INTERVIEW: How Immortals Fenyx Rising is “much closer to a Mario game” than Breath Of The Wild
Ubisoft channelled the spirit of ’00 platformers to make its most joyous open world yet…
When you think of Ubisoft, it’s almost impossible not to imagine gritty, sprawling open worlds.
As the house that built Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Watch Dogs, there’s a certain adult tone the French publisher’s become synonymous with – a familiar feel that defines its output.
For long term Assassin’s Creed producer Julien Galloudec, this was something he knew all too well, and it was time to make a change. Enter Immortals: Fenyx Rising.
Hot on the heels of the bloody and brilliant Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Ubisoft’s 2020 swansong couldn’t be any more different. Brimming with colour and ‘borrowing’ a generous amount of ideas from Breath Of The Wild, Fenyx Rising is far from your typical Ubi fare.
Like 2018’s surprising Starlink: Battle For Atlas, Ubisoft’s close working relationship with Nintendo has inspired them once again to create a more eye-catching, family-friendly adventure. The result? A surprisingly enjoyable open world platformer.
We spoke to Julien Galloudec about the project, and this is what we learned…
“The massive potential of Greek mythology”
After spending years researching Ancient Greece for the majestic Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, Julien found himself yearning to take his love for Ancient Greek Mythology even further. While Odyssey certainly dipped its toes into the realm of vengeful Gods and ancient beasts, it was largely grounded in Greek History, not mythology. As his work on Odyssey came to a close, Julien began dreaming up a more fantastical playground in his head, yearning to create a new, colourful adventure where the limits of history faded away.
“While making Odyssey, we all saw the massive potential of Greek mythology,” explains Julien, “After focusing on Sparta and the Polynesian war, we wanted to make a game that would tell a story about the Gods –something with monsters and creatures. The mythology there is so rich that we wanted to really embrace it, making something very different to Assassin’s Creed in terms of gameplay and narration. We all wanted to be a part of something unique – a weird new world to explore.”
Even from the early prototyping stages, Lucien and the team knew that Immortals would have to feel completely distinct from Assassin’s Creed if it was to suceed. Yet after devoting years of his life to more cinematic-led gameplay, figuring out how to make a more tactile world was a puzzling new challenge. If this new project had any chance of being greenlit by his bosses, Immortals needed to not only feel different from the the usual Ubisoft fare – it had to stand out aesthetically, too. No pressure then.
“When we started to work on that proposition, we were a bit nervous – knowing that we had to show it to Paris and to HQ. But once we showed them our prototype, they were actually very excited to see something that was different within the Ubisoft portfolio. Everyone was confident that there was potential there to really create something new – a colorful IP that can be surprising, intense and funny.”
The Zelda question
Despite Julien’s very visible frustration, we had to address the Hyrule-shaped elephant in the room – Immortal’s much maligned Breath of The Wild influence.
“Yes, Initially we looked at Breath Of The Wild,” Julien admits, “because it was close to the gameplay structure we wanted. Even if again, the moment to moment in Immortals is quite different. But there are of course elements in the structure that are similar…”
Despite the undeniable similarities to Nintendo’s open world opus, the final game arguably morphed into something very different. After months of experimentation, Immortals began to morph into something unexpected.
“We did a lot of prototyping initially, and we started to build small levels. We soon realised that building a fantastical world that you could explore an organic way was a perfect match for platforming.”
The Mario connection
As Julien and his team slowly started to build this Greek-mythology-inspired theme park, it soon became apparent that freeform, acrobatic movement was a natural fit for the winged protagonist. Suddenly, what they’d created felt more in line with Nintendo’s other beloved mascot.
“Then it all comes together and suddenly, after months of tweaking, we had something that was much closer to a Mario game,” reveals Julien with a smile, “You realise that you can jump, you can double jump, you have air control, and you are able to do actual platforming.”
In other words, this was a far cry from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. While much has already been said about the ‘inspiration’ Immortals has so clearly taken from Link’s beloved outing, it turns out, for much of Immortals’ development, Julien’s team were channeling an entirely different influence –early 2000s 3D platformers.
“For me, games like Banjo Kazooie and Jak and Daxter were a very important inspiration because they already had that unique mix of combat puzzle and platforming in a small, colourful, open world. They’re all about that sense of adventure. It’s a type of game that you sadly don’t see that much anymore. I really see Immortals as the modern, 2.0 version of games like Jak and Daxter”
Once you’re dashing around Mount Olympus with a controller in hand, it’s hard not to agree. While the gliding and stamina-meters are undeniably Breath Of The WIld, Fenyx Rising’s moment to moment exploration favours a sense of flow and momentum over the danger of Hyrule. Yet as Julien recalls how he and his team frantically learned how to create an entirely new type of game on the fly, it’s hard not to get caught up in his infectious sense of pride and excitement.
“It was challenging and exciting!” he agrees, “As a developer, you want to learn something new, to try something different. So for us it was really an intention to push ourselves and to go out of our comfort zone. Learning how to do puzzles, for example was a huge challenge –figuring out how to implement platforming mechanics and platforming controls in an open world with exploration as part of the main loop…. All of that was a bit scary at the start!”
“I’m very proud of it”
While it’s awkward launch date and a tough year for the world may not have led to stellar sales as of yet, the end production is one that Julien is visibly beaming about.
“I’m very proud of it. There are three things that I’m most proud of here. First of all, the puzzle aspects. it was something very new for us, we had to learn a lot. We spent a lot of time looking at games like Portal, World Of Goo and even Angry Birds – and I’m very happy with what we have in the end. I think the puzzles can be surprising, challenging and funny, and fit very well into the overall experience.”
“The other aspect I’m very proud of is the overall feeling of flow in the game,” reflects Julien, “ When you’re in the world and you have that momentum feeling.. when you’re gliding and then you drop on your horse… When you jump off of a cliff, triple jumping and dashing to reach your destination without running out of stamina. There is that moment and feeling of flow that you’ll find in the navigation but also in the fighting.”
“And finally,” he pauses and smiles “ I guess it’s more pride on the development side – just the way we learned to work together on Fenyx. I’m excited to see how we can better capitalise on that in the future, and properly use the talent and – points of view – of everyone on the team, to become better as developers.”
Will Immortals: Fenyx Rising go on to become a smash hit? Stranger things have happened. Yet while publisher Ubisoft might be hoping for a Christmas miracle, for Julien and his team, the reward was simply being able to make the fun-filled adventure they’d always dreamed about.