(IMMORTALS FENYX RISING is out December 3rd for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Epic Games Store, Uplay and Stadia. Distributor provided review copy.)
IMMORTALS FENYX RISING is like an excellent cover song or off-brand food. It sort of looks like the real thing and certainly sounds and feels like it, even as you remind yourself that it’s an imitation. During the 90s, these kinds of games came out yearly, with descriptions like “Metroid-clone” right in their headings. While imitation certainly happens today, few are as brazenly open about it as Ubisoft’s latest IP.
But every once in a while, FENYX RISING hits some different notes than the original, and they ring beautifully, and you can’t help but wonder how much potential it has in store.
Told through two narrators, Prometheus and Zeus, the latter of whom is unreliable and flakey, FENYX RISING aims for grandiose adventure in Harryhausen’s style but walks away confused. It’s about Fenyx, a young and inexperienced warrior who, after living in the shadow of their famous sibling, is thrust into the forefront of adventure when Typhon, an ancient elemental evil, escapes Hades.
Fenyx must now find the missing heroes of antiquity and compel them to fight once more to save the Earth. Along the way, they’ll discover long lost artefacts, ancient feuds, and grow into a hero worthy of their own saga.
The humor is painfully bad
As far as setups go, FENYX RISING has an interesting and compelling one. It’s just a shame it can’t decide on a tone. While half the story is epic and bombastic, though lighthearted at its core, it can’t help but interject absurdly flat and unfunny humor at every turn.
Zeus descending from the heavens to free Prometheus, the giver of wisdom, for knowledge of how he will defeat a world-ending threat is a brilliant place to start. But the game continually undermines itself by treating the setup as a self-aware gag.
Take, for example, the introduction of Fenyx. Upon hearing the name, Zeus remarks it to be “a dumb name, sounding like the sound a bird makes when it catches fire.” When you discover the temple of Eros, he pipes in how good it is, “he finally got his happy ending.”
These jokes come often and are rarely funny or witty. Instead, they take away from the immersion the rest of the game works overtime to maintain. It feels like they’re going for intentional groaners, but the harsh reality sets in pretty early: the jokes just aren’t funny, and there are too many of them.
A debt of gratitude
The gameplay should feel familiar to anyone who played BREATH OF THE WILD, as FENYX RISING is, to put it kindly, heavily indebted to Hidemaro Fujibayashi’s masterpiece. Most mechanics, notably the climbing, cooking, and main quest design, heavily borrows from the Nintendo Switch game, often to distracting lengths.
It’s not that FENYX RISING replicates any of these things poorly; it’s just that they’re unnecessary to mimic in such a blatant way. For all their faults, Ubisoft has in their roster immensely talented teams of creatives, who’ve already revolutionized the genre with ASSASSIN’S CREED. Not utilizing said talent feels like having a sports car in the garage, only to use a kickboard to get around.
Sure, climbing anything and monitoring your strength gauge while doing so is fun and requires a certain amount of out-of-the-box thinking. But it’s exactly what we’ve already played before, right down to the audiovisual cues.
On the other hand, FENYX RISING gives you weapons that don’t break and a compelling reason to upgrade them throughout the adventure. It doesn’t punish you for adventuring into difficult areas nearly as bad as BREATH OF THE WILD, and there’s a sense that Ubisoft has learned from the early mistakes of Fujibayashi’s game.
Your princess is in another castle
The core mechanics directly lift from both ZELDA and other Ubisoft titles. For much of the primary campaign, Fenyx climbs ancient statues to scout the environment with Far Sight, discovering hidden trials and treasures behind every hill. At the center of the map is
Ganon’s Typhon’s layer, which you can progress to at nearly any point in the game. The world splits into multiple areas with distinct biomes, each with a legendary hero you must find and reawaken to gain their strength in the coming battle. Hades’ trials grant you Zeus’s lightning, which in turn opens up more skills for Fenyx to learn.
In the midst of all this is the pantheon of Greek Gods, each quite the character with their own reasonably entertaining yarn to spin. Their inversions are some of the more interesting in the game, though even those fall flat at times. Momentary revelations are inspiring, such as discovering Hercules’ gauntlets, which grant Fenyx the power to lift heavy objects at will. How you find them is better discovered on your own, but it’s one of the few moments that made me laugh out loud. The other has to do with Ares, which will surely send fans of the God of War into a fit, but the less said of it, the better.
But these moments are passing as if FENYX RISING is too timid to take on something actually original. Too often, they end up dismissed in favor of more bickering between Prometheus and Zeus, a pair so dismally unfunny I ended up skipping their cutscenes entirely. The casting doesn’t help either, with everyone speaking faux-Greek accents that sound like riffs from a discarded Monty Python skit.
One of the most beautiful open worlds of the year
It really is thanks to the impeccable art direction that FENYX RISING stands out. The world is immense and beautiful, and each location is a new opportunity to pose for a stunning vanity shot. There isn’t a single moment that I wasn’t enamored by the landscapes and architecture, and even after finishing the review, I kept coming back just to explore it a bit further.
Similarly, the soundtrack is a collection of slapping tunes that elevate the material well beyond mere imitation. Combat and especially boss battles are genuinely epic when everything works together, and it’s in these moments that FENYX RISING soars above its earnest but flat imitation.
But even if it’s an imitation, it’s so lovingly made and so painstakingly recreated that everything still works. Everything about the original recipe works, so why change it? That seems to have been the thinking at Ubisoft, and they’re not wrong to pursue it. BREATH OF THE WILD is one of the best games ever made, and if FENYX RISING can’t exactly hit that mark, it certainly lands in the ballpark of standout original IP’s.
This is thanks to some genuinely crafty puzzles and trial rooms, many of which kept me occupied for hours on end as I tried bettering my score from last time. The vertical landscape offers exciting horseplay opportunities, and fighting with ancient mythical creatures never gets old. Later stage bosses are also real standouts, implying a scale far larger than anything we’ve seen in a Ubisoft game before.
Familiar but fun
In short, FENYX RISING is fun to play in a way most open-world games aren’t. It’s the second Ubisoft game this year that surprised me with a breathtaking and replayable world. If I sound conflicted over it, it’s because the writing and looming shadow of ZELDA both dampen the atmosphere. But if you didn’t play BREATH OF THE WILD and don’t watch the cutscenes, well, FENYX RISING just might one of the best adventure titles you’ll play all year.
While the mechanics and core elements aren’t original, FENYX RISING is still attempting to do something different at the French mega-studio. That alone deserves applause. And as FENYX RISING feels like a trial project, it’s a tentative step into the world that, if successful, could blossom into something unique.
After all, it took ASSASSIN’S CREED years to finally hits stride, and a whole decade before it eventually won me over. Maybe FENYX RISING is smart in introducing something new with something familiar. After all, it’s only by knowing where we came from that we can truly grow beyond it.