For all its predictability, Ubisoft is a company that likes to pull a rabbit out of the hat every now and then. In 2014 it released the delightful platformer-RPG Child of Light and in the 2000's it released a bunch of new IP's that have since become genre staples. The question is then - is its newest IP, Immortals: Fenyx Rising, a fresh start for the company or is it a rather just a reskin of its current open world formula?
Developed by Ubisoft Quebec, Fenyx: Rising grew out of its last game Assassin's Creed Odyssey. The setting is once again ancient Greece, but where Odyssey borrowed a page or two from the classical legends, Immortals steals the whole library. This is a world straight from the pages of Homer and Virgil. Where people once lived, great cyclops, hydras and harpies now rule the land, and over the course of the game you get to fight them all - many times I might add.
You play as Fenyx, a young storyteller and sometimes shield bearer in her brother's army (you can play as both a male and female character, I chose the female as I preferred her voice acting). During a storm the ships wrecks, and Fenyx washes up on the Golden Isle, a marvelous island filled with equal parts wonder and danger. She quickly learns that her brother and the other soldiers have turned into stone, and during the excellent prologue you learn who is to blame - the primordial monster Typhon.
Typhon has escaped from the depths of Tartarus and unleashed the monsters from below. Not only that, he has also turned all mortals into stone, transformed the gods themselves by removing their essences, and even turned the heroes of the legends like Achilles and Odysseus into his faithful servants. It's up to you to turn the Gods into themselves once again, reunite the Olympus and finally send Typhon back into the fiery pits below.
There are some interesting twists and turns towards the end, and it's quite fun to help the dispirited gods like Aphrodite who has been turned into a tree, or the fiery war god Ares that has become a cowardly rooster. But in and of itself, the story is not anything special. What elevates it though is the great humour. Your whole adventure is narrated by Zeus and Prometheus, who provide snappy commentary on your various deeds, and the extremely self-centered Zeus really steals the show. This is not a violent Greek tragedy as we are used to seeing in games like God of War, but instead a satire filled with self-mockery. At times the tone is even quite risqué, and adults will probably enjoy the many double entendres and references to the Greek myths, while children can laugh at the colourful characters and weird situations. Rarely do video game stories work on both these levels at the same time, and the writers deserve a lot of praise even though the humour does grow a bit weary at the end.
In exchange for your help, the gods and legends of old have left some handy tools for you that you'll find within the first hour. Daedalus' wings let you double jump and later glide through the air. The sword of Achilles and the axe of Atalanta serves as a light and heavy attack, while the bow of Odysseus adds a bit of variety with it's ranged capabilities. The combat is generally very fluid and some nice visual effects add a bit of flourish. My favorite is the finishers that often send monsters flying into the horizon with smoke added for extra comedic effect. Unfortunately, even though the world is varied with different environments, the enemies mostly stay the same. At most they change their color or grow in size, but their attack patterns stay the same. By the end of the game, you will grow a bit tired of fighting the same boars, harpies and undead soldiers over and over again.
The other main gameplay element besides fighting is puzzles. And here the variety is much better. You will encounter puzzles both in the overworld and in the vaults that serve as Zelda-like dungeons filled with environmental puzzles. With a few solid elements the developers have managed to create some excellent puzzles that make you scratch your head, but never rip your hair out in frustration. You are gonna send balls flying, step on pressure plates, shoot arrows at switches, and all the classical dungeon trappings, but the game always manages to surprise you with new combinations of familiar elements. The best part of the puzzles is that they never grind the action to a standstill. You are still going to do a lot of jumping and moving around to solve them. The longest of the puzzle-filled dungeons will take you about an hour to complete, but you can quit at any time if you miss the freedom of the outside world.
Besides fighting like Heracles and solving puzzles in a way that would win you praise from Aristoteles himself, you also get to fly around like... Icarus? Yes, the open world of Immortals: Fenyx Rising is a joy to traverse, but initially it's not easy to get around as your stamina is limited, and many times I plummeted to an embarrassing death, as I ran out of energy mid-air (you can still glide safely to the ground even without stamina, but it took me a while to realise this). Yes, just like in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild stamina is necessary for nearly every action like climbing, jumping or using special abilities, and the system works great giving you more mobility the as you upgrade your stamina, but also limiting your antics a bit, so this game doesn't turn into Just Cause.
And you want to explore because the world of Fenyx Rising is a joy to behold. Ancient temples covered in vegetation, lovingly-crafted statues, well-designed monsters that manage to be both scary and cute at the same time - the artistic direction is overall very impressive. Up close, some textures do look a bit, well ancient, lacking in details, but considering this game is also releasing for the Nintendo Switch, I won't complain too much. I found the voice acting to be excellent and well delivered, and while the music wasn't particularly memorable, it set the scene nicely.
Yet the game looks best when viewed from afar. Great statues stand tall on the horizon, and once you have reached the summit you can view the whole majestic isle with all its wonders. You can then also scout the different areas to add secrets to your map, and while it's clearly a way for Ubisoft to get you more immersed in their world, it doesn't quite work. The map is cluttered with icons and while most of the challenges are fun and brief like shooting arrows through rings, fighting a boss, or racing against the clock towards a distant goal, at times it does feel a bit like an offline MMO.
Yes, this is very much a Ubisoft game, and in some ways the structure doesn't quite work. Everything you do awards you with something. That being a new piece of equipment or some of the games many, many currencies. I counted seven different rubies, jewels or coins you can use for upgrading health, potions, weapons and so on. This makes the game a bit too much of a grind, but the main problem is the way that you unlock abilities. In RPG's it's normal that you specialise yourself into a certain role, but in an action-adventure like this variety is key, and the way the games let you upgrade unfortunately locks you into a certain playstyle. But even if you could afford it all, there are not a lot of fighting abilities or combos to unlock.
In the beginning, I combined rolls with well-timed parries mixed my short stabs with a powerful swing of the axe and shot arrows right, left and centre. In the end, I was solely relying on my trusted sword, that I had upgraded to the max, used only one very powerful ability, and had given up parrying entirely as I had buffed my dodge. It's really too bad that I felt more limited in my combat towards the end. And really the interface for your upgrades looks a lot like a free-to-play mobile game. In no way do I think this game is predatory, but it could be handled much better.
One last thing that is worth noting is that the game runs extremely well. I played on the Xbox One X, and besides relatively short loading times (which I can imagine must be even better on next-gen hardware), I didn't experience a single bug during my playthrough that lasted about 25 hours. Not one! There are some very slight graphical glitches like assets loading slowly in a cutscene or two, but it is really not that noticeable. The only explanation for this miracle must be that Ubisoft had actual gods involved in the production of this game.
Even though it's not perfect, Immortals: Fenyx Rising is a great game. It's one of those few titles that is really fun for the whole family to play. Children will laugh at the slapstick humour and enjoy the simple combat, while parents can feel real clever understanding all (or some of) the mythological references and helping out with the puzzles. The game deserves great praise for achieving this great balance, and I can't recommend it enough for families that are looking for something fun to play together besides LEGO games.
On the other hand, if you are an older gamer you might find some flaws with this game. The way the progression works limits your options and the overall gameplay is perhaps a bit simple. Still, if you have even a moderate interest in Greek mythology and haven't grown tired of the classical Ubisoft formula, you will get a lot of entertainment in this delightful package. Just don't expect anything you haven't seen before.