Don’t do it, Sam, don’t compare this to Dark Souls throughout the entire review. Okay...
Y’know, I think the world, ideas, and the begrudging charm of Warhammer 40k needs a bigger representation in video games, and I’m not talking about the unbelievably overpriced games like Inquisitor. The appeal and nature of it is still very much niche, and it needs to be more of a middle-shelf game, as opposed to the AAA standard that some publishers hold it up to. Thank Christ for games like Immortal: Unchained, then.
This right here is a third-person action RPG from one Toadman Interactive, a studio who I believe are in the running for “Best Dev Team Name Ever”. A Swedish studio who came to fruition in 2013, they’ve mostly been doing consultant work for Fatshark-developed games, namely the decent Vermintide and the underrated Escape Dead Island. Immortal: Unchained is their sophomore release and… yeah, you can see they’re still trying to iron kinks out.
You play as a living weapon, someone who was imprisoned by the gods of the universe you reside in because you’re so bloody powerful. Naturally, with a man of such legend, I named him “Derek Nippletwister” to instil more fear into my enemies, and that’s exactly what you need to do. The planets are being overrun and consumed by evil, and it’s up to you to stop it, with everyone around you trying to use you for their own ideals.
Immortal: Unchained can be described at best as a middle-shelf game, and at worst, a fan-game. That’s not supposed to be an insult though, in both regards, as middle-shelf games are something we need more of nowadays. It’s bad enough that the only thing dominating the market right now is overblown, overhyped and overpriced tripe, but an entire sub-species of games has withered away because of it. I’d much prefer to see this than the next Call of Duty at my local game store, is all I’m saying.
A lot of influences aren’t just worn on Immortal’s sleeve, but they’re in fact the suit it’s wearing. Different gameplay mechanics and design choices are nipped from different inspirational games, and to the games credit, they’re co-operate with each other as well as they possibly can. A blockade appears almost immediately however, and that’s in the combat.
Someone at Toadman must’ve looked at games like… err… Lords of The Fallen, and Dead Cells, and pondered to themselves, “Hmm, this is great and all, but what if I had a shotgun?”, and so the idea was made. Combat almost in its entirety revolves around you shooting the enemy with whatever guns you can find. Snipers, Carbines, SMGs, Revolvers, any and all ranged weaponry relating to the real world can be used.
There is melee combat, but it’s utter trash. It doesn’t feel very definite when you’re attacking, and the lock-on system the game has only works properly on ranged weaponry. I also cannot recommend the lock-on system enough, at least on consoles, because the camera controls are exceptionally loose, and any reckless movements winds up with you having to realign yourself.
Nevertheless, combat can be fun. The experiment of meshing the design philosophies of, err… Salt & Sanctuary, along with the kind of third person combat prominent in Gears of War, is a successful experiment. Battles can be effectively intense when paced properly, some of the guns actually feel as powerful as they look, and the enemy variety is all well and good.
Given enough time, the weapon variety and gunplay can give you some moderately varied playstyles. You could go berserk with a shotgun and revolver, swinging past enemies attacks by a hair and blasting their brains out from behind, or you could be the methodical snipe and ping their weak spots, in order to clear the path forward. It shows that Toadman are aware of how people play games like this, and others which don’t fit the bill, but we’ll get to that.
The boss fights spring to mind whenever I think of the moment that Immortal: Unchained grabbed me by the throat and kept me captivated for a while. When you reach the end of Arden, you’re greeted with a knock-off of Ornst– I mean, the Concierge from Dead Cells, and he comes at you with an aggressive stature. Here is where the combat shines, as you attempt to dodge roll and sidestep with a forgiving stamina system. One that both feels like something you have to optimize, and be dangerous with at the same time.
However, said arena ties into a complaint I have with the environmental design. For one, this arena is dark green and black, and there are bear traps peppered throughout the arena that are also dark green and black, meaning that you’ll be immobilized for a while, giving the boss a free hit. That definitely isn’t fair, I outright refuse to believe that’s a good design choice in any context, and this isn’t the only place that does this. There are far too many traps and hidden goodies that blend into the background, meaning that good stuff stays forever lost.
For two, it takes way too long for the areas to have any visual variety to them. The starting areas and even some of the later levels all look like concept art from a NieR: Automata art book, and even when the game starts busting out some fairly decent vistas, the game mutes the colours. You never stop feeling like you’re in the sweaty armpit of a Games Workshop patron, is all I’m saying.
With that being said however, there’s no escaping that this is a clone, of Lords of The Fallen, that is, not the other one. The stench is there, from the level design, to how the narrative is shown to the player, to the way you can grab items that give you a handful of XP to level up, everything that’s prominent in From Sof– I mean, Deck13’s title, is prominent here.
Y’know what, that’s fine, I can get that, it’s only a matter of time before Death’s Gambit with guns showed up, but there do need to be certain removals of other mechanics. It’s possible to have a game feel that way, without copying everything to your title, because if you go too far, you end up with a game that’s in the wrong game, if you catch my drift.
Take the level design for example, with it mostly taking place in claustrophobic hallways with no real space to breathe. Given that most enemies are armed with their sharp fingernails, as opposed to you being decked out like Rambo on a Friday, of course Toadman are going to compensate by having all of the enemies have blisteringly fast movement and attack speeds. You know what that means? A ton of deaths because the combat design contradicts the levels.
Given enough time, patience, and refunds from Microsoft when you break your controller after dying to an invisible trap for the fourteenth f*cking time, the arenas can be a blast to fight in. Enemies can surround you on all directions, and the camera exposes enough of your behind to see attacks clearly. That takes far too long to revel in though, and a lot of your battles will be cramped and uneasy to play through.
It works in stuff like Lords of The Fallen and The Surge because the combat itself is claustrophobic, and usually fixed to a one-on-one situation. “I’m not locked in here with you”, etc. When a hallway is presented to you in games like that, you know that because the weaponry, both ranged and melee-based, is more primitive, the hallways and telegraphing of attacks are going to be at a much slower pace. This means that the hallways are wider than one might presume, as one side-step can ruin one attempt at an enemy trying to get a combo in.
In Immortal, you’ve got weaponry that can go faster, and the aforementioned compensation for melee-based enemies to attack faster than humanly possible, meaning that hallways become a lot tighter. It’s a tricky thing to get right, and Immortal suffers from this cardinal sin more often than it provides a fair playing ground for the player.
Also, let me actually pause the game. Your game isn’t keeping me wrapped in a blanket of intrigue and wonder, I’m aware that I’m wasting a bit of time on this pissing area. When I want to change the controls because the lock-on is targeting a rock as opposed to the giant robot with a shield that says “This Buckler Kills Commies” on it, and I want to know I’m safe. Your enemy layout and design doesn’t allow for a pause menu that doesn’t pause the game.
Simultaneously, they could’ve also used a few other mechanics from other games they were inspired by, like an actual dedicated lock-on system for both ranged and melee-based weapons. Given how a lot of the enemies in Immortal are bullet sponges at the beginning, until you get some decent guns that is, your limited ammo supplies will be draining pretty fast. Consumables that can provide you with ammo in-between checkpoints are also scarce, meaning that you’re relying on a melee-combat system that hasn’t had as much work put to it.
It’s not that the swords, clubs and bats don’t provide decent damage, because they do, but it’s because there is no lock-on system for them, period. You can’t snap to an enemy with your gun, and then switch to the bat, because then the link is broken, and now you’re at the mercy of an unforgiving camera. The animations are also particularly hilarious, even if most of them are broken, with melee slashes making your character look as deadly with a sword, as Hans Moleman does with a Bowie Knife strapped to his walking cane.
Also, yes I understand that enemies need to respawn after a checkpoint so you can get the lovely, lovely XP and materials to level up and upgrade my stuff. Those mini-bosses that I have to fight every time however? How about you remove them from the spawn pool after I get rid of them the first time? Or lower the spawn rates after the first time, and maybe change it to a rare spawn somewhere else? It’d highlight just how on your toes the game can make you.
It’s bad enough that everything in your path respawns after a checkpoint, including the enemies that are always going to be a hassle, but there’s so many that merely crawl out of the ground to attack you. It breaks immersion whenever you see the world respond to your actions, as opposed to interacting with it, and Immortal breaks said immersion way too many times. You want to feel like a part of the world, not the world itself.
One of the biggest gripes I have with the game is its narrative, which somehow manages to be a bizarre blend of Metal Gear Solid’s over-abundance of exposition, while simultaneously being on the same level as Journey. It tells you nothing and everything at the same time, with NPCs speaking in densely cryptic riddles all too often. The lore logs also offer such dense background information, but most of them are hidden away for you to find.
I absolutely despise it when games do this, when they make world-building a pissing collectible as opposed to integrating it within gameplay. Hellblade did the same thing, with its Scottish horror stories being put down to the player to find, but most of them offer crucial context as to who or what we’re about to fight, and in both Immortal and Hellblade, nothing ever gets explained clearly.
They also make a point of you being manipulated by other forces, and if that’s the case, I can’t see through the fog of thickly-detailed exposition. The NPCs you do meet prefer to talk about how they got into the situation they’re in, as opposed to caring about you. Plus, it doesn’t matter whether they were telling you the recipe for the greatest bloody sticky toffee pudding ever made by man, you’ll be too busy cringing through some truly bad voice acting.
The game who has you on a leash for most of the game, Aras, he’s fine and dandy, even if the lip-syncing and animations make him look like a wax model of Kratos melting in the sun like a fruitbowl. Wait ’til you meet Bren, a Viking lass who could give Senua a run for her money, when it comes to cheesy voice acting. On a good day, she’ll at least sound like she’s frightened with the world she’s trapped in. On a bad one? She’ll read her lines like it’s the ingredients on the back of a box of Cheerios.
The rest of the voice actors are marginally better than her, but the point I wanted to bring up is that Bren is a metaphor for the entire game. A character that only got halfway to sounding convincing, someone who isn’t sure how to approach you, or to entertain you, even. It brings off this unfortunate case of half-arsed intentions, from the combat philosophy, to the world-building.
Even the RPG mechanics feel like they were discarded for refining after a while. There’s a levelling system that’s fairly basic, and over time, you begin getting all of these random items, with none of them having an effect on gameplay. Despite there being a variety in playstyles, this levelling doesn’t provide you with a further variety. You’re just choosing random things to boost, with barely any of it making a difference in-game. From there, you keep asking questions.
Why on Earth are shortcuts, something that is supposed to help you avoid danger for future runs, designed so that they lead me to face a bigger group of enemies? Why do all the guns use the same upgrade materials, as opposed to different materials for each weapon class? Why can’t side-quests actually be conveyed to the player that they’re side-quests? That isn’t even something games like, err, Lords of The Fallen did, as those had one clear direction or hint that you would need to think about this in the future.
Given a bit more time, a few more directions for the player, a couple of patches to make the difficulty a bit more forgiving in places, and a price drop of about 10 bucks, Immortal: Unchained wouldn’t just be great value for money. It’d be a middle finger to the developers who keep trying these clones and not failing, because Toadman have shown that Nioh with guns is possible, but it’s not fully realised here.
In the end, while I get the motivation behind making Immortal: Unchained, I’m not seeing it given the proper justice. The world is at odds with the gameplay, the story is somehow non-existent and thrown in your face, and combat takes way too long to keep you engaged. It’s not enough to sully Toadman’s name however, as I see the bright sparks in-between the dark green graphics.
Good luck with Project: Hathor, Toadman. I know you can do it.
This review of Immortal: Unchained is based on the Xbox One version of the game. A review copy was provided.
A rather humdrum, err, Hyper Light Drifter clone, that falls just short of being one of the best RPGs of 2018.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.