Published by Electronic Arts as part of the EA Originals program — referring to games published by EA but developed by independent studios — Immortals of Aveum looks to buck trends across fantasy and first-person shooters alike.
At a recent preview event, I had the chance to play a little over two hours of the upcoming debut title from Ascendant Studios, a team composed of developers that have worked across franchises like Call of Duty, Dead Space, and a myriad number of Telltale games.
From what I've played, the story setup and characters aren't quite clicking, but the gameplay is instantly engrossing, with a variety of gorgeous magical attacks that feel simple to learn but with a high skill ceiling to master.
Disclaimer: Accommodations for this preview event were paid for by Electronic Arts. The company did not see the contents of this preview before publishing.
A world of fantasy... Well, kinda
Though I didn't get to see the very start of the game, Immortals of Aveum opens in a science-fantasy world beset by an eternal conflict called the Everwar. Five kingdoms of shifting alliances fight for the Leylines of magic across the world, with the kingdom of Lucium opposing the tyranny of Rasharn. Enter Jak, a young mage who has lost his family in a mysterious tragedy and is recruited to help fight against the unending armies of Rasharn.
While this kind of setup would be at home in a number of fantasy games and other media, Immortals of Aveum tries to set itself apart with a distinctly modern tone. The ways the characters talk, and look feels like a blend of different science-fiction serials instead of classic western fantasy. According to senior art director Dave Bogan, that's by design.
Bogan joined Ascendant Studios just a few months after the company was founded in 2018, having previously worked on several games like The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead at Telltale.
"Bret's [the game director's] charge for me was an intimidating one," Bogan says. "'Create something unique, it's a fantasy game, that's your canvas, but our keyword for art is: Unexpected.' Where do you go with that?"
To start, that meant not leaning into fantasy tropes and stereotypes right at the beginning of the concept art stage, getting the ground level set before choosing what elements from more classical fantasy would be appropriate for the setting.
"No dragons...no elves, no gnomes, even if we have things that look similar, we're not using those names," Bogan says of his initial thought process, though he adds with a chuckle that sometimes things can creep back in, pointing to the "Howler" monster in the game that's clearly inspired by dragons. "It's a freaking dragon. But dragons are cool. And we didn't start there."
Bogan notes that it's hard to stand out in a sea of media, with fantasy taking up a considerable chunk of that infinite ocean. Finding the unexpected meant examining the expected, and for the art team, that was Dungeons and Dragons and The Lord of the Rings.
"It's kind of like a kid's candy store for an artist," he says.
Unleashing the battlemage
In Immortals of Aveum, Jak is instantly seen as valuable because of his status as a Triarch, an extremely rare individual capable of casting all three kinds of magic: Red (Chaos), Blue (Force), and Green (Life). It's that same ability to adapt that extends to the battlefield.
Even with no guns, Immortals of Aveum is a first-person shooter through and through, with Jak gaining access to a number of powerful color-coded spells that wreak havoc on enemy lines, provided you know how to use them.
Red Chaos magic is chaotic and powerful, emulating grenade launchers and shotguns with blasts that feel barely restrained and borderline unstable. Blue Force magic is rigid and defensive, with hard angles and precision shots like a sniper rifle or semi-automatic weapon. Green Life magic is the most unique and strange, flowing and growing with rapid-fire shots that weave and dodge to track enemies across the battlefield.
Once I had the basics down, combat instantly felt great, and that only became truer as I figured out more and more combinations for when to use what. Blocking enemy blasts with your shield is cool but combining it with a chain of attacks by pulling in foes with your whip-like Lash and turning them to ash with close range roars of energy never got old.
Every time the game started to feel a tiny bit repetitive, some new enemy or boss fight was thrown in the mix, making me shake up everything I'd learned so far. By the end of the preview, I felt like I was Doctor Strange, albeit with about half the flourish and twice the lethality.
All of this is reflected in the artistic choices for representing the different kinds of magic and making sure they look distinct, something that's extra important due to the lack of traditional weapons in Immortals of Aveum. Bogan noted that the long wind-up "Conjuring" animations are saved for the more powerful spells, with a payoff in power balanced in the gameplay by how long they take to activate. By contrast, "meat and potatoes" spells are immediate, with less effect but something happening instantly when you press a button.
The one aspect of the gameplay that I didn't quite click with was the gear system, which seems to reward different playstyles but in practice felt a bit overwhelming combined with the (far more rewarding) talent tree for upgrading abilities. I'm told that later sections in the full game function more as "hub" locations, with optional exploration rewarded with more powerful equipment, so it's possible this won't be an issue in the final release.
A world of color
The enemies you'll be cutting down are fantastical in nature but still very much human outside of a handful of beasts and constructs, all of which wouldn't look out of place in a big battle sequence from a Marvel movie across the last decade.
Bogan points to the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica and the robots of innumerable Japanese cartoons for inspiration, with the team wanting enemies to be read easily, with distinct silhouettes and a clean visual presentation. Meanwhile, when sketching out ideas for the armor of big bad overlord Sandrakk, Bogan pulled from his dad's 1986 Yamaha motorbike, with the helmet meant to reflect the intimidating grill of a car.
When asked about his favorite designs he's worked on in the game, Bogan immediately goes to Zendara (Lily Cowles), an utterly jacked red magic user who ends up commanding Jak on the battlefield.
Speaking fondly of the one time the team was able to get the actors together on a performance capture stage together — the development of the game was interrupted by the pandemic almost immediately after — Bogan says "I've seen Lily [Cowles] kind of walk around in the mocap suit...to see her design evolve over that time, she didn't start out as this huge imposing character. But it kind of grew that way, Bret was constantly like 'More muscles, more muscles!' It's totally cool, and it's fun to see people's reactions to it. I think she's very noticeable and memorable."
When I asked if the shift to performance acting over pure voice acting has affected the art direction and designs of characters, Bogan said that it hasn't, but that it did provide other challenges due to the pandemic. Because of restrictions on gathering in place and travel, the team had to capture the motion of some local actors and match it to the facial capture of the main cast, though they're all proud of how it ended up.
While I can certainly appreciate the effort that's gone into this, the story hasn’t grabbed me based on what I've played. Outside of the vague concepts of tyranny and one kingdom ruling over all the others, the struggle here isn't quite clear, though it's entirely possible that things will feel more connected and investing in the full game when I see the complete context for the game's opening.
Does the magic come together?
Overall, I'm left with mixed impressions on the story being sold in Immortals of Aveum. While the shift to something more modern in dialogue and tone is bold and appreciated, it's not coming together, at least based on the two hours and some change that I've seen so far. It's entirely possible that the characters will get to shine better in the full experience, but that's something that can go either way.
What isn't up for debate is just how fun it is to play. Chaining spells together and figuring out the optimal way to clear the battlefield never got old and was always a joy to watch unfold. Even days later, I'm thinking about different ways I could've tackled some of the bosses and more challenging sections of the demo, and I hope the full game feels as fresh and frenetic as the slice I've played.
Immortals of Aveum is slated to launch on July 20, 2023, and will be available on Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Windows PC, and PS5, where it may end up as one of the best games available for first-person shooter fans.
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