Review: Immortal: Unchained

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Review copy provided by developer

I was honestly surprised when only a few games rose to challenge Dark Souls for dominance of whatever that kick-you-in-the-ass-but-you-love-it genre is called. I shouldn’t be, because the formula that launched the Souls games into the ionosphere is an incredibly complex one and extremely tricky to replicate. Some of those games that did rise in its wake, such as Immortal: Unchained, managed to hit a tantalizing number of the high points, including clever level design and interesting gearing. But there are always soft spots in the design, and Immortal’s soft spots are squishy enough to fall right through if you’re not willing to fight through some tedium and frustration.

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I can give you a loose rundown of the plot to Immortal: Unchained, but even as far in as I am much of it is obscured by piecemeal plot snippets. The Core exists as the de facto center of the universe, a vast technological morass controlled by the Monolith, a nigh-incomprehensible super computer. Originally the product of the industrious Primes, it fell into irrelevance as the Prime empire crumbled and galactic society was ravaged by legions of the cyber-undead. You are an Immortal, a chosen of the Primes, broken free from eternal imprisonment to stop this scourging wave and save the universe from total oblivion. Along the way you’ll meet a handful of unstable folks riding out the galactic apocalypse and find plenty of snippets of deeper lore, which I’m having trouble recalling at the moment.

Look, I know everyone wants to do the measured, environmental storytelling of Dark Souls but whatever it is that’s going on here is too offbeat and dense for that. The setting feels heavily 40K inspired but with more mystical elements, and the way information is parsed out won’t really help you fill in the gaps here. You’re fighting space undead for a giant slab of stone, that much is certain, but the nature of the Monolith and its caretaker, or the relevance of the three worlds you’ll travel to, or the details of the many fallen empires you’ll dig through get explored in a thin, patchy way that makes the story too difficult to connect with.

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What isn’t difficult to connect with is the combat, which is essentially a third-person shooter take on Dark Souls. Your Immortal can carry a sidearm and a primary (eventually unlocking two additional primary slots), which run the gamut from pistols and revolvers to assault rifles and grenade launchers. They’re all appropriately space-agey with neon tubes and strange protrusions, and come with special attacks like freezing blasts and fire barrages triggered off your energy bar. The weapons themselves have a wall of stats including damage scaling, element type, stagger effect, and reload speed. You get a melee weapon as well but the combat is a bit too stiff and bursty to really rely on it. Just as early Souls games were melee affairs with ranged options, Immortal: Unchained is very much a shooter with melee diversions.

You’ll use these weapons to pop the heads and capacitors of all sorts of glowing undead jackasses, from basic shambling skeletons to massive shielded sentinels. They all have their patterns and predictable moves, though some can be far more obnoxious than others. Midway through the game you’ll start facing off against snipers that teleport and track you with deadly accuracy, and raiders with dual tommy guns that can melt you in an instant. Provided you have a decent weapon and keep it upgraded you won’t run into too many roadblocks, though the boss of the forest planet proved to be a tooth-grinding hassle that I feared was impossible for me. With a wide-area ranged attack he could chain and a near instant-kill close-range spin, he made life for my sniper build hell until I was able to land a few lucky shots on his weak point.

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That’s really the core of the game, sniping or spraying weak points as you methodically work through the levels. Locational damage is important but none so important as those glowing weak spots, as bigger enemies can have absurd, almost bossish health pool to whittle down. That might be because weapon damage can go entirely off the rails with the right finds, upgrades, and skills, but it can also be woefully weak if you get dealt a bad hand. I had to restart the game once because the first class I picked could only really use ineffectual rifles and pistols. Starting over as a sniper made a huge difference to my enjoyment, but it still took an inordinate amount of time to learn the real flow of this game.

Once place I can unequivocally praise Immortal: Unchained is in the level design. Everything you loved about Dark Souls is here, from twisting paths to hidden chests to secret shortcuts and more. Some of the ways the levels connect back to the save monoliths over and over are simply brilliant, and add a lot to the exploration. The art doesn’t quite hold up as well, with most environments looking a bit bland and samey, a sensation you will experience plenty right from the start in the many ice-blue cubist walls of your prison. The rest of the presentation is solid, though, with competent voice acting, decent sound effects, and easily-parsed menus.

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If I sound decidedly middle-of-the-road on this one, it’s because I want to temper expectations. Dark Souls has some cavernous shoes to fill, and Immortal: Unchained doesn’t quite fit the bill. The combat is stiff, the player classes are imbalanced, enemies can spawn out of thin air to fuck you up, and there are only three planets you have to backtrack to for what passes for the main story. But once I came to grips with those shortcomings, I found the game oddly engrossing. It’s a creative setting, with cool guns to shoot and a challenge I can mostly work my way past. This is no Dark Souls killer, but Immortal: Unchained brings some new features to the mix along with some great level design and solid looting.

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