Where on earth is the blockbuster magic game? That’s a question that Bret Robbins asked himself one day. Working as a creative lead on big-budget games like Call of Duty, Dead Space and The Lord of the Rings (not to mention the Gex and the Legacy of Kain series) the lack of a high-fantasy, magic-infused action game – or at least, something that wasn’t an RPG – puzzled him. This question would eventually drive him to found his own independent studio to create Immortals of Aveum, a fantasy action game to be published by EA, under its EA Originals label.
As someone who is old enough to remember first and third-person ‘magic shooters’ like Hexen and Heretic, that question has also come across my mind a few times. Fantasy and magic have always been popular genres, so why have there been so few attempts to apply those concepts to the kind of loud, bombastic, Hollywood-style games that attracts such a broad audience?
‘I think what we’ve seen in the industry over the last 20 years is a reduction in risk for making new IP [intellectual property], and original IP games have gotten more expensive,’ said Robbins. ‘It’s harder to try to do something new and take the risk of people not enjoying it.’
The increased focus and concerted push of military-themed games, from publishers like Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, EA, and several others, speaks volumes about this lack of adventurousness.
‘It’s unfortunate,’ said Robbins, ‘because every sequel, and every franchise we play, started as an original IP at some point.’
So what is Immortals of Aveum, then? Robbins suggests that the original idea came to him while he was working on one of the expensive, bombastic action set pieces in the Call of Duty game he was working on at the time, and simply wondering what it would be like if the helicopters were dragons. And what if the gun was a magic staff? Based on the pre-release footage that Ascendant Studios screened for media, Immortals certainly looks to realise that exact thought.
‘Right from the start, [Immortals of Aveum] was going to be a AAA game,’ said Robbins. ‘It’s what I’ve done in most of my career… and I’d come off of working on Call of Duty for about nine years and directing some of those campaigns as well.’
An enthusiastic investor backed Robbins, which helped to provide the confidence to scope out a large, ambitious title from the get-go. But that didn’t mean he went all in immediately. ‘I definitely hired slowly at first,’ he said. ‘I didn’t immediately try to ramp up to a 100-person studio, we kept ourselves small and agile for quite some time.’
‘I think that ended up being a great, a great thing for us. We were able to fail fast and do a lot of experimentation and go down some strange roads, and then back up and try other things, and eventually get to where we are now.’
Magic you can feel
A brief gameplay demo recently shown to media depicted protagonist Jak, a battlemage, leaping into the fray while a full-scale war raged around him, on the ground and in the air. Using a kind of metal gauntlet as a conduit for his magical abilities, he fires projectiles of magic in three different colours, which have some very clear similarities to different types of firearms. Blue magic is accurate, for example, and suited for hitting targets at long range. Red magic is like a shotgun blast, and green is like a machine gun with projectiles that can track targets.
The main concern we had with the concept of Immortals – and likely the reason why few developers have tried this style of game – is in making an ephemeral force like magic feel satisfying enough to use for a prolonged period, in an action game. How do you make that magic feel like something more than just an energy gun?
‘We definitely took an approach of making it feel more visceral, more impactful, more powerful,’ said Robbins. ‘That came somewhat out of my time working on Call of Duty and understanding what players really respond to in terms of feedback.’
‘We had to do a lot of prototyping and work to figure that one out… but everything has a little bit of a twist, or something about it that makes it feel a little magical or a little bit different. It was important that we tried to put a signature on everything.’ Robbins pointed to the example of being able to charge particular types of projectiles, and other ‘little ideas’ like that throughout the game.
The shooting action did seem to get a little more creative in the demo we witnessed. Jak will eventually be able to utilise a series of abilities that are a cut above straightforward magical blasts, including summoning huge rock formations from the ground, globules of green goo that can restrain enemies and slow down their movement, and one of the best mechanics to grace video games – a lasso that can be used as both a weapon and a grappling hook.
Several of these abilities also come into play during environmental puzzles and traversal, and there were also brief hints at a combo system as well, where different spells could interact with one another for additional effects.
The flow of Immortals as a whole seems to lean into a faster-paced tempo, with concepts like cover and avoiding fire seemingly not being a major consideration here, as it is in the biggest blockbuster first-person-shooters.
Instead, Jak has a magical shield he can conjure at any time to provide some reprieve from the magical bullet hell of the battlefield – and he can even shoot through it to keep up his assault, though it will slow his movement down.
The demo footage culminated in a boss fight against what the game calls a ‘Howler,’ basically, a huge dragon, where attack patterns must be avoided and anticipated, and Jak needs to pick his windows for retaliation carefully. It feels like the dance you might do in a character action game, but in the style of a first-person shooter.
It’s not just the gameplay flow that mimics the style of a Call of Duty, either. Narrative-wise, the brief segment of exposition we were privy to reminded us of the gruff, high-stakes tales of a Hollywood action film, complete with the kinds of cocky attitudes and lingo that would not feel out of place in a military video game campaign. The fantasy setting was also infused with a bit of flavour reminiscent of the Destiny series. There’s a tinge of science fiction in the technology of this high fantasy world – though it’s likely that Aveum will tell a less opaque story.
‘When I started working on it, I knew it was going to be fantasy,’ Robbins said. ‘But I didn’t want to immediately adopt a lot of the fantasy tropes we see in a lot of games and movies and shows. This wasn’t going to be Lord of the Rings. This wasn’t going to be Harry Potter.‘
‘I wanted the characters to be relatable, to be modern. I took my cues more from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and something like Guardians of the Galaxy, where yes, you’re in a fantastic, bizarre world, but the characters are completely relatable, and they are talking like you and I, and they have the same kind of humour and everything else.’
‘We do have some characters that talk and act as if they were part of a traditional fantasy story, and that makes it even more fun when other characters undercut that and bring a different sensibility to the story.’
A pedigree in great storytelling
There’s good reason to expect a high bar of video game storytelling from Immortals of Aveum. While it sounds like Robbins conceived much of the broader world and narrative of the game himself, on top of the mechanical approach – ‘I had kind of a rare opportunity really to just be able to sit and write for about four months,’ he said – when it came to putting together the team at Ascendant Studios, he was fortunate enough to take advantage of a major industry event: the devastating 2018 closure of Telltale Games.
Telltale, of course, was the acclaimed and award-winning studio that pushed narrative adventure games forward, developing titles like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands, and several others.
Robbins hired up to 10 former Telltale Games employees in the weeks after the studio closed, across a range of disciplines, including Senior Art, Audio, and Production positions. Michel Kirkbride, the game’s Lead Writer, was also a Telltale alumnus, having been a Senior Narrative Designer at the studio.
‘I can’t think of a single area of the game that didn’t get better from what I originally intended,’ Robbins said of his team.
Protagonist Jak, played by Darren Barnet (Never Have I Ever) is perhaps not the most enticing lead at first glance – a gruff Caucasian male sadly seems to be the safe option for blockbuster games aimed at the broadest appeal possible (see also: Star Wars Jedi: Survivor) – but Robbins believes he has an interesting arc, complete with a meaningful amount of character development to span the dozens of hours in the campaign.
That’s yet to be proven to us, of course, but there are also some stellar performers in the game’s primary supporting cast that could aid this goal. Leading them (both in reputation and in the fiction) is the excellent Gina Torres (Firefly, Suits, The Matrix, Destiny), alongside Antonio Aakeel (City of Tiny Lights, Tomb Raider) and Lily Cowles (Roswell, New Mexico, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War). Steven Brand (The Scorpion King, Call of Duty: Vanguard) plays the game’s primary antagonist.
In the world of video games, it feels like big, blockbuster spectacles are a double-edged sword. Sometimes they completely wash over you by virtue of looking and feeling so familiar, compared to something that’s come before. But when it’s a brand-new world, with a fresh approach to a genre, it’s hard not to be curious about it.
Immortals of Aveum has a lot of compelling pieces – a rare, unique concept, production values that feel impressive, and a studio with some seriously impressive experience behind it all. We won’t get too excited until we can play it, but it’s certainly an intriguing prospect.
Immortals of Aveum is planned for release on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X/S in July 2023.