. Like a lot of games made by hundreds of people, the resulting iteration in Immortals feels safe. But Immortals shows progress for a genre notorious for bloat, scope creep, and tedium; its tight construction highlights the parts that make the best open-world games tick.

When you step out onto the sun-bleached ledge of the Hall of the Gods — the game’s central hub — all of Immortals’ goals appear in front of you. In the mountains that puncture the bright sky, you see opportunities to climb and glide — restrained by a stamina bar, of course. In the towering statues of the Greek gods Aphrodite, Athena, Ares, and Hephaistos, you see landmarks to guide your path without the need for a map (although there’s one in your menu). And in the swaying grass and dozing animals below, you see the ways this world might both welcome you and threaten you — at least without the right equipment and upgrades.

For the first dozen hours before you wade deeper into the linear story, Immortals is courageous for a Ubisoft game, and for an open-world game. It offers friction where so many games don’t. When was the last time an open-world game told you no? Immortals pushes back against the trend of conquest simulators. That mountain over there can’t be climbed until you’ve prepared for it with pockets full of stamina potions. The puzzles strewn throughout the environment just won’t make sense until you’ve gotten a handle on your own abilities. And the cyclops with a health bar several times larger than yours has to be avoided, not annihilated. Every encounter takes planning, effort, and resources. The odds are stacked against you. Though you can eke out victories with perfectly timed dodges and parries, the general sense of unease enlivens each battle. For a large chunk of the game, Immortals doesn’t hand its world over to you; it asks that you fight for it.

Image: Ubisoft Quebec via Polygon

Unfortunately, unlike Nintendo’s 2017 game and even this year’s Genshin Impact, the challenges of Immortals’ world don’t grow with you after many hours of progress. It’s a critical mistake that denies the thrill of success in an ecosystem that never stops being oppressive. Instead, you eventually reach a point where few enemies bite back and fewer stretches of land are uncrossable. This is largely because of the game’s Godly Powers, which don’t necessarily trivialize the game by pure damage numbers — although some probably could — but instead nullify the need for clever tactics. One particular upgrade gives your bird companion the ability to freeze foes in place on a short cooldown, effectively breaking some encounters. In contrast, the small upgrades to your stamina meter and potion effects keep your power balanced with what the game can throw at you.

For most of the main story quests, the game frames your tasks in the open world, with all its dynamic events, including temporary minibosses that chase you randomly throughout your journey, ready to interrupt what might otherwise be a simple task. Occasionally you’ll drop into one of the game’s vaults and solve some fairly elaborate block-moving and jumping puzzles. There’s a thrill to being shoved along out in the world by strong enemies, just as much as there is to being sat down and handed a logic quiz. But at the end of each act, Immortals will lock you in a bare room with a hefty boss that pummels you with punishing roomwide attacks. Suddenly, none of your experiments matter; the game simply demands that you’ve stocked up on healing and defensive items as well as upgrades to your health and damage. These boss fights are the only place where you’ll regret not dumping your rare upgrade points into one of the game’s godlike abilities. It’s frustrating not because of the difficulty spike, but because the game reneges on its own thesis.

Immortals is so close to being a game about the beauty of the many choices you can make as a player within its rules, and the lack of the control the game has over what you do. Over time, it ends up being a game that’s too eager to sand down the edges of its world so that it can regain that control and push you into abiding by its rules. It’s the test question that wasn’t in the lecture. Immortals can’t help from becoming a game that shoves you down a path after spending so long letting you create your own. This acute misunderstanding and noncommitment to what made Breath of the Wild so transcendent is disappointing, given that there are still pieces of a game here that does actually get it.

Image: Ubisoft Quebec via Polygon

The narrative also fails to rise above the familiar. The main character Fenyx (who can present as either feminine or masculine, although their pronouns are tied to one of two voices you can pick) is recruited as both a hired sword and pseudo-therapist for Greek gods Aphrodite, Athena, Ares, and Hephaistos. Fenyx must restore the gods to their smug selves after Typhon traps them in different forms. All of this happens within the semi-unreliable narration of Zeus and Prometheus, under the same sort of tonal constraints as in an animated DreamWorks film.

Like Supergiant Games’ smash hit indie game Hades, Immortals underlines the fact that these gods are a bickering family with troublesome histories, but it lacks the thrust of Hades’ imagination to take it further. Everything is a few lines away from a gag, be it visual or literal, and sometimes that derails the work the story is doing. Hephaistos’ disfigurement and exiling from Olympus are approached as a vague sore spot for his reluctance to break free of Typhon’s robotic prison. His voice actor, and some of the writing, conveys a genuine sense of pain on the part of someone who, despite having enormous amounts of power and renown, isn’t seen as an equal in his own family. But sitting right beside that is Prometheus making a particularly nasty joke about Hephaistos’ physical appearance early on in the game. Immortals’ story can’t reconcile something this emotionally challenging with the lighthearted tone it also wants to have, instead reducing Hephaistos’ hurt into green orbs to collect after solving some block-moving puzzles.

When the game turns the camera back onto Zeus and reflects on the ways he was an atrocious father and ruler, it’s impossible to not think about the reports of the toxic culture at Ubisoft Quebec, the primary developer on this game. But a game designer who might be in a poor work environment doesn’t get to use an array of powerful abilities to stand up to those who abuse their power. They don’t get to make them disappear after a few attempts. The worst monsters remain, unchecked and unpunished. Playing Immortals as the story eventually ramps up feels hollow, especially as Fenyx’s power and opponents grow in ridiculous fashion.

Image: Ubisoft Quebec via Polygon

Overlooking Immortals’ mistakes is impossible. But you can take what it does give you and transform it into something more. With the right tweaks to its difficulty, like swapping to hard mode after several hours, turning off the map and puzzle indicators, and choosing only upgrades that gradually enhance basic abilities, Immortals can resemble the kind of game where the stories you tell about it are the ones you made yourself. Nowhere in its fiction is the comedic punch of a cyclops taking you down with a barrage of boulders, only for you to find out you can bamboozle him by throwing them back. Or the classic tragedy of losing your grip on the last stretch of a climb and plummeting back down. Outside of the scripted story sequences, Immortals asks that you whack tough obstacles not only with Fenyx’s sword or ax, but with your own mettle.

Enemies, puzzles, and other challenges can be circumvented with a clever use of Fenyx’s abilities or simply prodding the limits of the game itself. Not every solution feels authored; they feel creative. The game emphasizes this with a distinct lack of tutorials, instead dumping most instructions in the pause menu. I pushed through a chunk of the game without even realizing I could purchase abilities, simply because I didn’t visit the central location where you can funnel resources into various upgrades. That you don’t need more than your base kit for a big portion of the game is a boon. Immortals can be an open playground if you want it to be, unearthing the part of your brain that so many open-world games allow you to ignore.

There’s something rumbling deep inside this game. It’s the suggestion of a game that values a looser direction and stronger creativity, more than any recent Ubisoft title. It’s fitting that all of Immortals can be seen at the outset, from atop a cliff; finally, a game that promises scope it can deliver on, not a vacant expanse that’s ever seeping out of your view.

Maybe open-world games don’t need to boast 175 hours of playtime even while torturing developers with months of crunch. Immortals, and by extension Ubisoft, isn’t immune to this problem, but there are pieces here that argue for a shift in the scope of a genre that has historically been more interested in simulating the minute details of a horse’s genitalia than caring for the people who worked on them. Immortals makes an impression because it’s not a massive game like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, even if it benefits from the many systems and ideas that Ubisoft’s open-world games have refined over the years. Its sharpest ideas have just enough time to dig in before the game smacks you back down into an experience you could have anywhere else.

Immortals isn’t the game to upend the system. In a lot of ways, it’s complicit. But it conceptualizes a possible future despite itself, one in which games challenge you to form your own ideas, give you room to learn and to fail, and stop chasing boundless worlds in favor of unique ones.

Immortals Fenyx Rising will be released Dec. 3 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Stadia, Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Ubisoft. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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