Missed Opportunities: “Immortals Fenyx Rising”

The games covered in “Missed Opportunities” are already good. What follows is why and how this one should’ve been better.

Every game developer–especially the triple-A ones–should take a cue from Jurassic Park‘s Dr. Ian Malcolm. Ubisoft, in particular, already knows it can make these big, ambitious open-world games, so instead of being preoccupied with that, they should stop think whether they should. At its heart, Immortals Fenyx Rising is absolutely serviceable, and for some, maybe that’s enough, to be just one more thirty-hour distraction. But if you’re going to retread combat like the original God of War‘s, the feel of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, or the mythology of Hades, it might be a good idea to add something to the mix. Here’s how Immortals Fenyx Rising could’ve really taken flight.

First, there’s the narrative framework and tone of Immortals Fenyx Rising. Presented a story being told by Prometheus to Zeus, there are a few promising moments in which one of the two gods grows a bit bored with the tale and embellishes it, which has the consequence of changing what Fenyx is up against. Imagine at the very least some sort of AI, like the Director from Left 4 Dead 2, that could adapt Fenyx’s quest to keep players challenged; at the best, consider the joys of a scripted but unreliable narrator that’s out to sabotage the players.

Instead, these narrators are used to interject comic relief, to actively lampshading Fenyx‘s shittiest features–“How does it take someone THAT long to start a story?” muses Zeus at the end of the game’s two-hour “prologue”–so much so that the game’s final act, the inevitable showdown with Typhon, has no choice but to abandon this scaffolding.

Zeus just remains an oblivious asshole, resetting his tone at the start of each new quest chain, even as the monsters continue to evolve.

Some of this has to do with the game’s largely non-linear progression: as opposed to the first four biomes, each of which represents the god imprisoned there, the fifth area, the blizzarding King’s Peak, cannot be accessed until completing the others. As a result of this narrative focus, Zeus is finally given some introspection and character development–too little, too late–that aims to justify what will follow, prophecies and plots be damned. He’s not allowed to grow up until that point, however. Players might choose to aid Hephaistos before ever encountering the other gods, so if Zeus “grows” during this mini-arc, recognizing the harm he’s done by treating the man so poorly, then his subsequent dialogue for Aphrodite, Hephaistos’s unwilling wife, and Ares, who is cuckolding Hephaistos, would have to reflect that. Instead, Zeus just remains an oblivious asshole, resetting his tone at the start of each new quest chain, even as the monsters continue to evolve.

To be clear, the issue here is with the game’s choice of narrative, not the non-linear approach. But there’s a reason why Zelda: Breath of the Wild had such a limited plot, or why Genshin Impact‘s gone with a linear, chapter-based expansion that keeps things from being actually open world. These devices focus the storytelling instead of letting it spiral out of control. And there’s certainly room for experimental storytelling–just look at Robert Coover, who once wrote a story on playing cards that could be shuffled and read in any order–but that’s not what Fenyx is doing, and that’s why it’s missed opportunity.

The second major missed opportunity is with the way Fenyx Immortal Rising handles its open-world approach, which can only be described as “disposable mythology.” As with the narrative, some of this comes down to the nonlinear lack of focus, but it’s more directly attributable to lazy development. God of War, Hades, and even Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey pick and choose the myths that most directly enhance the story they’re trying to tell. In the original God of War, this came down to which gods would be fun to fight, or who might give interesting powers to Kratos. In Hades, it’s about enhancing this underworld family. In Fenyx? It’s largely about justifying shitty, time-wasting optional content.

Take, for instance, one of the game’s cooler features, where corrupted wraiths of former heroes–Odysseus, Achilles, Atalanta, Herakles–will try to hunt you down at Typhon’s behest. The actual character designs are inspired and each has their own method of combat inspired by their tales, and yet they’re nothing more than an obstacle. Once you reach the mid-game and you start hunting them down in their lairs, there’s surprisingly little narration to explain why these four heroes, or how they connect or feed into Fenyx’s own growth. Even Athena’s main quest “Go Do Hero Stuff,” which has you emulating these greats, does little to emphasize the difference between Odysseus’s intelligence or Herakles’s brute strength.

The use of these heroes hasn’t been adequately thought out.

To make things even more confusing, Atalanta is the foe who uses arrows against you, and yet there’s an entire series of side activities called Odysseus Challenges in which you must manually maneuver arrows through a series of rings (similar to the Batman: Arkham batarang puzzles). Why simply refer to Herakles’s labors, but not have those as challenges across the island? Why aren’t those stamina-testing navigation challenges–miniature races across the island–named after agile Achilles? The use of these heroes hasn’t been adequately thought out.

As for the island’s other optional tasks, they are completely disassociated. The worst of them, Lyres, simply require you to reach a small version of that instrument and listen to the order in which the four strings are plucked so that you can recreate that ditty on a big one located elsewhere in the region. (Memorization tasks like these are pointless; does anybody not just write them down?) At the very least, you’d think that after restoring all the individual parts to a Big Lyre, those individual parts would come together in unison to play a recognizable classic tune, or at least one related to the game’s own soundtrack, but no: you just get Charon Coins, one of the game’s various upgrade currencies (this one for godly powers).

Fenyx feels like the work of a college student who is desperately overwriting and throwing in every detail from their research in an attempt to cover up the lack of a solid thesis.

Other tasks are just as dull, like the Frescoes, which are the same four-block sliding puzzle over and over again, but with different pictures. Your reward for solving each is a brief soundbite about the scene depicted, which seems a bit odd given that Fenyx is already described as a storyteller who would be more than familiar with them–there’d be no actual need to rearrange these blocks. It just feels like a way of shoehorning in a temp’s extraneous research that didn’t make it into the main game, which is also why you get puzzle vaults so loosely named for characters that don’t appear in-game. For instance, Akantha, known for being “prickly,” gives her name to a vault in which you must create a path of falling blocks over a spiked floor. Less clear, however, is what Arachne has to do with a vault involving lasers and blocks–not a web or maze to be found. Fenyx feels like the work of a college student who is desperately overwriting and throwing in every detail from their research in an attempt to cover up the lack of a solid thesis.

What’s most offensive is that Fenyx keeps hinting that it’s going somewhere. Beating the wraiths should culminate with some sort of showdown or revelation, but instead it’s just you getting a shiny new suit of armor and a statue in your honor. A series of puzzles are connected with recordings from Diadalos that hint at why he created the Golden Isle in the first place–a father, desperate to win back his son. Beyond the fact that Fenyx is using Ikaros’s wings to fly around the isle, or that her own quest to save her turned-to-stone brother and crewmates mirrors Diadalos’s, this is never anything more than an optional, easily missed (because it’s unmarked) activity. Your reward after finding and completing all twelve puzzles is a mere punchline: Zeus’s revelation, as you step into Diadalos’s hidden workshop, that he turned the inventor into a deer, given how much he wanted to be “fawned” over. (Which, y’know, is missing the point entirely.)

The final issue with Fenyx is just its general lack of balance. Gear is most certainly not created equal, nor are upgrades. Because the game doesn’t know the order in which you’ll be traveling around the map, nor which abilities you’ll be purchasing and gear you’ll be upgrading with your hard-earned coins and crystals back at the Superfriends-y Hall of the Gods, it can’t adequately scale to give you an appropriate challenge. Not once did I need to alternate between light sword and heavy axe attacks and my bow was only ever useful for puzzles (given the scaling, it always made more sense to upgrade only one to the maximum); hell, my main build involved just reflecting damage back at opponents, to the point at which even bosses would be defeating themselves more efficiently by hitting me than if I were to master the time-slowing perfect dodges or stun-inducing perfect parries. The reductive potions worked similarly: instead of having a variety of buffs, the game just stacks them all on one of two potions. Therefore, your standard Defense potion can also be upgraded to reflect damage; your Attack potion can boost your stuns and ability to leech back HP through damage dealt. If you’re ever having problems (and it’s hard to see how that would be the case), you can simply pop one or both of your buffs.

Not once did I need to alternate between light sword and heavy axe attacks and my bow was only ever useful for puzzles….

This balance applies to the storytelling as well. Fenyx’s brother Ligyron is held up as the perfect model of a hero. This is especially true if you’re choosing to play Fenyx as a female character, as it’s powerful to see her rise up out of his shadow and to reclaim her own independence as more than a “shield-bearer” or “storyteller”–both secondary roles centered around supporting others. And yet, if you leave Ares’s questline for last (as I did), you’ll spend the majority of the game believing that Ligyron is a stone statue. He has no weight or impact on three of the four central quests, which makes both the Ares and final Zeus segments feel lopsided.

And because the storytelling happens, to some degree, through the design of the Golden Isle itself, this also means that the central quest chains are problematic. Hephaistos, for instance, gets short shrift: not only are his Forgelands the dullest region, with the landscape essentially deforested and ruined to provide the bland industrial factories with raw resources, but the game doesn’t have much to say about his deformities. Instead, players just blithely and blandly collect his three sorrows, thereby inspiring him again through his suffering. By contrast, Athena’s questline carries the most relevance, dedicated as it is to wisdom, and the way in which Fenyx gets a better sense of her own place in the heroic pantheon.

There are just creative mismatches all over the place: Ares’s plot isn’t any more combat-oriented than Aphrodite’s, for instance, it just takes place in Ajax’s Fortress. (It’s unclear, as usual beyond the namedropping, why the fortress is named for Ajax, or where this legend’s gone off to.) And if you choose to do Aphrodite’s quest first, as the game gently encourages you to, then you’ve seen the best application of mythology that the game has to offer, with players completing tasks that are actually significant to the goddess of love and the loss she suffered when Adonis was killed by a boar. The other gods wish they had relics as significant as the pearl that recreates Aphrodite’s foam-born birth, or the Apple of Discord. (Naturally, there’s also an optional quest that has players offering an apple to a sea shrine to Aphrodite, as if nobody would notice the repetition.)

It’s actually quite impressive that Immortals Fenyx Rising is still as enjoyable as it is, given the lack of focus and the irksome, repetitious side quests. I think this is why Ubisoft has embraced the open world so fully: the larger your canvas, the harder it becomes to notice the individual blemishes. The sad commercial reality is that if a game like this sells well, Ubisoft has no need to polish it any further; they’re not trying to make art, they’re trying to make money. Perhaps one day, Fenyx will grow up in the same way that Kratos eventually did, but until then, Ubisoft trusts that we’ll all spend so much time zoomed in that we won’t notice how flawed the big picture is.

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