I was long under the impression that the slow decline of the brick and mortar shop would bring the price of games down. The digital storefront would prop up our favorite titles in the cloud, and they’d be accessible through a little piece of squiggly code, freed from the logistical chains of CD manufacturing, haulage, rent. But as I scanned the Microsoft Store the other day I was reminded yet again that games are getting more expensive – exorbitantly so. It feels like we’re only a year or two away from nudging the $100 mark.
More than ever, publishers should be competing on price as much as content. When it comes to small-budget fare, why not release a new game at $25.99 and appeal to players who might snap it up on a whim? Immortal: Unchained, a B-movie, direct-to-TV rip of the Souls franchise, is the perfect candidate for this sort of smart pricing. It has an easy hook — Dark Souls with guns — and attractive visuals. And yet, it’s priced at a full-fat $49.99. The world’s gone a bit mad.
Rip off the cellophane packaging from the measly box (I don’t like DVD boxes; I want the game boxes of old that justified their existence) or wait for the 17 GB digital download to finish and you’ll find that Immortal: Unchained is a decidedly low-budget affair, though not without its charm. There’s a convoluted story you can keep track of, but the basic premise is simple: travel to different realms from a central hub dubbed The Core, battling enemies and taking on boss fights, before connecting “nexus points” in each map (push a button after the boss fight and away you go).
Level design is, on the whole, excellent, with shortcuts that’ll bring a smile to your face and cleverly-spaced obelisks (bonfires) rewarding you for exploring. There’s a bit of backtracking – always a bad idea – but it’s executed well enough, and it’ll afford you the chance to open loot boxes you didn’t have the means of cracking before. The levels themselves are also wildly different with colors that pop on the screen. Developer Toadman has, at the very least, served up a world that looks vibrant.
It’s a pity then that the A to B gameplay is so boilerplate. Dark Souls with guns is the basic sell here, but the actual act of shooting is a real misstep, with free-aiming nigh-on impossible in the heat of battle. Honestly, it feels as if you’re dragging the aiming sticks through mud only for them to suddenly gain some momentum and speed up, veering you off course. Thankfully there’s a lock on mechanic. But having it engaged reduces the game to a trigger-mashing exercise. With it on, subtlety — and dare I say it, skill — goes out the window.
Reloading is another missed opportunity. Immortal Unchained demands that you keep an eye on whether you’ve got ammo in the chamber with a reticle that refills before your eyes. Trying to reload in the heat of battle is tricky, because any time you dodge an incoming blow, you reset the meter. Bigger guns are also slower to cough up the old magazine, meaning you’ve got to balance the heft of a weapon with its speed. There are genuinely tense moments as you try to get your gun rebooted while an enemy bears down on you, but it’s a massive shame that it wasn’t woven into the game more. Immortal is crying out for an active reload system a la Gears of War – something that lets you take a risk in the heat of battle for a bigger reward.
Cardinal sins of game design are scattered everywhere you look. Imprecise hit detection means that you can be staggered by shots that looked as if they missed; button presses – such as a quick button tap to use a health potion – don’t always register; and often, levels funnel you through tight corridors, forcing you to mindlessly bash the triggers in the hope you’ll clear the way before you die. Or how about enemies positioned at the top of ladders? Or jumping you as a door opens and closes? And that’s without even talking about the frame rate, which struggled to maintain a consistent level, even on the Xbox One X.
Balancing issues are abundant as well. The early going presents irritating black reeds that clamp you down and hold you in place as swarms of green mutating enemies explode over you. Later, the game throws up teleportation enemies that’ll cut you down to size in a single shot. One-hit deaths are a frequent part of the fun. Persevere, and you’ll come across half-baked boss fights that do at least present a challenge. There’s a certain satisfaction to clearing a level, elevated heartbeat in tow, that feels like a vague approximation of the feeling you get playing Dark Souls. The basic loop works, at times, but it’s just as quickly neutered by another misguided attempt at making Immortal challenging.
Most of all, this is clearly a budget offering. Pretty lighting and textures aside, Immortal: Unchained feels like a game from the last generation. There’s a heaviness, a clunkiness that belies its budget roots, and visual effects that immediately jar (puddles, in particular, are very last-gen). There’s nothing wrong with a low-budget offering, of course. In fact, there’s room for a direct-to-TV rip of the Dark Souls formula, and diehard Souls fans will find a challenge, one that might even be worth persevering with. But as a $49.99 game? That’s nothing short of daylight robbery. Competing with the heavy hitters of the year-end swing, Immortal fails to justify its asking price even with 20 hours of content up for grabs. There’s a certain seal of quality you expect from a game at this price and everywhere you look, Immortal: Unchained falls well short of that mark.
This review is based on the Xbox One X version of the game. A copy was provided by Sold Out Publishing.