Looking back at the pages of notes I'd taken during my hands-off preview of Immortals of Aveum, I still struggle to describe what this game actually is. Aside from stating the obvious – it's a first-person shooter where you channel magic instead of loading up firearms – you could say that Immortals of Aveum is a dark fantasy, pseudo-historical sci-fi adventure to another world. At least, that's partly true.
It's neither an open world RPG nor a straightforward looter-shooter, though it does borrow some elements from each in its "hub and spoke" approach to exploration. The combat is a frenetic blend of Dr Strange-like magic shields offset by a roster of color-coded spells, but despite its magical underpinnings, you won't find wand-wielding wizard-on-wizard combat as in Hogwarts Legacy.
Immortals of Aveum defies all sense of genre type-casting, and it does so proudly. Launching on July 20th for PS5, Xbox Series X, and PC, it's the debut title from developer Ascendant Studios – and although its CEO is Call of Duty: WW2 creative director Bret Robbins, he's made it plain during the preview event that this is "not fantasy Call of Duty – we're our own game."
Bad times on the ley lines
The first thing you need to know is that you'll be playing as a tattooed street kid-turned-battlemage named Jak. "He comes from a ramshackle part of town," says senior art director Dave Bogan. "Jak's kind of grown up as an orphan. They're running a small gang just to survive, so they're stealing food and whatnot."
Eventually, Jak joins forces with the Immortals: "the champions of Lucium", a district of the planet Aveum deep in the throes of an Everwar against the Rashaan. The Everwar is an ongoing battle for control of the ley lines, power lines of magic embedded throughout Aveum that can be channeled by a magic-wielding Magnus. The leader of Rashaan, Sandrakk, is intent on cutting Lucium off from this source of magic – and that's where Jak comes in.
Jak is a battlemage, able to use magic as a weapon with the help of a wrist brace-like harness called a Sigil. You can upgrade your Sigil to hone three core spells, and develop Talents to help you tailor your "weapons" to suit your preferred playstyle. Blue spells are for ranged attacks, red spells serve as your heavy short-range attacks similar to a shotgun, while green spells are for autofire and projectiles. You can also Blink from place to place, or use a magic Lash to pull enemies closer.
These features sound like something you might find in the best Arkane games; Jak's power-based combat abilities look like they might feel similar to using Dishonored's Blink mechanic or Colt's slabs in Deathloop, but you'll have magic spells in your arsenal instead of guns. Familiar yet discernibly different, that's partly what makes Immortals of Aveum so tough to parse: it's got a little bit of everything. It's a high-octane looter-shooter set in a lore-dense fantasy world, and it will no doubt be a matter of balancing out the colorful battle frenzy with moments of peaceful exploration to give each aspect some time to shine.
So we have spell-slinging, two warring nations, and customizable weapons and skill trees; you'd be forgiven for thinking this sounds like just another fantasy RPG. But associate art director Julia Lichtblau says it deliberately straddles genres.
"There is no clear genre that we can say, 'this is exactly what we are tapping into'. The world is based in all of these fantasy histories, but then we are also pulling more modern references in terms of how the characters speak," says Lichtblau of the unique world of Aveum. "Some of the architecture does have more of a sci-fi shape language – which is to suggest that there were other civilizations that maybe were a bit more advanced magically, and so they were able to create these shapes. It culminates in an unexpected combination of old and new."
When pressed further on where the game sits in terms of a visual genre, Bogan says he simply describes it as "otherworldly". It's an odd word, one that sits between boundaries itself, inferring a comfortable familiarity tempered with the unknown or displaced. "We have everything from things like magical bows, swords, shields – all the way up to floating magical spaceships almost. So it's like, where does that fit? It's kind of a mash up really. And it's our [own] world. It's otherworldly," he says, going on to comment on Immortals' "medieval-ish root, but married with more sci-fi magic tech."
This idea of blurring boundaries and subverting expectation is a running theme in Immortals of Aveum, not just from a genre perspective but in terms of the visual lore and context of the world itself. "To speak from one of the art pillars from the very getgo," says Bogan, "we wanted to do something unpredictable." Which is why, I was horrified to discover, they almost didn't include dragons at all.
"The funny thing about the dragon is like, I didn't even want a dragon in the game," he says. "We want to at least start from somewhere else. Dragons are so cool that they kind of snuck back in." We don't know much else about the dragon-like creature just yet ("You can't ride it, per-se," Bogan offers), but it'll be nice to see a familiar creature in a land where old and new schools of sci-fi and fantasy converge.
Devil's in the detail
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Immortals of Aveum is intent to side-step categorization, whether that be as an FPS or a sci-fi fantasy adventure. One unusual way the game blends its genres is by incorporating the ability to Portal between "hub and spoke" areas of exploration. This is described by Bogan as offering "areas in the game where you're free to wander", with "linear spokes" of mission-guided gameplay feeding out from each one. He likens it to the gameplay style of God of War, which sounds like a promising – if slightly ambitious – direction to take in a combat-heavy FPS. Pacing is the first concern that comes to mind, since you wouldn't ordinarily want, need, or encourage many "stop and smell the roses" moments in an FPS. But Aveum has been constructed as a thoughtfully-made universe, not a hollow shell to loot and shoot your way through.
This level of detail has been put there for one reason: lore, and it goes right down to the nitty-gritty of character design. "As an art team, we're always trying to find a way to engrain more world-building and lore into the world," says Bogan when I ask about Jak's neck tattoos. "So we have different letters and alphabets for the different languages. On his neck, it's the word for one of the moons in the sky [above Aveum]." Bearing in mind Jak's background as a member of a street gang, Bogan had "street kids and punks" in mind when creating him. "It seemed appropriate for them to have tattoos," he says, and hints that one of Jak's tattoos foreshadows the character's fate.
Another subtle lore-driven design element is the presence of magical flora and fauna. "While plants themselves are not directly tied into the gameplay, I really wanted to help flesh out the world," Lichtblau says of Aveum's ecological landscape. "We've created a bunch of unique magic plants that, you know, you wouldn't just go out into your backyard and see the blue flowering, glowing plants that you do see in Aveum. Part of that ecology is that magic exists everywhere in this universe, through the ley lines embedded in the ground." Environmentalism is more than a passing thought in Immortals of Aveum, with the inclusion of magical plantlife described by Bogan as "a way for us to inject that kind of thing into the world without being too ham-fisted about it."
My main concern here is that the lovingly-created lore of Aveum might be overshadowed by the combat entirely. The elevator pitch for the game could simply be distilled as a magic FPS, and the art directors acknowledge that these smaller details are easily overlooked. "I don't know if people will ever tap into it, but I'm hoping that people will," Bogan admits. "I'd hope it might be one of those things that they go back on and play through, or [they might] read something on a forum and be like, 'Oh, cool. That's a nice little detail.'"
Everything, everywhere, all at once
Ascendant Studios is trying to have its proverbial genre cake and eat it, too. A lot of work has gone into the more thoughtful details that breathe life into Aveum, setting it apart from more linear FPS titles that wouldn't have you thinking twice about your environs.
However, by not committing to a single genre and honing in on its strengths, Immortals of Aveum risks being a master of none. This is most apparent when considering the RPG-inspired presence of NPCs, which here seem more like talking signposts than actual characters. We can chat to them and learn more about Aveum's history, but that sounds more a clever way for writers to drip-feed some backstory into the game instead of populating it with meaningful characters, experiences, and heightened stakes.
Labels aside, "otherworldly" Immortals of Aveum has a surprising sensitivity to it. It's not just about shooting an invisible shotgun and making Jak as strong as possible (though we will definitely want to do that as well); the world is proud of its beating heart and gladly marches along to it, genre constraints be damned. To me, that sounds refreshingly not at all like Call of Duty. I'm interested to see just how interactive Aveum really is, or if all these neat details serve as decorative setpieces, suggesting a lived-in world rather than creating one.
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