Immortals Fenyx Rising is what happens when everything comes together perfectly

, | Game reviews

I kept waiting.  At some point, it was going to do something to disappoint me.  There was going to be some misstep or oversight or shortcut, something that wasn’t fully developed or that should have been cut.  Something that didn’t seem to fit.  Something weak or wrong.  But Immortals Fenyx Rising is one of those rare games that never let me down.  Not once.  Every time I played, I ended up smiling at its insight, confidence, charm, and humor.

It’s a remarkable contrast to Ubisoft’s other recent open-world games because it gets so much right where they got so much wrong.  Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and especially Watch Dogs: Legion felt like they’d been hijacked by bad ideas at the top level.  But Fenyx feels like it was built from the ground up on good ideas.  It doesn’t have any ambitious overarching concept like opening the entire population of London to your control.  It doesn’t have any problematic historical angle like the Viking plunder of England.  Its blueprint is drawn from proven open-world gameplay principles, adroitly balanced at the intersection of fighting, solving, and exploring.  Its aesthetic is a familiar setting cannily executed with sparkling wit.  Its tone is affectionate and humorous.  The whole thing is brimming with sincerity.

In fact, as a lesson in confident and effective game design, it’s right up there with two other Greek odysseys: Hades and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.  But for a couple of reasons, it threads the needle between them and, in my opinion, is better than each of them.  If there’s one criticism I can level at Hades, it’s that it takes a while to reveal itself.  Which is intentional.  The sense of exploration is very real in Hades, but it’s not a matter of finding out what’s in the next room.  It’s a matter of finding out the next design feature.  Fenyx is driven by exploring a large island, but you’re going to get a solid sense of what it’s doing very quickly.  The cool features are front-loaded for you to play with at your convenience.  Hades plays it close to the vest because it wants to surprise you.  Fenyx lays its card on the table early on because it wants to delight you.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is easily the best Assassin’s Creed game.  It is Ubisoft putting into practice what they’ve learned over the years, and doing it with style.  But boy, did it sprawl.  In terms of geography and time spent playing, it was massive.  Fenyx is more tightly engineered for pacing and gameplay density.  It’s a compact playground that doesn’t have to mimic someone’s expectation of the real world.  How long does it take to ride from Athens to Sparta in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey?  Both too long and not long enough.  But how long does it take to ride from the Hall of the Gods to the Palace of Aphrodite in Fenyx?  Exactly as long as it should.  Besides, you can fly most of the way.  

This is also an important contrast to Breath of the Wild.  An easy description of Fenyx is Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey meets Breath of the Wild, and that’s not wrong.  It’s got Odyssey’s Greek mythology and Breath’s easygoing balance of combat, puzzles, and exploration.  But Fenyx is a deliberately compressed game.  Classic Ubisoft.  The company designs games in mortal terror of negative space (e.g. Sunless Sea and Shadow of the Colossus).  Fenyx is the perfect expression of this.  There’s never nothing to do.  Not to say that it doesn’t breathe.  There’s plenty of room to admire the scenery, or to just gallop across a field, or to appreciate the concept of distance for how landmarks are placed strategically so you always know where you are.  But it doesn’t believe in expanse.  It’s never empty.  Whether you’re gathering figs and pomegranates for potions, searching a forest for amber, or peering into the distance to mark an intriguing sparkle, there is no place that doesn’t offer something to do, some reason to be there, something to discover.  All the lolling geography you enjoyed in Breath of the Wild is here, but with the density of a theme park.  It’s the least deserted isle you’ve ever been shipwrecked on.

A lot of the design work in Fenyx is a matter of imposing limitations, which runs counter to the trend in the Assassin’s Creed series.  For instance, over the years, climbing has gotten easier.  You can climb on anything, and you can climb as long as you want.  You no longer have to find your way up a building or mountain.  Just hold the stick forward and you’ll eventually get to the top. But in Fenyx, your climbing is limited by your stamina (and sometimes the deliberately placed overhang).  Verticality matters!  In the Assassin’s Creed games, your bird gives you a drone’s view of the landscape, with perfect intel on enemies and collectibles.  In Fenyx, you get an awesome bird, but you can’t see through its eyes.  If you want to know whether there’s a special treasure on top of that building, you’re going to have to climb up there and find out (there usually is).  In Assassin’s Creed, you could level up your character whenever you wanted.  You could improve your gear whenever you wanted.  But in Fenyx, you have to return to the main temple.  This makes the main temple feel meaningful, and it punctuates the improvements rather than just eliding them in with the rest of the game.  The temple becomes even more meaningful as you progress the storyline.  

Contrast these gameplay limitations with the way gear looks, which has no bearing on anything other than your enjoyment of looking at the character.  So any piece of equipment can be changed at will to look like any other piece of that equipment.  When I find a cool parrot model for my bird that adds stun damage, maybe I don’t care about stun damage.  Maybe I’m attached to the bird that heals me when it attacks. But maybe I also think it would be cool if my bird looked like a parrot.  “Okay,” Fenyx says cheerfully.  Now I have a bird that heals me when it attacks, but it looks like the parrot that would have added stun damage.  I can make my bird, my weapons, and my armor look like any one of the items I’ve found.  It’s not even a resource sink (in fact, there is no resource sink in Fenyx because every resource does exclusively one thing).  It’s the opposite of the Cyberpunk 2077 approach, where you had to choose between playing efficiently and looking ridiculous.  Ubisoft knows this is my character.  They know enough to let her look however I want her to look.  

I mentioned the stamina limitation on climbing, which isn’t particularly remarkable except that it’s a contrast to the Assassin’s Creed games.  This is how Breath of the Wild works as well.  But unlike Breath of the Wild, stamina in Fenyx is used in combat to power special abilities.  This means improving stamina is something that feeds into exploration, traversal, and combat.  It even figures into some of the puzzles.  When Fenyx carries something heavy, her stamina can be a limitation on how far she can carry it.  When Fenyx guides an arrow, her stamina determines how long she can guide it.

But stamina is mainly useful in combat as part of the interplay of a few different elements.  You use stamina for a special shield rush, a hammer area-of-effect, your bird’s divebomb, and an aerial toss.  These attacks do damage, and they also build up a stun bar for each enemy. When an enemy’s stun bar is full, he’s knocked out for a while.  So, naturally, you want to use these special combat abilities as an element of crowd control.  To refill your stamina, simply use your sword’s quick light attacks.  But if you want to further build up stun on enemies, you use your axe’s slower heavy attacks.  All of these things are part of an interconnected combat model based on damage, stamina, and stunning.  And I haven’t even mentioned the bow.  Or stealth.

There are also potions, bound to the d-pad.  Left and right will drink a health or stamina potion.  Up will drink a potion that boosts your attack.  Down will drink a potion that boosts your defense.  These are the only potions you’ll ever have, but you can upgrade them to make them more effective and to give them ancillary effects.  And you can also improve the number of potions you’re carrying.  As for your weapons and armor, you upgrade their effectiveness as a global value.  Different pieces of equipment will give you different passive bonuses, but your sword, axe, armor, and bow aren’t tracked as individual items in your inventory.  They’re more like character stats that you level up with the appropriate resources.  This is a game with gear, but it’s not a game with inventory management or loot churn.  Nothing is ever useless or obsolete.  

Once you learn to manage the interaction of attack types, abilities, and potions, combat is relatively easy, even when you’re fighting the tougher monsters.  What mixes it up is the unique abilities of different enemies.  Fenyx is a game that knows that it’s better to have a dozen different enemies with unique behaviors than a hundred different enemies with different amounts of hit points.  Every enemy does something specific, and the real challenge in the harder battles isn’t reflexes (the timing threshold for dodging and blocking is pretty forgiving).  The real challenge is dealing with different types of enemies attacking you at once.  But by the time you’re fighting mixed groups, you’ve learned who does what.  In fact, what makes the boss battles challenging is figuring out what they’re doing.  Once you do that, it’s all over but the crying.  Like the puzzles, in fact.  Once you know what you’re supposed to do, Fenyx isn’t interested in frustrating you further.  Once you’ve figured something out, the act of doing it shouldn’t be tedious.  It should be why you play the game.

Fenyx herself is the epitome of grace and power.  Ubisoft has learned over the years how to animate characters, and not just in a fight.  They know how to animate characters interacting with a world.  At first, Fenyx is relatively pokey.  Her stamina will only get her so far, whether it’s gliding from a rooftop, running down a road, or climbing a stubby cliff.  But once you’ve made a little progress and worked out a bit of muscle memory, you’re soaring, swooping, landing exactly where you want, zipping up buildings, hopping between platforms.  The game not only trains you, but it gives you a wider range of options, and furthermore improves those options.  Traversal in Fenyx is a real joy, and there’s not a wasted character ability, upgrade, or animation.  Even mounts have a meaningful role without simply replacing walking. 

All of this is squarely in Ubisoft’s comfort zone as a designer.  These are elements from their other games, carefully refined and neatly slotted into this vibrant game world.  Packed in, really.  There is so much going on, so many ways to play, and things to do, and upgrade, and solve, and discover, and unlock, and progress.  But especially explore.  Ubisoft wisely avoided marking everything on the map, and they instead build a landscape so that you’ll discover it naturally.  What are those monsters guarding?  What’s in that canyon over there?  What are those columns?  Where does this road lead?  Is that a cave in the side of that hill?  You can also eyeball the landscape to identify and mark activities and collectibles on a map, but you have to be able to see them.  Which is relatively easy from higher elevation.  So if you want a map dotted with icons to visit, have at it.  But you’ll just as readily discover everything by exploring from ground level.

I’d say the overall experience of Fenyx is 1/3 combat, 1/3 puzzles, and 3/4 exploration.  But even this mathematically sound breakdown is misleading, because you can skew the distribution however you like.  You can focus on combat, puzzles, or exploration at your discretion.  They all feed into each other, naturally.  There’s not a gameplay system in Fenyx that isn’t decisively plugged into at least a couple other gameplay systems, and that includes the puzzles and combat.

It’s not a hard game in that it shows Ubisoft’s usual reluctance to frustrate.  But this doesn’t mean it’s easy.  This doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges.  Some of the puzzles certainly verge on irritating, at least until you figure them out.  But it’s a testament to their intuitiveness that I always figured them out.  I never once had to look something up.  And that’s rare for me.  This is a game like Portal that’s all about teaching you its vocabulary, one word at a time, and then carefully turning words into sentences and before you know it, you’ve solved what you thought was going to be a big complicated puzzle dungeon.  I don’t even like puzzles.  But I liked almost all the things in Fenyx that would be called puzzles.

In fact, this is one reason it’s hard to break down what portion of the game is puzzles.  There are so many different kinds of puzzles, and so many clever variations on the basic solutions, and so many of the puzzle elements throughout the world integrated into different kinds of challenges.  Some part of the landscape that was obviously a puzzle would catch my eye.  So I’d go check it out and, sure enough, I ended up solving something when I was on my way to finish some mission or fight some sub-boss or grab some fast travel point.  Instead, I scooted tiles around and made a picture of Adonis killed by a boar.  And then I killed the boar itself.  And I listened to a bit of self-reflection from Zeus about the whole affair.  And I enjoyed it so much I forgot where I was going in the first place.  So much of Fenyx consists of doing something you didn’t mean to do, but it was just so darn entertaining you did it anyway, and besides, it was on the way.  Afterwards you forgot what you were on your way to do in the first place.  

Another thing Fenyx has in common with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is getting the heroine right.  Kassandra was an Ubisoft finally getting the hero their games deserved.  And the same is true of Fenyx.  She’s a heroine easily on par with Kassandra.  Which is why I’m calling the game Fenyx for short and not Immortals, or IFR (instrument flight rules?), or ImmFenRis.  And I’m certainly not going to say Immortals Fenyx Rising every time.  The title is a mess, which is quite an accomplishment given that it’s only three words.  I’ve never seen such word salad with so few ingredients. Maybe if it had a colon somewhere to impose a little order?  But I’m calling it Fenyx because it deserves to be named after the main character.  

As Fenyx, Elana Dunkelman is superb.  Her combination of warmth and unfeigned enthusiasm is a rare commodity in voice acting, and her expressiveness shines through the animation.  The artists and animators at Ubisoft have done a wonderful job giving Dunkelman’s earnest voice the Disney princess it deserves.  And not just the classic wide-eyed ebullient Disney princess, but also the progressive modern Disney princess with grit, determination, and preternatural bow skills.  Fenyx is both of those, and Dunkelman’s voice breathes life and humanity into the character.  She anchors and expresses the game as fully as Roger Clark’s Arthur in Red Dead Redemption 2, Ellen McClain’s GlaDOS in Portal, Nolan North’s Nathan Drake in Uncharted, and Yuri Lowenthal’s Spider-Man. Dunkelman makes Fenyx.

Which brings me to the script.  This is one of the most consistently well written games I’ve played.  It helps that it’s not full of inconsequential bystander dialogue and data shards and audio logs and all the verbal detritus that fills so many games, and especially open worlds.  It is instead just interactions among the major characters, usually with Fenyx playing straight man to a mischievous sidekick (Aris Athanasopoulos’ Hermes is the perfect cynical counterpart to Fenyx’s fangirl verve) or the vain gods (Kassandra voice actress Melissanthri Mahut makes a great Athena, but not quite as you’d expect).  Again, Dunkelman’s sincerity serves the script well.  But there’s also a very important addition that was added late in the development process, almost as an afterthought: the narrators.

The narrators, Zeus and Prometheus, are an indispensable part of what makes the story so good.  At first, I figured they were just a Greek chorus, commenting on Fenyx’s deeds as she progressed through the storyline.  They chat about what’s happening, recall old stories, and insult each other playfully.  Prometheus rolls out his take on some obscure corner of Greek lore, Zeus makes fun of him for being a boor.  Zeus makes some ribald joke, Prometheus groans.  Prometheus explains why roses are red, Zeus says that violets are blue because they’re holding their breath waiting for Prometheus to stop talking.  They’re Statler and Waldorf, up in some unseen Olympian balcony.  But over the course of the game, these two characters actually evolve.  There are some surprisingly touching moments between them as Fenyx untangles what’s happened to Athena, Hephaestus, Ares, and Aphrodite.  These are Zeus’ children, after all.  And it turns out that Statler and Waldorf are more like Lear and the fool.  Their perspective isn’t from a balcony.  It’s from exile.  They’re watching, helpless, while it’s left to Fenyx to fix things.  Are they the narrators, or the main character arc?

And all this is informed by an effective sense of humor, which is rare in a videogame.  Thanks to the writers, the actors, and the animators, there’s hardly a joke that lands flat and there are plenty that got an actual laugh from me (it helps that I spend most of my time playing Fenyx with a broad smile).  The story has found new ways to observe familiar stories, even though you’ve spent 100 hours playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and then another 50 playing Hades.  A few thousand years later, and it turns out Greek mythology still isn’t played out.  And thanks to Ubisoft, neither are open worlds.

  • Immortals Fenyx Rising

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • A triumph of open world design, exploration, and writing. And one of the most endearing characters you'll meet in a videogame.