I liked the name Gods and Monsters. It was a bit plain, perhaps, but pulpy and straightforward. You knew what you were getting. It suggested some big godly powers and even bigger mythical beasts to whack them with, all set in a fantasy Ancient Greece. This would have been fine, I suppose. But it's clear from a few hours' play that Ubisoft has grander ideas, and that after a lengthy delay, some re-working and a new 3rd December release date, the game now known as Immortals Fenyx Rising wants to be something quite a bit bigger.
Despite its MOBA-ish moniker, Immortals is an action RPG from the talented Assassin's Creed Syndicate and Odyssey team at Ubisoft Quebec. The narrative is told in a very different way, but there is a similarity to the feel of its light-hearted storytelling, while its combat and gear systems are even more familiar still. It's immediately apparent the other big influence is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild, which is riffed on to a surprising degree.
Plenty of games now use Zelda's stamina meter, or employ a similar glider. But Immortals' landscape is essentially defined by Nintendo's Switch opus, with a mix of Odyssey's more fantastical realms thrown in for good measure. Spread across its world are combat and puzzle shrines - sorry, "Vaults" - and tricky little puzzle areas on the open map that require the use of the game's physics engine to solve. There's a limited version of cooking. There's a power to pick up items with magnets. You can head straight to the world's toughest areas from the very beginning. I could go on. If Assassin's Creed Odyssey was Ubisoft's take on The Witcher, this is its version of Zelda, in a year where the closest Nintendo fans will get is a spin-off hack-and-slash.
Instead of Hyrule, Immortals is spread across a set of seven embattled lands home to various Greek gods. The lush green area seen when the game was first unveiled is home to Aphrodite, for example, while the section in this new demo was a rusty, dusty outback home to Hephaestus and his mighty forge. The enemies here, along with cyclopes and minotaurs, include hulking robots that reminded me of Skyward Sword's ancient desert mechanicals. Here, as with other areas, main character Fenyx was battling to save the land from the beast-like Ganon, sorry, Typhon, a demonic Greek god once imprisoned by Zeus for being a troublemaker.
Throughout this demo there wasn't much of a chance to get to know Fenyx, which left me with the feeling Ubisoft was playing around with a largely silent protagonist. Instead, the game's story is told via voiceover - a surprise, and one of Immortals' standout original ideas - given via the chatty Zeus and Prometheus. While the dialogue here was recorded specifically for this demo, the pair will provide a somewhat unreliable narration throughout the full game, as they peer down at Fenyx's efforts. Prometheus is the straight man, while Zeus (played by Odyssey's Barnabas voice actor Andreas Apergis) is the rock star god who missed half the set crushing cans backstage. The pair squabble and bicker, occasionally breaking the fourth wall when the exposition gets too long-winded or to crack a joke. In a way, it makes the rest of the game's straight-faced take on Zelda a little less bare-faced, with a nudge and a wink to acknowledge you may have seen this kind of puzzle before.
"We felt this was a different way to tell the story," game director Scott Phillips told me via a call later on. "We still wanted a strong main character but felt these narrators let us be a little more verbose with the history without it feeling like the player character is a historian taking you on a tour. Zeus and Prometheus go on this learning journey about Zeus, king of the gods. You as Fenyx go on a journey meeting all these gods and gaining their help to defeat Typhon. Those two stories weave back and forth together and conclude together. Overall it's a bit Ancient Greek Guardians of the Galaxy - its interactions are lighthearted but the stakes are epic - and world-ending if you don't succeed in your task." In the full game, Fenyx will definitely speak, Phillips continued - and be quite chatty in their interactions with the gods throughout the story. Early on in the game you get to create your own version of the character, with a choice of body types, voice types, skin colour, hair and eye colour, beards, facial scars and more. This can then be changed again later in the game's Hall of the Gods hub.
If you've played Assassin's Creed Odyssey you'll immediately be familiar with how Fenyx will grow in strength throughout the game, via the addition of powers you can learn and equip from a skill tree. Some are nearly identical, such as the ability to control arrows in-flight, or to charge into a group of enemies to send them scattering. Melee combat is familiar too, with sword and axe gear slots replacing Odyssey's light and heavy attacks. Other slots are taken up by your armour set, helmet, phoenix and mount, all of which come imbued with perks. There are no numbers visible, but items can be upgraded in power. And, again like Odyssey, there's a well-timed dodge mechanic to avoid damage rather than physical shields.
One puzzle found out in the open world required you to guide an arrow through a course of small hoops. Another more complex area required you to free a series of weighted balls from Crystal Maze-like puzzle rooms in order to place them all on a map of the stars. Vaults, meanwhile, are discrete puzzle areas set in their own small realms, and which make use of the game's physics engine to let you leap across floating columns, or clear a path by manoeuvring and firing large projectiles into far-away blocks like a giant game of Angry Birds. Many of these puzzles are pleasantly challenging, and provide a rush of accomplishment once completed that is only dampened by their rather lacklustre rewards. Completing a 15-minute puzzle to be provided with... 15 lightning bolts, or something similar, was a bit of a let-down - though it may be that in the full game this will be just what I'll need to upgrade something on my skill tree. Puzzles within the open world give you a separate currency, while enemies drop a third that lets you upgrade physical gear. It's a very Ubisoft take on Zelda, in other words.
Phillips says the original Gods and Monsters pitch from the studio was well received on the back of its impressive work on Assassin's Creed Odyssey - and you can see how Ubisoft would want to extend the life of that game's mechanics and setting in a way that is not hampered by the rules of an Assassin's Creed, while riffing on Nintendo's best work this generation in the process. I had fun making my way through this mix of ideas, though repeatedly finding familiar mechanics never stopped feeling a little jarring when so little of the game's originality - its own story and main character - where on show to smooth things over. This point does sound like something the team has been working on, however - one interesting comment from Phillips was that until the delay, the game featured a sole narrator, playing Homer, before this was changed to the current dynamic. It's also why the game's name changed, Phillips said, to focus more on the hero's journey itself, rather than the world they will travel through.
Development on the game lost a little time earlier this year when the studio switched to home working, though the project was far enough along at that point to not need as many big meetings, Phillips recalls. "I think we were in a good place - not closing mode but close - where there was less ideation and so it was easier to work from home," he says. "But it has been an odd and memorable year for everyone." As for Ubisoft's own summer of headlines, associated with the company's tidal wave of sexual assault and misconduct allegations, Phillips declined to say much on their impact within the studio. "There's not too much I can say - I would point to what Yves has said publicly about trying to make Ubisoft the best working environment it possibly can be," he concluded. "I trust and take him at his word that that's what he wants to do for Ubisoft. The morale of the studio - considering everything - is quite high. We're proud of having our first new IP ever, our studio has always been growing - I've been here six years and it has grown a lot since Assassin's Creed Syndicate and with Immortals Fenyx Rising we have the creative footing to grow into the future."
When asked for more detail, a Ubisoft spokesperson sent through the following boilerplate statement:
"Concerning recent allegations raised against certain Ubisoft team members: we want to start by apologising to everyone affected by this - we are truly sorry. We are dedicated to creating an inclusive and safe environment for our teams, players, and communities. It is clear we have fallen short of this in the past. We must do better.
"We have started by launching investigations into the allegations with the support of specialised external consultants. Based on the outcomes, we are fully committed to taking any and all appropriate disciplinary action. As these investigations are ongoing, we can't comment further. We are also auditing our existing policies, processes, and systems to understand where these have broken down, and to ensure we can better prevent, detect, and punish inappropriate behaviour.
"We will be sharing additional measures that we are putting in place with our teams in the coming days. Our goal is to foster an environment that our employees, partners, and communities can be proud of - one that reflects our values and that is safe for everyone."
Ubisoft also addressed the issue prior to tonight's broadcast with a new video statement from its CEO, Yves Guillemot.
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