Bret Robbins' Immortals Of Aveum is a showy, fantastical FPS, by Bret Robbins
Coming from Ascendant Studios, I forget who founded it
When Immortals Of Aveum was first revealed in December last year, there wasn't a lot to know. After a hands-off preview last week, I can tell you it's a singleplayer first-person shooter but with magic, which would sound a lot like Forspoken if I described it without context, and it actually looks pretty cool. Mainly, though, I can tell you that I'm never going to forget whose idea this game was.
Am I being facetious? Probably! But also, I don't know how else to be when your game preview starts with a ten-minute video that was notionally about Ascendant Studios but seemed actually about lionising one man's career. It's also the strongest impression the preview left on me, both because the point was laboured and because we didn't see that much of the game.
The video, which I wouldn't raise except it'll be made public for your enjoyment tomorrow, includes a greatest hits of all the stuff Robbins has worked on, lingering on Dead Space in a way that if I didn't know better might suggest they're after a bit of all the Dead Space-related coverage Glen Schofield got during The Callisto Protocol's marketing. This all made it quite funny when the voiceover later described the studio as "ego-less". Maybe it's unfair to criticise someone for being proud of their accomplishments, but there's a line between being proud and making me laugh, and that was crossed when the VO said "when Sledgehammer games came calling, Bret answered".
We did get on to Immortals Of Aveum itself, although to start with even that was quite Robbins-centric. The origin story for this game is that Robbins was looking at a Call Of Duty level during his regular work at Sledgehammer and thought, what if that helicopter was a dragon and those RPGs were fireballs? It was maybe a groundbreaking idea when he first had it, but I'd argue it's less so now he's got around to making it a reality. In Immortals Of Aveum you play a war mage called Jak - though, because this is a Brandon Sanderson-ass game, nothing can just be called what it is, so a battle mage is a "magnus". Anyway, Jak is also an Unforseen, a person who wasn't supposed to have magic power but suddenly manifested some, and, to complete the super special boy picture, a Triarch, which means he can wield all three flavours of magic in the game.
The different flavours are blue, red and green. These correspond to Force, Chaos and Life, and are channelled through the vambrace on your arm to - hey, wait a second. Jak joins the equivalent of the Avengers, the titular Immortals, each of whom wields a different colour of the magic, and who clips suggest will do a variable amount and/or type of Disney-adjacent wisecracking. One of them is Gina Torres! Cool!
In swooping-camera cinematics Aveum is giant fantasy world. It has magic ley lines, there's a big hole called The Wound (you could hear the capital letters drop into place), and inside the big hole is a big statue. Also there's an ongoing war, called the Everwar, over the control of magic. Personally I find all of this kind of world-building to be peak "clomping foot of nerdism", and the least fun thing in the presentation. So far, so fantasy, right? When was the last time you saw a fantasy world that wasn't in peril?
Potato, magical potahto; maybe you like that kind of thing, and for what it's worth senior art director Dave Bogan says that top of his mind was "to stay away from typical tropes in fantasy and just to start from a fresh palette" that blends fantasy and "simplified scifi-shaped language". Executive Producer Kevin Boyle is also a fan, saying that "the world-building, the way the conflict evolves over the course of the game, it's very specific to Aveum and the nature of the conflict in this world. Really that's one of the huge points of appeal for me." Personally, seeing Immortals Of Aveum actually in action was the far more interesting part, which we did with about 20 minutes of explosive firework-y colour.
True to the FPS idea, blue magic is a long-ranged straight shot, red magic is a shotgun, and green is an auto-fire sort of like a machine gun. In practise it's more run-and-gun like Wolfenstein than a COD cover shooter, but it even has the dark screen overlay when you're hurt like a modern FPS. Enemies vary in size from itty bitty guys, to mace-swinging giants that look like fan art of "what if your toaster was a knight?", to actual dragons in big set pieces. They require the use of different spells and tactics to do the most damage - although honestly, the boss fights we were shown looked suspiciously like they could be slogging damage-sponge jobs, so put that in the time will tell column.
Jak can find new gear and spells, and customise his build through levelling, as well as use off-hand spells like a shield and a lash to get-over-here! enemies. Robbins says there's a lot of variety and reasons to experiment with different builds - and, indeed, replay the game with different tactics. The shield was, he explains, one of the first things they developed to make you feel cool: "you bring your own cover with you." Hotswapping between spells to pewpewpew magic all over the place looked really fun, and Robbins adds that they're trying to "walk that line between being both familiar to shooter players but also bring something new and interesting to the table." I am genuinely excited to try it, even if just to test out how Immortals makes shooting feel weighty, especially when it doesn't have the shortcut tactility added by visibly pulling out a big slow gun.
Though Aveum is big, the levels themselves look fairly linear, with some wiggle room. Jak gains different abilities that he can use to solve puzzles and unlock previously closed routes to new areas - like one that slows down objects, which in the preview Jak used to scooch under a quick-closing exit. The environments we were shown were a lot of underground caverns that made best use of lovely ambient lighting from lava or bioluminescent plants, but there were forests and rocky warzones too.
Despite the fantasy setting, Aveum is closer to home than you might think. Associate Art Director Julia Lichtblau explains that they wanted to ground the world, even though they also experimented with the opportunities magic offers. "There are a still a lot of realistic plants that you might see in your back yard," she says, and while researching plants local to California that they could use to fill out the game, she found there actually a lot of locally endagered species. "That sort of got me on a quest to represent a lot of endangered species in North America. Most of the trees and bushes - anything that's not sort of magic related is a real endangered species of plant."
All together the whole thing has the air of a fantasy world that has independently developed steampunk, which, you know what, I really don't hate. It looks like 20-ish hours of a billboard good time that's taking itself a mite too seriously - though, I think that about most every fantasy thing I encounter. But actually Lichtblau, Boyle, Bogan and Robbins all picked something to do with the writing or worldbuilding when asked about their favourite things about the game, so that's me told, and it's something I'll pay more attention to when the time comes.
And yet my biggest take away is one man's name. I hesitate to summon the spectre of auteur theory, because in fairness Robbins does reference the other people working on the game, and "Bret Robbins" probably isn't a name that you've heard splashed around like he's Charlie Big Potato anyway. Which is another reason the video left such an impression on me! It made up a not-insignificant portion of the preview, yet sentences like "Bret's daydream and vision, 30 years in the making, now becomes a reality" feel like someone accidentally did a find-and-replace on a Quantic Dream-produced video about David Cage.
On top of that, the preview sold said idea as unique! Mesmerising! A hearstopping work of genius the like of which the world has never seen! That's a preview's job, of course, but as yet I'm not convinced Immortals Of Aveum is very much more than a well-made, very pretty shooter wearing a skin suit sewn out of a magic game. I'll have to play it before I believe the hype. And that's fine, I'm excited to have a go. But really all Immortals Of Aveum has to do is be pretty good, at the end of the day. It feels like an odd one to stake your name on, is all.